Inadvertent Branding

Inadvertent Branding

I get asked about once a month about the whiskey and scotch image banner that is featured at the top of this web page. Concerned Christians have asked me about it in email, making sure that I am not embarking on a doomed spiral of binge drinking. The best thing that I’ve gotten out of it was a very nice bottle of Scotch from a German fellow (thanks again, Alan!) who happened to be visiting New England. I got asked about it again today, by a friend who I hadn’t spoken to in quite a few years, so I think it’s time to tell the story. You can think of it as a cautionary tale about what happens when you don’t think about your brand before laying pixels out on the World Wide Web. On the other hand, I don’t think it could have happened any other way, and it’s certainly fun to look back at the evolution of my online identity.

The First Blog Design

I started with Movable Type in September 2004, but switched almost immediately to WordPress 1.1. However, I hated WordPress’ default typography, so I ported the Movable Type template over. I only added a simple graphical header:

The Old Banner In October or so, I was processing a particularly yummy-looking picture of some Chinese-style pork belly stew, and added this banner below the header for fun:

The First Banner I decided I liked the combination of image and text, and even though it didn’t make any sense at all I decided to just keep it. I was still trying to figure out what the site would be about, so over the next few months I added a few more banners just to liven the place up. Eventually 13 banners were created, and they would be set depending on the day using a simple algorithm. Here’s what it looked like:

The Old Site And here are the 12 other banners:

Old BannerOld BannerOld Banner Old BannerOld BannerOld Banner Old BannerOld BannerOld Banner Old BannerOld BannerOld Banner

The Website Refresh

In January 2006, I was thinking about adding advertising to some pages of the website, but the old fixed-width design hadn’t taken this into account. I basically needed to widen the layout a bit. You read about the design decisions I was facing in 2 Days and 28 Pixels Later, the original post that documents the redesign. This is when the infamous whiskey picture first made its debut.

At the time, I thought that the picture would be temporary, and it was used on context to the way I was doing my site update. Feeling particularly lazy, I didn’t set up a proper staging server to test the new deployment on. Instead, I just backed up my databases, crossed my fingers, and did live updates on the running server. This is extremely bad practice in a production environment, but at the time I was getting only 250 pageviews a day, so I figured no one would notice anyway in the middle of the night. However, I knew it was still a bad idea so I decided to use this picture of the scotch bottles, which were left over from an attempt by my dear cousin Ben to introduce me to the finer things in life. I had mentioned to him that I didn’t know anything about hard liquor, and so we went to the New Hampshire State Liquor Store and bought a selection of “introductory” scotches and whiskeys. I tasted each one of them, and didn’t like any of them that much. I actually don’t drink at all, except for the occasional beer when I’m having a good pizza.

The bottles, however, photographed quite beautifully.

The composition was such that it would work well with a Post-It Note I photoshop’d into the picture that read: Danger! Live Update in Progress! XXXOOO – Dave. The joke here was that I was doing something irresponsible on server, which is on the same level as mixing alcohol with work:

The Cautionary Banner I figured that I would put the “real” banner in place after I was sure that the design worked, by adapting the banners from the old site. As it turns out, though, none of the images were suitable for the new aspect ratio of the header; I’d inadvertently designed myself into a corner. I would have to reshoot all my banner pictures! I never did get around to it. And then a couple design ranking websites actually liked the design and booze theme, and then I just plain forgot about the whole thing. When I decided to move to Expression Engine, I deliberately did not attempt a redesign because I had a whole new templating system to learn and 1200 entries to convert. Now that I’m a little more comfortable with how EE works, I am thinking about a redesign again to fix the terrible navigation on the site…a lot of stuff is buried and inaccessible because the WordPress categories did not translate cleanly over. Sigh.

The Brand As it Stands

I keep saying “brand”, when I really mean “identity”. Right now, the look of the website is somewhat entrenched. I like the irreverent imagery, too. It’s a kind of visual non-sequitor because it has no bearing on anything I write about on the site. And that’s kind of fun. I could invent a thematic rationale after-the-fact like the quality, variety, and international origin of fine spirits reflect the best of life’s offerings for the discerning palate or some such nonsense, but you and I would know that I was deliberately spouting crap :-) However, there IS a grain of truth in that statement: I do aspire to experience more, and there is something rather nice about the variety of pleasures that I have yet to sample. And I must admit, I have developed a taste for certain peaty Scotches; the Lagavulin 16 year single malt is what I like, but I use ice and only drink 1/8th of a finger at a time. I am basically just smelling the stuff, letting the complex bouquet of aged wood mixed with the hint of smoke waft through my upper nasal passages. I am not sure that this counts as actual drinking.

So that’s the story! Moving forward, I may retain elements of the bottles, booze, interesting colors and maybe ill-advised combinations of objects as a visual theme, but I’m sure that a branding consultant would tell me I’m doing terrible things to my message. I might care more if I knew exactly what that message was; I’m still figuring it out…

Until then, bottoms up :-)

!@(images/08/0407-drinkup.jpg:F “Drink Up”)


  1. Jesse C. 16 years ago

    Great post, David. My personal blog is my place to work without a net, to share things with friends and to have a little fun (although it is languishing right now with stock template, in anticipation of a pretty massive design overhaul). Hearing about your process tells me yours is the same.

    And I sometimes find that when I update live, without a staging server, I learn some things that are going to prove beneficial when I apply updates to a client server, staging or live.

    As for the Malt Whisky, I’m a big fan myself, and while I may drink a little more, the point is the same — enjoyment. I’m partial to this Aberlour a’bunadh. A friend gave me a bottle last Christmas and I’ve been nursing one regularly ever since.

    Thanks again for the great read!

  2. Mark 16 years ago

    Wow.  I never noticed that there was a header above the bottles.  Shows which part of the design I picked up on.  I think I never noticed because the bottles are contained in their own box, and mentally I processed the box and then moved on to the posts, never noticing what was above the box.

    I love the bottles, by the way.

  3. Ed Eubanks 16 years ago

    Hilarious—you just described the “I didn’t inhale” version of scotch drinking.

    Interesting account; I’ve wondered about it, myself—though I guess you could categorize me as an “unconcerned Christian” as I don’t have a problem with drinking, nor with being open about the fact that you might drink. It had always struck me, as you said, as something of a visual non-sequitur.

  4. Ross Patterson 16 years ago


    If your brand/identity can survive that horrible pork belly stew picture, it can survive anything.  And between the Macallan, Glenmorangie, the Glenlivet, and Lagavulin, you’re in pretty good hands.  Although if peaty aromas are your thing, find someone who’s got a bottle of Laphroaig and take a whiff – you might just love it.

  5. Dave Seah 16 years ago

    Jesse: Heh, we are of like minds :-) I’ll have to give that Aberlour a try…thanks for the recommendation!

    Mark: Yes, the header does seem to go away…the power of image and anchoring boxes :-) Next time I redesign, I will probably do away with them, but I do need to maintain some kind of blog label.

    Ed: LOL, I didn’t realize that is what I was doing. Regarding the visual non-sequitor, I wonder if it has turned people away or confused them? On the other hand, I can’t think of what else I’d put there. Perhaps a bunch of little pieces of a puzzle or some kind of interesting kit. Ooo…it is photo illustration time :-)

    Ross: Excellent observation :-) I didn’t much care for the MacAllan, Glenmorangie, and Glenlivet actually, so the Laphroaig may be yet another purchase. I’m all out of the Lagavulin actually, as my Dad seemed to enjoy it a lot last time he was visiting ;-)

  6. Robin 16 years ago

    I hurts my heart to see that you are using ice in such a fine single malt.

    try the following:
    pour a small amount of in a small tumbler, or even better, a small glass that narrows at the top.

    now do some nosing and tasting.

    add a small amount of water and repeat the nosing and tasting.
    you will notice that all the aromatic oils in the malt will dissolve and free their aroma’s.

    if you use ice, the cold will neutralize these smells.

    my favourites:

    I was never worried about your banner though ;)

  7. Tormod 16 years ago

    The bottles’ still there? See what you miss while reading just the feed.

    What I remember thinking from seeing the site for the first time: <q>Oh, goood – he doesn’t use those lo-res icons for any functionality.</q> :)

  8. Henrik Pejer 16 years ago

    I was just about to write something about whisky and ice but Robin hit the nail…

    I’d recommend, just like Robin, a Laphroig. Lagavulin, to me, lacks the sharpness of Laphroig but it is a very fine whisky and you are definitely on the right path.

    Now, my all time favorite is Ardbeg. Incidently Laphroig, Ardbeg and Lagavulin are all lovingly made on the same shore right next to each other, not far apart. Yet still they are worlds apart.

    But regardless of what kind of whisky you like you should try to taste different ages of the same whisky. This way you will see what happens when it ages. A young Laphroig, the 10 year, is different form the 30 year old. Such a tasting, when you have the opportunity, is something I higly recommend. And do not only test the extremes: try to get 3, or more, from the same distillery but with different age. Do it with a whisky you know and are familiar with so you do do not get distracted with new flavors.

    The best whisky I’ve tasted is the Ardbeg Kildalton. If you like Ardbeg, and happen to stumble upon the Kildalton it would be a sin not to taste it. Do like Robin recommends: first without water, then add a little water, and then you will hit the perfect balance just for you.

    Second to that the Ardbeg Lord of the Isles.

    Third I’d say the 30 year Laphroig.

    But the most important thing is not to drink single malt whisky from Islay but find the whisky you love and explore the different ages.

  9. Jesse C. 16 years ago

    This post should’ve been called Inadvertent Conversation. It’s wonderful (and slightly ironic) that your post about your process has spawned a discussion of fine whisky! I have been following – and learning – as each new comment comes down.

    @Henrik: great suggestions; I’m going to try and track some of those down.

    I have to confess that I have become known at my local (“The Brogue”) for liking a Glen Fiddich with one ice cube, but that’s simply a refreshment. I will endeavour to do my future tasting of fine whiskies cube-less. It sounds like the right way to go…

  10. Dickson Fong 16 years ago

    I’ve always wondered why you have all that liquor in your header image. Thanks for sharing the story behind it.

    I agree that the whiskey gives the site an irreverent look, which might be undesireable. But I think it matches your writing style and the stuff you talk about. Not that I know your audience, but I’m inclined to believe that people come here for your insight and some laid-back intelligent discussion, not to be judgemental.

    Besides, I think it’s kind of amusing to see the words “goal setting”, “time tracking”, and “empowering” next to bottles of booze.