Taking on tequila: distinguishing a luxury brand in a standard market

Tequila branding conventionally plays on typical associations with the agave nectar, such as cacti, shot girls and wide-brimmed hats. But for aged sipping tequila, a refined, premium liqueur, forging a new brand can be a challenge.

When Casa Sauza needed a brand image for their XA (Extra Anejo) tequila, Steve Osborne and David Pike of design agency Osborne Pike set out to develop a sense of class and refinery.

Through careful research and analysis of the brand, the agency successfully developed a bottle design that firmly separated the tequila from ‘party’ brands and instilled a premium, quality aesthetic.

By visiting Jalisco in Mexico, the production home of Casa Sauza XA, Osborne Pike collected stories about the brand’s history, family and distillery, allowing them to develop a compelling but authentic back story. Steve Osborne and David Pike share their approach and techniques for this highly successful branding project.

Why is branding so crucial to a product’s success?

Buying a brand is one of many ways in which people build their identities. The job of the brand story is to support the story we’ve already made up about ourselves.

Tell us about Beam Global’s brief for Casa Sauza XA?

Essentially they wanted XA (Extra Anjeo) to become the flagship brand for this new range: an aged sipping tequila with premium expression. Until then, Tres Generaciones was the most upmarket tequila Sauza had produced. They were looking for a design that embodied the rich history of the Sauza family together with a sense of connoisseurship that the brand offered.

How does sipping tequila differ from regular tequila?

Mexican law actually states that for a spirit to be officially branded tequila, it must be produced only in the state of Jalisco. And all tequila bottled in Mexico must have a NOM number that guarantees authenticity. Sipping tequila is aged – around three years – in new and used American (Jim Beam) oak barrels, and is considered more of an aperitif or digestif. Tequila doesn’t improve with age, rather it takes its characteristics from colour and flavour of the wooden barrels it’s aged in.

What design inspiration did you take from the Sauza distillery in Jalisco?

Our inspiration came from the fact that this is a real family. Three generations of the Sauza family have been producing tequila at this distillery – that’s a huge legacy. Across the road from the distillery is the old family house, the Hacienda, where all the workers still gather together for meals. They clearly care about the work they do and take great pride in it. We spent an afternoon tasting with the master blender, and by the end of our time – we were still standing – we were able to distinguish the simplicity of the flavour and the sharpness of the aged agave.

What process does Casa Sauza use?

Unlike Jose Cuerva – whose distillery is opposite – Sauza bake the pinas in massive ovens, then steam them in massive stainless steel vats. This process retains more of the natural agave flavour.

What was the inspiration for the final design?

We focused on the family’s perseverance and passion for innovation, coupled with their earthy, gritty tequila heritage, together with their request for refinement. For this we took inspiration from tequila hues: the leatherwork, handicraft, the sense of journeying across frontiers by horseback. The refinement came from the XO cognac bottle and branding – with a unique blended result of Old World heritage and New World sophistication.

Who was your structural design partner?

We often work with Studio Davis, who are also based in Bath. They were onboard from the first team briefing and helped us create the unique tapered form with a heavy glass base. The front panel resembles a saddle, with screen-printed graphics providing a window through the amber spirit to the agave image on the back label. The premium brown card gift box is lined with the new Casa Sauza corporate stripes. It’s bright and contemporary.

What’s your favourite part of the design?

We love the leather strap that stretches from the shoulder-mounted metal clips to seal the stopper. Attaching the metal clips to the side of the bottle was a design feat as it’s technically very difficult to attach metal to glass. We eventually used a laser technique on the glue.

How did trips to liquor retail outlets inspire you?

We visited liquor stores and bars in Mexico City and Chicago (Binny’s Beverage Depot – the largest beverage store we’ve ever seen) and soon realised that with all the choice available, the XA brand simply had to stand out at the back bar. And we also realised that on no account were we going to fall into the trap of putting cowboy hats and cactus on our bottles. Simply avoiding clichés gave our brand maximum visibility!

Why did you include a story booklet inside the box?

We wanted to share the story of Don Cenobio Sauza, the company’s founder, who created the spirit in 1873 and was the first to call it tequila. And he was actually the first tequila producer to export to the United States. He took the bottles on his horse – in specially adapted saddles – to the American border. A true pioneer who very much inspired our design.

At $150 a bottle, who is the target market?

Only 12,000 bottles have been produced. The aim is to use it as a flagship brand in fine dining establishments and to give it to opinion leaders across the world. Only around 3 to 4,000 bottles were available for the Mexican market.

What makes a successful brand?

Branding is much more than creating a story. To encourage consumer awareness,
brand packaging design is fundamental. It must attract attention, it must be liked, but most of all it must inspire belief.