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Rebranding Hotel Tango Distillery: A Conversation Between Client and Creative

An excerpt from podcast The Follow-Up, featuring Travis Barnes, founder of Hotel Tango Distillery and Bryan Judkins, Principal/GCD of Y&L.

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The Follow Up is a weekly podcast that goes in depth into design projects recently featured on Under Consideration, a blog focused on branding and identity global work. Armin Vit, co-founder of Under Consideration leads conversations with creatives and their clients—uncovering the context, background, and design decisions behind the work. Below is an excerpt from the podcast. To listen to the full podcast scroll down.

Armin Vit: Before this rebrand you had a pretty decent logo and nice bottles that you could have probably kept using for at least a decade. What made you want to redesign?

Travis Barnes: It was the realization that the message wasn't being communicated. It was a little too straightforward. It was almost inside baseball— you had to understand some of it to get it right away. Otherwise, it left folks a little confused on the connection between military and distillation, but we couldn't really articulate what that disconnect was. We felt like we understood, but we just didn't get it, and that's when we engaged with Y&L.

AV: Travis, what attracted you to Y&L?

TB: I would say some of their past work in the spirits category made them stand out. We actually went and talked to some other folks out in the alcohol world, and really, you could just see it on the shelf, the difference that it made for these other brands.

Initially, they just listened. From the interviews and learning about the core company and the people in it and our story. They really did a good job of taking everything and then using that as the foundation to build upon everything else.

AV: All right. So, that's a perfect segue to turn to Bryan. How did Y&L get involved in this project, and how did that relationship evolve from that first contact to starting to work together?

Bryan Judkins: We've been secret admirers and bare-faced consumers of Hotel Tango for years. They've got a great story. We also saw an opportunity to help them amplify that story. Our process started with interviews. We interviewed consumers. We interviewed spirit drinkers. We interviewed bartenders. We interviewed distributors, all to get the full view of Hotel Tango and how the military message was working because that was a bit of an issue.

We noticed after we started talking to people that the military connection was a bit of a disconnection, that people felt it was a bit of a novelty that was like, "Oh, that's interesting. That's really cool. I'm going to get that for my uncle because he's in the military, but not for me. I never considered drinking it myself."

It was then that we started to come up with the idea that Travis's background in the military would lead to a really easy connection to the meticulous process of distilling. Now consumers can understand why it was going to be a good experience for them. And that's when we came up with the phrase "distilled with discipline.”

Also, it was really important that we capture Travis's personality as part of this brand. We have a phrase that we say, which is "bottling Travis." And when you meet Travis, he's a very straightforward, no bullshit kind of dude. That's how we made the connection to MREs and other types of military packaging, because it's also just so simple and straightforward.

Talking Tango: The CD and The Client

Listen to Armin Vit (of the influential design blog Brand New) interview Bryan Judkins, Y&L Group Creative Director, and Travis Barnes, HT founder, on how the project came together.

“Y&L just seemed to be the right group, the right fit for us. I think because they listened the best.”
— Travis Barnes, Hotel Tango founder

“The Follow-Up: Hotel Tango”

AV: You mentioned that you involved Travis and the Hotel Tango team in the creative process. How did you do that?

BJ: One of our goals, because we were new to each other and Hotel Tango was still pretty new to the process, was to avoid any big reveal. We had a lot of minds to Terraform inside the building of Hotel Tango. There are a lot of strong opinions over there, not surprisingly.

AV: Travis, was this process new to you?

TB: Yes, absolutely. In my mind it was more going to be like a Mad Men kind of thing. But no. They were very good about not shocking us with a big, big reveal. It was a cadence of listening, building a foundation, and then showing that to us and saying, "Is this the foundation we want before we put another layer on top of it?" I would agree with Bryan that there was a lot of nudging from them in good ways. We didn't agree, initially, on everything, and I think that's ok. I like that there's healthy pushback on that side, because if there wasn't a little bit of rub, it wouldn't be important.

AV: Now, Bryan, you already alluded to MREs, which for anyone that doesn't know, they stand for “meal, ready to eat,” which are the pre-package food rations used by US Armed Forces. How did you start the process of moving from their extreme utilitarian look to something so nice?

BJ: There's a lot of beauty in straightforwardness. There's also a lot of randomness in the layouts and typography of MRE and military packaging, like ammo crates, or coffee, instant, and tinned bacon. And that beauty of something so utilitarian is its simplicity and its boldness. We started there and then we thought, "How could we bring some subtle things to the MRE look to just help bring it to life?"

We leaned heavily into typography. We started putting some color behind to help modernize the look, but also differentiate the product lineup and help that stand out on a shelf. Honestly, we needed to win on the shelf, whatever that shelf is: on premise, off, or even just a personal liquor cabinet. Shelf presence was a huge consideration throughout the design process. What's great about the MRE look is that it's pretty much yelling at you to look at it and not just look at it, but hold your attention.

And we picked up the shape too. It's a big old broadside, and it holds like a flask. If you ever hold the bottle, it's got a curve on the back, and it feels a little bit military. It's got subtle military cues to it.

Also, it's grabbable, it's passable. We were looking for ways to communicate that sense of comradery that Travis brought to Hotel Tango from the military, that Hotel Tango exudes every day. So, we got there via a ton of small choices.

AV: Now, this is a question I didn't have prepared, but since you mentioned the bottle, how was that process?

TB: So, from the beginning, Hillary (Barnes, Hotel Tango co-founder and wife of Travis) and I were open to anything. We wanted to challenge ourselves and push beyond what we thought the brand could be, because I think we understood that we both had bias, and we knew that, and we said, "Look, be open to anything and everything." I think that was the starting point.

AV: You spoke about language. So, there's a lot of great, very amusing copywriting. There's a sense of humor that’s unexpected from the visual language of the design. How did you arrive at this tone of voice?

BJ: This is the other half of bottling Travis now that we are meeting him live we can see. Within five minutes with these people, you know they take their spirits seriously and everything else a little less so. And so the comedy that comes from this is just the idea that we completely committed to that MRE tone and language, and we never broke character, which means once you take it outside of the usual context and apply it to a bottle label, instead of, say a can of beans, it just becomes inherently playful and charming.

AV: Travis, what is the most exciting aspect of this new design for you and Hillary and the future of Hotel Tango?

TB: Shoo. Most exciting? I think that I'd say it's how big it can continue to grow. It feels so right, and it can grow in a lot of different directions with the brand. I think that we could have a lot more fun with it on the language piece. There are ways to evolve with it on the military side and still hold true to that original MRE feel.

It's going to be really fun to work with Bryan and his team to figure out which little rabbit holes we get to go down and explore. That, to me is the most exciting part about the rebrand and what it allows us to do in the future, where I think before we were a little bit pigeonholed on how we could grow, and this really just opened the universe up for us.