Looking east: how Smörgåsbord designed a soju brand to work in Europe and Asia alike

21 March 2018
Reading Time
4 minute read

Earlier this month, Coca-Cola announced it would produce its first ever alcoholic drink, an alco-pop to be launched solely in Japan. The idea is to tap into the lucrative market for chu-hi, canned fizzy drinks given a kick with a local spirit called shochu. The world’s largest soft drinks company making its move into this sector is significant, and symbolic of many other western brands trying their luck in the Asian alcohol world where huge brands such as Asahi, Kirin and Suntory already have a presence. But how do you design the branding and packaging for a product aimed at a firmly established market on the other side of the world, as well as back home? Here to enlighten us is Dylan Griffith, co-founder of Cardiff and Amsterdam-based design studio Smörgåsbord, which recently collaborated on the creation of the first European-made soju, Wihayo.

I should start with a quick explanation of the differences between Korea and Japan’s principal alcoholic beverages. I’ll begin with Korean soju. Soju is the world’s most popular spirit you never knew existed. It’s the number one-selling liquor by volume, (incredulously more soju is drunk globally than vodka), yet its profile is surprisingly low outside of its native Korea. This is set to change with the rising popularity of Korean cuisine, a renewed interest in artisanal, premium spirits and a recent shift towards lower proof drinks.

Soju should not be confused with shochu – a Japanese spirit typically distilled from rice, barley, sweet potatoes, buckwheat or brown sugar. And finally, there’s the best known alcoholic drink from Japan, saké, a Japanese rice wine, (often drunk warm), made by fermenting rice that has been polished to remove the bran. Unlike soju and shochu, saké is produced by a brewing process more akin to that of beer, as opposed to distillation.

Wihayo is the first triple distilled premium soju to be made in Europe and marks Smörgåsbord’s first collaborative venture into product development with Korean/Dutch author and foodie Nathalie Ji-Yun Kranenburg. Made with fermented rice and malted barley this soju’s uniqueness lays in the fact its core ingredient, rice, is ground by a Dutch windmill dating from 1785 and it’s created with distilling equipment normally used in the production of Dutch Jenever; a true fusion therefore of east and west.

Our design challenge was to create an aesthetic that reflected and attracted both eastern and western cultures while not alienating either; drinkers (and thinkers) aged between 25 – 50 from Amsterdam to London, NYC, LA and Seoul. Essentially, introducing a lot of people to a new product, while also respecting the audience that know full well what they’re buying – and attracting both. We honed in on a minimalist and utilitarian identity built on craft, neatly summarised in the brand’s marque – itself a representation of wind power and rice grains, Wihayo’s principle ingredients.

We coined the name Wihayo, which derives from the word Wihayeo – a phrase used by young Koreans when they “cheers” before drinking soju – “for you” in Korean. Then came the bottle colour – despite originally toying with a clear glass bottle we stuck with green glass (as the colour equates to health in Korea) but opted for a deeper and richer hue than that used by the big Korean soju brands. The screen-printed 700ml apotheek-style bottle is sealed with a black walnut stopper, laser engraved with the brand marque. This is more in line with a gin bottle for the Western consumer. Most Korean soju brands opt for a 375ml bottle that looks similar in profile to a beer bottle.

All copy is bilingual (English & Korean) and is screen-printed directly onto the bottle. A feature of the screen-print is a gauge that allows bar staff to check consumption as soju is often left with customers on the dinner table to be consumed with food. We also produced an accompanying grey kraft tube as gifting is intrinsic in Asian society. The copy from the front of the bottle is replicated in the exact position on the kraft tube and is applied as a white foil for consistency.

For the brand launch film we created a distinctive illustration and animation style informed by K-pop and Korean graphic design. The core colour palette is based on the shared colours of the Dutch and Korean flags as well as the iconic green Wihayo bottle. An accessible and resonant aesthetic that delivers our client’s compelling and emotive story in a memorable manner. Wihayo is setting off on a journey to rouse its spirit from west to east. 


Smörgåsbord: Wihayo packaging


Smörgåsbord: Wihayo logo development


Smörgåsbord: Wihayo research imagery


Smörgåsbord: Wihayo bilingual type


Smörgåsbord: Wihayo


Smörgåsbord: Wihayo

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About the Author

Dylan Griffith

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