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Great design can transform wines’ fortunes – so why do so many ignore its potential?

Published:  19 August, 2019

Advertising spend in the wine sector is a fraction of that for beer, so brand and packaging identity have to work especially hard to influence consumer decision-making, says Rowena Curlewis, CEO of drinks design specialist Denomination

With such a proliferation of wine brands on shelf, thinking of ways to disrupt, differentiate and stand clear of the competition can be challenging, especially when consumers demand that their wine choices also look credible and authentic.

This is where brand and packaging design comes in. Done well it achieves two important things: first, it draws the consumer eye and creates stand-out; second, it tells the client story, making a virtue of any USPs and forming emotive bonds between wine and drinker.

So if packaging is so much more than a vessel, why is it often the last item that a winery is prepared to spend money on?

Granted, winemaking is an expensive business. A dozen new French oak hogsheads? Absolutely. Replant an entire vineyard with new clones? Of course. Invest in brand and packaging identity? This is where many seem to come unstuck.

But often it’s the only thing you’ve got working for your brand as it jostles for attention on a crowded shelf. So why is it treated as such an afterthought?

Distilling narratives

Storytelling plays a hugely important role in any brand identity, so it helps to understand the nuances and mechanisms that convey a message. Is the pack format masculine or feminine? Simple or intricate? Traditional or contemporary? Is sustainability a factor? Label shape, stock choice, level of detail, typography, illustration, palette, embellishment, closure design… All of these build depth and layering, helping the designer create a powerful, believable and connecting message.

There’s no doubt that strong design can have transformative effects. Take Fourth Wave’s Elephant in the Room range, which was developed in response to the fact that full-flavoured wines had fallen out of favour among connoisseurs but were still hugely popular with regular drinkers. It was the proverbial ‘elephant in the room’ – and that informed the brand identity.

Varietals prefixed with words like ‘mammoth’, ‘prodigious’ and ‘jumbo’ appeared on the label alongside beautifully illustrated elephants, and the copy on the back of the bottle further encapsulated the big, bold brand proposition.

Every aspect of the packaging, from the Stelvins to the labels to the shipping cartons, carried a level of fun and detail that the target consumers loved. And within 18 months of launch, it was Fourth Wave’s number one selling brand. It scooped up a DBA: Design Effectiveness Award a couple of months ago, too.

The brand and packaging identity acknowledged that consumers see their wine choices as saying something about them. And with that strong emotional bond in place, both purchase and repurchase experienced a marked upswing.

Even with a mega brand like Yellowtail, an evolution of the packaging back in 2016 resulted in a 4.5% increase in sales of its white wine portfolio in the USA.

Thirst for change

Yet, despite dramatic results like these, so often winemakers seem reluctant to spend money in this area – some even recruiting the services of a high-street printer or graphic-design student to knock up a tag. This is a mistake.

A good brand and packaging designer in this sector will have a strong knowledge of wine and the complex semiotics associated with specific regions and varietals. All that know-how is essential for communicating credibility.

Working as a designer in the drinks sector is a fascinating business. But it seems that we still need to convince clients that they will recoup their investment in design many, many times over.