The label worth a thousand words

Your wine label has only a few seconds to attract a customer in a crowded store. How do you make it stand out from the crowd? What design elements should you consider when targeting different consumer groups? Robert Joseph talks to some designers.

Neil Tully MW, founder of UK-based designers, Amphora
Neil Tully MW, founder of UK-based designers, Amphora

If you don’t stand out, you disappear.” Francis­ Michael Claessens, chairman of brand ­design specialists Claessens International, was one of the most compelling speakers at last year’s Wine Vision conference in London. His message to the wine industry was clear: the ­appearance of a wine label is crucially important. Leading Champagne brand owners have long understood the value of having packaging that can be recognised from a distance – think of Veuve Clicquot’s orange or the Mumm red and white label – but producers of still wines have been slower to catch on.

Good at a distance

In recent years, the New World has increased awareness of good packaging, but even today, the readily recognisable Cloudy Bays, Yellow Tails and d’Arenbergs are exceptions to the rule. So, as Kevin Shaw, head of US- and UK-based design agency Stranger & Stranger says, is Ogio, the label he designed for an Italian Pinot Grigio sold by Tesco. Shaw believes Ogio to be the most successful thing he’s done, “because you can see it from 50 feet away”. 

Neil Tully MW, founder of UK-based designers Amphora, says that wines like Ogio have had a significant ­impact on the market. “In 22 years, we have seen the emergence first of ‘soft brands’ and, more recently, ­retailer-owned ‘power brands’, such as Tesco’s Dino [and Ogio]. At the same time, retailers’ own-label propositions have become increasingly convincing, with the more successful acknowledging that the relationship of retailer brand with wine can be significantly different from most other product categories.” In other words, genuine brands now have to compete with eye-catching best-selling retailer-exclusive wines saddled with none of the traditional costs of brand-building.

Whether the brand is ‘real’ or not, the packa­ging has to manage the consumer expectations of what they will experience in terms of style and quality. Perversely, this last point is especially important to retailers in countries where deep discounting is common. Most bottles of Ogio and Dino may sell in the UK at a discounted price of around £5.00 ($8.38), but both brands have to sit on shelves convincingly ­wearing a £9.00 tag when they are off-promotion.

Tully, Shaw and Claessens all agree that the most effective labels combine a collection of qualities, some of which involve Shaw’s 50-feet-away eye-catching elements, while others are almost subliminal in their impact. The difference in consumer expectations of a wine with a well-printed label on high-quality, off-white paper and one on basic white stock can, Claessens says, be dramatic. And so can the use of perfectly-chosen calligraphy and fonts. Printed letters are not called ‘characters’ for nothing, he points out. Depictions of the winery and/or vineyards can also attract attention. Here, Claessens ­reveals a valuable trick of the trade: an apparently three-dimensional image that subconsciously takes people into the label can pay handsome ­dividends.

“The visual language of wine packaging, the ‘codes’ are sometimes interpreted very differently in varying markets,” says Tully. “Just as with a spoken language, the nuance and intonation does not always travel well. We have to be acutely aware of both how the visual language is ‘spoken’ as much as how it is ‘heard’ by the target consumer.”

Many might presume that the solution to this problem lies in research, but Shaw – one of the few people to predict that Gallo’s heavily researched Red Bicyclette brand with its cutely rustic label would fail to become a top-selling brand – is sceptical. “I’ve sat in many a focus group discussing minute design changes with consumers, only for the very same consumers to fail to notice any of those changes to the product when it was on shelf. Focus groups all tend towards average, by definition, and the only real test of any brand and any changes to that brand (assuming that you don’t have £25m to spend on advertising) is in situ; what stands out and works on shelf.” Shaw continues.

“The average consumer spends less than 30 seconds in the wine aisle. That’s scanning, picking up, reading, choosing and leaving in less than half a minute.”

Another complication in an increasingly globalised industry lies in the variation in the maturity of individual markets and the fact that markets don’t necessarily evolve at the same speed or in the same way. China, perhaps unsurprisingly given its immaturity, leans heavily on traditional labels and packaging. Fashion is a major factor that also has to be taken into account, especially in markets like the US. A few years ago, anyone launching an inexpensive wine in the US without an animal – a ‘critter’ – on the label was fighting one-handed. Today, most distributors repeat the mantra that critter brands are dead. Now, the biggest successes are, in Tully’s words, “approachable, accessible, non-challenging labels,” including wines with names like Little Black Dress and Layer Cake. “These brands can be polarising,” he says, “though they do satisfy a certain state of need. I think there will always be an ­opportunity for labels led by the proposition rather than the wine or region, and these present great creative opportunities. For the wine drinker they can ‘give permission’ to engage with the wine on more comfortable terms.”   

Alongside these, however, ‘traditional’ labels offer reassurance. Tully says that his agency has converted ‘fun’ expressions of a brand to ‘traditional’ with positive results, “where the brand is better aligned with its market.” The success of traditional brands has been paradoxically true in both an immature market like China and in a recession-hit mature one like the UK, where consumers seek reassurance from authoritative packaging when spending their limited funds. Within the other mature markets of Europe, reactions to labels can vary widely.

My own experience

We sell 150,000 cases of Le Grand Noir, the Languedoc brand that Kevin Shaw and I created in 2005 with winemaker Hugh Ryman, and the distinctive black sheep on its label has helped to earn good distribution in 20 markets, including Scandinavia, Belgium and Holland. French consumers, or at least their gatekeepers, however, are more wary of a wine with an animal on its label but no reference to a domaine or château. 

The original label that, with a few tweaks, has been largely unchanged, is about to get a major makeover, so those French distributors will get another chance to look at the brand. Subscribing to the belief that ‘critters are dead,’ our distributors in the US – by far the biggest market for this brand – asked for a rethink of the way the sheep is used; Shaw’s response was to place it in the context of the vineyards where the grapes are grown, incidentally exploiting Claessens’ theory about the value of a three-dimensional image. Depicting the real landscape also reflects what Shaw sees as an important trend. “Right now provenance and authenticity are king,” he says. “Tito’s vodka has gone crazy in the US, not because it’s amazing (it’s the same ethanol and water and milligram of impurities), but because Tito is a real Texan and vodka hasn’t had a real person fronting it before. It’s perceived as being ‘real’, like brands were a few generations ago. Of course when everyone adopts this angle, and it all happens very quickly these days, then the whole cycle will come round again.”

Changing a label requires great care, says Claessens, whose studio has made incremental changes to wine labels such as Beronia Rioja, Villa Antinori and Cavit Pinot Grigio. “When you touch the DNA, it dies,” he says, referring to the damage Baileys Cream Liqueur suffered from a succession of unsuccessful redesigns. But Tully and Shaw both point to where bravery has paid dividends. “A well-embedded label or brand may need careful evolution, whereas on occasions the decision is taken that nothing is salvageable, and a radical reinvention is called for,” says Tully. “Often we will deliberately push the boundaries, if only to help understand the outer reaches of what is possible.”

Shaw is more forthright. “Brand owners can get too close to their products and assume that consumers are also so in love with their brand that any change threatens their very existence,” he says, recalling a client who told him that changing his brand “was ‘like ordering plastic surgery on one of his children’. It’s all nonsense of course. I remember what the old Smirnoff ­bottle looked like. It’s quite an education in how a radical change can do wonders for a stagnant or dying brand. They say fortune favours the brave but the secret is what elements you choose to be brave with.”

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