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Harpers debate: Thinking outside the box

Published:  23 July, 2008

This House believes that what's on the outside of the bottle is more important than what's inside.'
Christian Davis, editor, Harpers
Keith Lay, marketing director, Ehrmanns;
Kevin Shaw, Stranger & Stranger
Robin Kinahan MW, director, HwCg;
Nick Room, buyer, Waitrose
Statistician/independent witness:
Lulie Halstead, Wine Intelligence

A quick straw poll of the 150-strong audience who had just packed into the Waterfront Rooms revealed that only 15 believed the packaging is more important than the liquid inside the bottle - and with that, the 2006 Harpers debate at the London International Wine and Spirits Fair was under way.

The main proposer was Keith Lay, who was one of the masterminds behind the Grolsch lager brand, which caused a stir in the packaging world with its distinctive flip-top closure.

One of the wines he now promotes is Bright Pink, a ros packaged in an aluminium bottle. Opposing him was Robin Kinahan MW of HwCg, who is part of the team that created Blason de Bourgogne, the most succesful French brand in the 6+ category.

After the main protagonists had slugged it out, Lulie Halstead revealed the results of research into consumers' attitudes to wine packaging.

This was followed by questions from the floor, then Nick Room (opposer) and Kevin Shaw (seconder) added some final thoughts before the concluding vote.


Keith Lay, Ehrmanns

'I don't think there is a debate to be had here. There is nothing I have to say that is particularly new. It seems to be a sad fact of modern life that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I don't claim to be a wine expert; I'm a marketing guy.

'On my first trip after joining Ehrmanns, I was with a buyer. We had this problem wine - it was a 2.99 wine, but excellent value. It tasted good, but people weren't really going for it. Now, my eight-year-old son could have designed a better label than the one it had. You might as well have put a neon sign on it saying "Drink me if you're hard enough"! It screamed "cheap plonk".

'I have never yet seen a consumer walk into an off-licence, take out a corkscrew, open a few bottles, make a selection and then pay for the wine. It doesn't happen, and if it did, security would be called.

'It's the packaging, in the first instance, that attracts the consumer. When we're doing new packaging, we present it in a competitive set of 20-30 wines. In all cases, with the general consumer, their perception of price and quality is almost entirely based on the packaging. They're doing it on the basis of visual cues - how else do they make their selection?

'Before I joined the wine trade, I mainly drank French wine. I used to drink it, enjoy it and then a few days later say to myself, "That was a lovely wine what was it? Chteau? Chteau something." If you enjoy a wine, the packaging is the cue to say "I can remember that wine". It's the memorability that's important. What is the wine for? That is extremely important. If I take it to a friend's house, I don't want them to think that it's a crap bottle of wine.

'You can, with good packaging, slightly improve the taste perception. I know this because we've done tests, we've put the same wine in different packaging and seen the results.

'Good packaging will sell poor wine only once, and that's the simple truth. Good packaging with wine inside that isn't really worth the headline price is doing our business no good at all - but a good wine inside bad packaging won't sell at all.'


Robin Kinahan MW, HwCg

'After 33 years in the wine trade, I can say that wine at the cheap level is immeasurably better now than when I joined. And, after our first speaker, I would like to quote these lines from Pam Eyres:

"Upon these areas he brings his intellect to shine

In a great compelling voice that's twice as loud as mine

I often wonder what it must be like to be so strong,

Infallible, articulate, self-confident and wrong. "

'The future of our trade must rest on the quality and integrity of the wine. It is particularly important to remember when various supply sources are openly wondering if the UK is worth supplying any more. Wine is about several years' long investment in vineyards and a long winemaking process - not a five-minute label design or two-week promotion! The trade must hold on to quality.

'We will base our argument around marketing and legal points. Marketing is not everything - massively expensive Bordeaux are sold on reputation and Parker points - they are packaged in drearily traditional bottles!

'Wine is now a normal grocery item, and that is something we should all welcome, but this has led to deeper discounts, and to some wines being created around the promotion price, not the "normal" price. And although perfectly legal, the trade does have to ask itself about the ethics of this sort of activity - the issue is the quality, value and integrity of wine.

'Label design is important, and gimmicky ideas don't work in the long term - where has Pendulum gone? Label design is now far more sophisticated and helps draw the consumer to a wine, but it is vital that the wine inside the bottle delivers what the label says it is. There are countries that have to be careful about using terms like "reserve" and "old vine".

'Many wines and their labels are controlled by laws - Chablis, Beaujolais, Chianti and Rioja spring to mind - and I mention these because they are all areas that either have let, or are in danger of letting, their quality slip and have suffered or will suffer accordingly.

'They are all brands, but they don't have the protection of a brand owner. Good marketing is of course vital, and good marketing can help lift a category - take Blason de Bourgogne for example - but the quality and integrity of the wine is vital. It is the duty of supplier and the on- and off-trade retailer to provide wines that represent what they should be.

'The bulk price for 2005 Chablis varied between 442 per feuilette [136 litres] for bad lots, to 581 for good lots. That is a price difference of 31%. The bulk price for 2005 Macon Villages varied between 330 per piece for bad lots and 490 for good lots.

'The temptation to buy the cheap and not so cheerful is very tempting given the price. It is massively dangerous to the reputation of the retailer if wine is only bought on price, and it is vital to keep quality good and not to sink into the "I can do 4.99 Chablis too" syndrome. Chablis got into a price fight in Germany, and in the 1980s the market almost collapsed. Now, it is at a much higher price, and a higher volume.

'Beaujolais has suffered from extremely erratic quality, and the consumer no longer trusts Beaujolais. We got involved with Waitrose, whereby we had a 3 Beaujolais, which went up to 4.99, with a better blend and a better label, and the volume doubled in one year - a reflection that quality is rewarded in the end.

'In summary, I would say that marketing is there to create a premium, not to give away. And we have to remember that it's the wine that gives the consumer pleasure, not the packaging. With legally defined wines, then the quality of the wine must be paramount, and to forget about the quality and integrity of wine is suicidal.

'To quote Winston Churchill: "I do not recommend suicide; you might live to regret it."'

Expert witness:

Lulie Halstead of Wine Intelligence

'Our life is about codes. We spend our lives deciding; trying to find our way around. We deal in semiotics - the art of symbols. Wine is a category that has complexities like no other, and that's not just the number of SKUs, but also the diversity, price, region, style and look. It's an amazingly tough market for the consumer to get into, which is a shame, because it's also an immensely enjoyable one.

'We did a test where we put the same liquid into three bottles, each with their own label designs. The liquid was identical in each, and we put different countries of origin on the labels. The reactions to wine A included: "That's really nice" and "Yes, I was expecting it to taste like that". Reactions to wine B included: "No, it's really kind of acidic". And to wine C: "It's OK, it's what I was expecting, but I don't like Australian wine."

'We see this in other areas, too. For instance, with white wine, the colour of the glass has an effect. With brown glass, people said they expected a heavy, oakier style of wine, and that they might feel uncomfortable with a fresh, acidic wine in such a bottle, because that's not what they're expecting.

'With clear glass, or flint glass, they were expecting something fresh and light. The packaging sets up expectations in their minds about how the wine is going to taste.

'We must also not forget the importance of the closure, and never underestimate the importance of back-label copy. Tell them the wine is soft and fruity, or tell them it tastes of blackcurrant. And remember that the price is on the outside of the bottle. The price is giving a signal to the consumer of what to expect.

'With regard to what's inside the bottle, we've heard consumers say things like "I used to buy that wine, but in recent years it seems to taste a bit different". Consumers can spot the dumbing-down of wine. If you change the flavour profile, eventually consumers will realise. You can't pull the wool over their eyes for very long.'

Proposer seconder:

Kevin Shaw, Stranger & Stranger

'Every day, I believe that the wine industry is polarising vastly. We have the fine wine people, the experts, the people who know about terroir; and then we have the vast majority who want a nice, cheap drink. These people have a very poor palate, they're not gastros. The average person is not a gastro. They like their diffusion T-shirts they bought at knock-off down the market.'

Opposer seconder:

Nick Room, Waitrose

'In the few minutes allocated to me, I must come back to Robin's key themes and use this time to persuade you that, while the label and packaging are very important to the modern wine trade, what is inside the bottle does matter for the long-term health of this industry.

'The two main elements must work hand in hand: we need presentation to excite, explain, inform and enthuse our customers, but if the initial fanfare is followed by a disappointing taste experience, what hope have we got as an industry to retain loyalty, to stand behind our products and believe in them, and to strive to achieve an even greater goal?

'If I was the promoter for a concert and I orchestrated the pre-performance hype, people flocked to the event, but they then had a poor show, what future would I have to do the same again? 'Certainly not under the same guise! And so it is with wine - except that in an already fragmented industry, with so much competition to get on shelf, the plethora of brands means that purchasing managers and buyers need to be the critics of what is put before them.

'Of course, what will sell is important, and packaging plays a crucial role. But if you select the wine critically, based on quality and value, and work with the producers in the industry to adapt the presentation to a target market, we would hope the consumer would recognise the benefit, and feed back!

'Typicity, regionality and diversity are some of the wine industry's major strengths. And wines that purport to be from special areas must reflect the characters of those areas.

'This is not only valid for the upper echelons of price and quality; it is valid in all sectors. We, as buyers, with an impartial press, must flag up inconsistencies, work to bring up lower quality and get the message back to the regions that are failing to uphold standards.

'The wine industry needs brands, but it also needs aspirational branding. Whether it represents a region and/or proudly carries the name of a producer on the label, wine should always deliver more at an honest price than the consumer expects. That way, you delight your customer and, in the long term, get them back time and time again.'

Questions/observations from the floor:

'With regard to the German example, Aldi keeps taking the price down and they manage to keep selling wine, don't they?'

Nick Room: 'OK, but how long will they keep buying?'

Christian Davis: 'I've been quite impressed with samples from Aldi. They do a very good red Bordeaux for 7.99, and I don't think many people go to Aldi with the intention of buying a 7.99 Bordeaux.'

'I couldn't see much difference in what Robin was saying and what Keith was saying.'

'As producers, should we be reducing the information we're giving on the label?'

Kevin Shaw: 'All consumers want is simplicity. Give them 20 words, not 200. Someone buying a 4 bottle of wine is a strange animal, but they don't relate to us [in the trade]. It's like looking at a bunch of Ferrari mechanics in a Ford dealership. Most consumers want something unchallenging, quite sweet, and let it wash over them. No one sniffs it and says it smells of elderberries!'

'How does Champagne fit into all this?

It's typified by inflated prices and heavy marketing budgets.'

NR: 'Champagne is a deregulated area, so we have to buy Champagne from Champagne. Some of the producers need to watch the way the market's going, to make sure they keep the quality up, and ensure the reputation of the area.'

'What's the perception of cork versus screwcap?'

Lulie Halstead: 'There is an increased acceptance of screwcap, but it's not necessarily the preferred closure. The under-35-year-old market has a stronger tendency to think that screwcap equals cheap. Older consumers have a better impression, and are not so hung up on how they look when they take a bottle to a friend's for dinner.'

Keith Lay: 'Our experience is the same as that of Wine Intelligence. Two to three years ago we found that at the cheaper end, if you put a screwcap on your wine, it really turned the consumer off. That has changed. It's starting to get through and will become more and more the norm.'

'With most wines sold through supermarkets, the gatekeepers in this country are a pretty fussy bunch.'

KS: 'It's tough to find a bad bottle of wine nowadays. Everyone expects a certain standard now, so the only thing that defines it is the packaging.'

'There's been no mention of recommendation. A hell of a lot of wine is sold through recommendations, be they from a friend or a newspaper columnist. I have never ever heard of someone not recommending a wine simply because the packaging has gone naff.'

'With new wine producers coming into the market, from places like eastern Europe, should the country of origin be emphasised? Or should we just emphasise the brand, and almost the hide the origin?'

KS: 'Consumers don't have anything to buy into with, say, Moldovan wine. But it should be kept off the bottom shelf. How long do you think a 31-year-old mother-of-one will search around looking for a particular bottle?'

KL: 'With Bulgarian brands, one of the things we found was that people were exceptionally pleased with the quality of the wines. It was seen as a surprise to them. We want people to buy it and be pleasantly surprised to find that it's Bulgarian.'

LH: 'From our evidence, there are a lot of consumers who neither notice nor care about the country of origin.'


With all four speakers having done their best to sway the audience, a final vote was taken. But, despite the best efforts of Messrs Lay and Shaw, the number who believe that what is outside the bottle is more important than what's inside went up only slightly, to around the 30 mark - although with a few latecomers drifting in after the first vote, the proportion supporting the motion didn't change a great deal.

Lay, who insisted that he isn't a 'bad loser', despite the result, said afterwards: 'I am genuinely surprised. I'm not saying that quality isn't important, but it's all about what happens first.'

And with Wine Intelligence's research showing that the same wine in three different bottles can create loving and loathing of a wine in equal measure, producers will ignore the importance of good packaging at their peril.