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It's a new wrap

Published:  23 July, 2008

They say that trends in the wine trade take a long time to be accepted and adopted by the consumer, yet in the case of packaging, alternatives to glass bottles have been with us for more than 30 years.

Bag-in-box has been ever-present in our supermarkets since the 1970s, more often than not a figure of fun for wine snobs, even though the technology used in its manufacture now is way better than when it first arrived.

Glass bottles have been around since the mid-17th century and, 350 years on, they are still the packaging format of choice for almost all alcoholic drinks. Despite the grand claims of the Tetra Pak/bag-in-box brigade, the results of the latest WSTA/Wine Intelligence survey make for sobering reading for proponents of some of the new bottle formats.

Only one-third of the 1,000 regular wine drinkers surveyed said they would consider alternatives to glass packaging.

And the newest arrival on the block, Tetra Pak, faces a particularly difficult entry to the wine industry.

Although widely used for fruit juice drinks, respondents in the survey saw it as the cheapest looking packaging format, more so even than ring-pull cans. It was also the most unappealing type of packaging, according to the research.

So what is the reason to this consumer indifference? According to the survey, the overriding factor is image, particularly in the case of Tetra Pak. Further questions about this new format found that seven out of 10 believe Tetra Pak wines are "cheap and unappealing".

Nearly two-thirds of respondents said they would not want to serve a Tetra Pak wine to friends or family - twice the number who believed that the format would not keep the wine in good condition.

These statistics are replicated, albeit at a slightly lower level, when it comes to pouches, with the cheap and unappealing comments turning off consumers, although it is less of an issue for bag-in-box wines.

With PET wines, more respondents were concerned with how well the wine would keep than with other closures, with more than half unconvinced by the format.

WSTA chief executive Jeremy Beadles says the findings show that "consumers are open to change", but that they are also "conscious of how others will judge the quality of their wine purchase".

Finally won over

The results of the survey should act as stark reminder to the big brands that much work is needed to change consumer perception. The fact is that wine is different to many other consumer products in that a premium image encircles it. This is what makes new packaging so difficult to introduce.

It's also why people are so worried what others think. After image, the second most important factor in choice of packaging, according to those who responded, is: "I wouldn't want to serve it to my friends and family".

Wine is an indicator of good taste and aspirational behaviour. Looked at this way, new pack formats might never be able to push such cues.

Dominique Tombeur, vice-president of marketing and communications for glass manufacturers O-L, based in Lausanne, Switzerland, insists that:

"Glass connotes richness and substance to consumers, and provides a quality image for products. It is the only packaging material in which wine can actually improve with age."

Despite all the negativity around new packaging, however, the survey shows that one-third of UK consumers are open to other forms of packaging apart from a glass bottle. And the larger wine companies have started to notice.

Foster's and Constellation have the power and the deep pockets to really influence people, and in 2007 they have acted. This year could go down in history as the year when wine drinkers were finally won over by alternative packaging.

So far, Wolf Blass has been released in PET bottles, Banrock Station has been sold in Tetra Pak, Arniston Bay has gone into pouches and French co-operative producer Mont Tauch has launched a prism-shaped Tetra Pak under its Village du Sud.

Turning the corner

When Harpers carried out its Indy 500 survey in May 2007, opposition to these new formats was even higher than shown in the Wine Intelligence report: 95% of independent merchants surveyed were against Tetra Pak, while 86% of them said that introducing PET bottles would least help sales grow.

But supermarket giant Tesco has already stated its desire to cut the weight of its packaging by 25% by 2010, and plans to improve the packaging of 70,000 UK products by then.

James Craig-Wood, Foster's PR and communications manager, says that all innovations, particularly those in the wine trade, take time to be accepted by the consumer. He says: "The feedback so far on the Wolf Blass PET bottles has been very positive.

We should stress that Wolf Blass will continue to produce wines in glass bottles, but we want to give consumers the opportunity to drink them in outdoor occasions, whether that's at picnics, barbecues, on the beach, or in stadia."

In fact, PET and bag-in-box came out top from the Wine Intelligence survey overall. PET is considered best for drinking outdoors, with a picnic with friends for example: 60% of people said they would buy it for this purpose.

Meanwhile, 40% of respondents said they had bought bag-in-box in the past three months. It comes down to the basic conservatism of the UK consumer when faced with wine packaging choices.

Glass linked to premium

The practical aspects of non-glass packaging formats are a key selling point, and one that should ensure its survival in the long term. But until the consumer becomes more familiar with alternative packaging, in terms of its ability to keep the product in good condition, and its recyclable qualities, then it faces a struggle to be accepted.

Darren Foley, realisation director at pearlfisher, which has designed packaging for high-profile brands such as Absolut vodka and The Famous Grouse whisky, says that the biggest thing in glass's favour is that it is understood by the consumer.

He says: "If you'd said to consumers five years ago that we'd all be buying screwcapped wine bottles, there'd have been an uproar. But the consumer is a lot more adaptable than people give them credit for.

"I wonder if there's an underlying confusion or issue with other packaging materials, which prevent them from taking off. But good old glass just works. From a consumer point of view, I still believe that glass is an uncomplicated choice that is ultimately linked to premium propositions. In the spirits industry glass will maintain its position for reason of price."

Foley is working on developing plastics extracted from corn starch. This material is the new padding for many foodstuff, and it could be the sustainable, biodegradeable future for packaging. "It could certainly work for soft drinks, but alcohol is an aggressive liquid, so we're still not sure how this new substance would react to wine or beer."

But while corn-derived plastics could be the packaging future, PET is, in Foley's view at least, likely to have a limited long-term role. Being an oil-based polymer, it will suffer as the world's oil resources run out.

The success of alternative packaging formats will rest on the ability of the big brands to sell their qualities to the wine drinker. The message, however, needs to be delivered in a way that the consumer can relate to. Otherwise the Tetra Pak, wine pouch and PET bottle could become as tough a sell as bag-in-box.