System 1

System 1 language distinctively distilled

(And, why Seedlip is destined to be an icon in the adult drinks market)

I had the pleasure of sharing a platform with Ben Branson recently at an event organised for food and drink start-ups. I have to say there’s a lot to like about Ben and his story, and even more to like about his brand Seedlip. Put simply: Ben may have created the Holy Grail of adult soft drinks – something the likes of Diageo and Coca-Cola have been pursuing for decades.

A sense of occasion

Whilst there is a sense of Zeitgeist about Seedlip: Teetotalism is increasing, drink-driving laws leave no room for error, sugar is on the naughty step and craft brands are on the rise. What clearly underpins the brand’s early success is the power of the need that it fulfils both for the drinker and the establishments that sell it; lots of people have been waiting a long time for something like Seedlip.

For us consumers, going out for a meal or a drink in a bar has a sense of occasion to it. Often, these occasions are when we want to make an impression too. Ordering the same sweet drink we drank as a child often feels like a let-down, no matter how traditional the recipe or how natural the ingredients. Shall we face facts? Even cracking the screw top of the most expensive sparkling water isn’t going to make us, or the occasion, sparkle with brilliance.

Seedlip has lost the alcohol but retains the pomp, ceremony and sense of occasion that comes with the finest spirits. The drink alone demands curiosity and closer inspection, and the addition of a mixer brings it alive, opening up countless variations to savour and explore.

It’s for these reasons that the venues that sell it love it too. A spirit and a mixer always makes a better margin than a beer or a wine, and the choice of what to offer people who are not drinking is now only as limited as the imagination of the person working behind the bar. No longer is excitement for the non-drinker limited too deciding whether or not to have a slice of lemon.

Quite simply, there are more ways to make money out of the person who says “I’m not drinking today”. 

Craft at its finest

What Walton Barker loves about Seedlip is the craft of its design. What Seedlip needs to do is implicitly convince us of its credentials for a special occasion and not be lost amongst the vast array of other bottles on the shelf. The bottle and label do this with aplomb: the bottle clearly alludes to spirits by origin, but does not fall blindly into the nomenclature of vodkas or gins, helping it to gain attention and demand closer evaluation. The label - through the beautifully designed animal motifs (formed from sprays of vegetation) - talks to the more animated form the botanicals inside have taken and create an unmistakable visual asset for the brand; an icon that stands out from the crowd and will no doubt serve it well long into the future.

Was this luck? Almost certainly not. You see, Ben has design in the blood; it runs in the family. Part of what made Seedlip financially viable was the funding it received by Ben selling his share in a design business. Simply, Ben had ideas for the brand and the skill to make them come alive long before the liquid took form. Art & Design in its finest form.

Designing from the shelf

Ben’s Seedlip example is a classic case that supports the notion of design as an art form. Would research have helped or hindered him? Whilst many a designer may detest the idea of research, and point to Seedlip as an example of what you get with a free creative reign, you could equally point at half a dozen other brands in the room that night that were destined to struggle for the very same reason. Innovation has a horrible success rate and the design, not the product, can be the fundamental problem. 

Most FMCG brands enter predefined categories and are put on shelves with dozens of other packs where the shopper can take anywhere from 1-30 seconds to make a choice (or not). Much of our decision-making happens at a subconscious level in the System 1 brain. What we take note of in store is largely a function of what is more easily recognisable and what is relevant to our needs and motivations at the point in time. Recognition and relevance are contextual qualities; good is relative to other brands. Being second best typically means being the first loser on the shelf.

New brands can have a significant advantage by knowing and working with the System 1 language of a category when they are created. Existing brands can leverage this knowledge to help manage design changes and communication activity for their strategic advantage. Understanding the System 1 language of the shelf can be critical to a brand’s success. No matter where your inspiration comes from, the lesson is to make sure ensure you are properly understood wherever you end up. A task which is a whole lot easier when you use a good System 1 interpreter.

For more on how we help brands develop their System 1 short-cut language for competitive advantage please e-mail

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Fran Walton has worked in brand insight and consultancy for over 25 years for both agencies and clients alike. Fran has always held a keen interest in the human decision-making sciences. He has applied this knowledge to help brands communicate more effectively in retail environments and across new media, and to drive diffusion of disruptive innovations.