Wine Label Designs: When What is on the Outside Matters

If you were to give the world of wine label design a tagline, it might adapt either of two themes: “To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often” (Winston Churchill) or “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” (attributed to Bert Lance, former director of the Office of Management and Budget during the Carter administration).

So, if you’re a winery or a wine-brand manager, when do you stay on Team Lance or defect to Team Churchill?

The experts say bad buzz is the best indicator. If you’re hearing grumbles though the grapevine, it may be time to reassess your packaging.

“We all work around the three-tiered system… somewhere along that pipeline, you will likely get feedback that something is amiss with your label,” says Andrew Rice, creative director for Trinchero Family Estates. “A customer might make a comment, distributors may have an opinion … and finally the toughest critic of all, the producer, often with much indecisiveness, finally admits that it might be time to re-address the label.”

Such was the case with Contra, a red blend produced by Bonny Doon Vineyard. Winemaker Randall Grahm—no stranger to wine marketing—chose an offbeat image for the startup brand in 2009: an abandoned couch in the Contra Costa County vineyard where the grapes are sourced, which he thought told a story of where the wine came from.

“It looked like a bit of rural Americana … it was funky junky … some people really liked it. Many of our distributors didn’t,” he recalled in a phone interview. “The wine didn’t sell really well. It was a very good wine and got good reviews, but it wasn’t selling well … so we thought, oh, shoot, it’s got to be the label.”

Grahm’s team gave the label a slick makeover: a retro typographic treatment against a dark background, evoking an old-school blackboard, with various word plays on “contra” forming a running dialogue on the label. Grahm said under its new wrap, the wine increased sales about 50 percent.

But, he said, “Nothing about it spoke to the fact it came from Contra—it could have come from anywhere, could have been anything, “ he said. “But it made one realize that the label is super crucial—you can’t get by with just good wine. You have to have good wine plus an attractive label at that price point.”

Rice says the general rule of thumb is “changing up every couple of years but that has to do with price point.” He says with established brands selling for $50-100, “it makes no sense to change them,” but with a commodity brand, “consumers do expect change and evolution and to stay in trend and fashion.”

Though Grahm advised “get it right the first time,” he noted there are times that a relaunch makes sense—“when you change your winemaking style, your vineyard or your price point, or you change the distribution channels … if there’s a reason you can tie this to—an objective change—it makes it more coherent.”

10-20_CR_LINEA_2014_V_1For Crios, an entry-level Argentine wine brand in the Susana Balbo portfolio, the decision to rebrand its wine reflected both a progression in the winemaking and the company thinking as a new generation of the family joined the business.

Marketing manager Ana Lovaglio Balbo, said that while Crios has enjoyed a 13-year run, its initial audience had graduated to higher-priced segments, and it was time “to define and grow a new consumer audience.” With millennials in mind, they hired a Texas-based graphic designer to come up with a hip “Vintage Modern” typographic-driven label.

Balbo said an upgrade in the quality of the wine called for re-energizing the brand message, packaging, and experience of Crios.

“We needed to evolve in the packaging to show that we have evolved in the inside,” she said, noting Crios is “fighting in the segment with really big players.”

Credit to: Dominio del Plata Winery

Balbo’s desire to differentiate the brand on the shelf is a common reason to reboot designs, said David Schuemann, owner and creative director of CF Napa brand design, who has written extensively on “evolution v. revolution” in package design.

“It’s commonly believed the motivation for a package design change is largely in hands of the brand´s owners, but in actuality it’s the competition that compels the need for change,” Schuemann notes.

Evolution, he says, is when a familiar brand wants to reinvigorate its message and key brand attributes without risking its brand equity in the market. Revolution, however, is a “package design drastically different from what existed before”—a sort of all hands on deck revitalization of a brand struggling for its market share or to recapture relevance. He cautioned against pushing a redesign so far that consumers fail to recognize a familiar face.

And though Crios enjoyed sales growth of 66% last year in the U.S., Balbo says the redesign was necessary to redefine themselves as a family winery.

10-20_Hugel Riesling-New“Crios means child and was born as a tribute from my mother to my brother and me, with this very nice offspring message,” she said. “However now [brother] Jose and I are young adults—both of us working in the winery with our own projects and we thought it was time to evolve this message as well. We have grown up and evolved.”

Family ties were also important for Hugel, the iconic winemaker in Alsace. A recent change in name from Hugel et Fils to Famille Hugel helped telegraph the inclusive and multi-generational aspect of the winery, family-owned since 1639. The change in label—a softer hue of yellow from its formerly vivid lemon yellow—kept the brand equity while also modernizing the package.

Wine branding has become such a hot topic that Wines and Vines magazine recently held its second annual Packaging Conference in Napa this summer. Editor Jim Gordon said the conference, in its second year, was the first of its kind in the industry.

“Based on the response from last year, we decided this was a hot button for wineries in California and potentially elsewhere,” Gordon said. “There’s more competition than ever to capture the attention of U.S. consumers and more are looking at packaging and design as more than just protecting the quality of wine but attracting new customers and maintaining [their] existing.”

But it’s not all just business. “There’s something very romantic and sexy about the wine business,” says Trinchero’s Rice. “Labels transport people to places they would rather be.” 

Evolutionary or Revolution? David Schuemann’s 10 Key elements to consider when embarking on a redesign

  1. Identify why a change is needed
  2. Identify the target consumer profile
  3. Document the brand’s history
  4. Determine the brand´s key equities
  5. Clarify the brand’s essence and brand promise
  6. Develop or refine the brand’s story
  7. Practice good design and good business:  Be simple, authentic and honest
  8. Study the competition
  9. Establish what the emotional connection to your brand is or will be
  10. Define a design strategy – evolutionary vs. revolutionary

About the Author

Based in New York City, Lana Bortolot is a senior editor at Wine Enthusiast magazine.

She has provided social media content consulting for a number of wine regions. She received the Advanced Certificate with Merit and the Intermediate Certificate with Distinction from the Wine & Spirits Educational Trust, and when not traveling to wine regions, is working on the WSET Diploma.

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