May 2006 Issue of Wines & Vines

Designers Take On Label Trends

by Larry Walker

  • According to a survey taken in 2005, 36% of U.S. wine drinkers said that they are confused by wine labels. Seventy-five percent of wine consumers said that even when they really like a wine, they sometimes can't remember its name.
  • More than half of those surveyed said they find wines with humorous labels appealing, and 81% said they want labels that are clear and easy to understand.
  • Wine label trends are getting harder to spot as the market becomes more niche-driven. Some designers predict that the "critter label" trend will continue, while others believe it will give way to more sophisticated designs.
The most obvious and arguably the most important part of the wine package is the label. The label has to stand out on the shelf--that's the obvious part. It also should reflect the wine in the bottle, which is not the same thing as simply catching the eye.

In a survey taken near the end of 2005, some 36% of U.S. wine drinkers said that they are confused by wine labels. More than half, 51%, said that labels on imported wines are especially difficult to read. In a response that may send wine marketers right 'round the bend, 75% of wine consumers said that even when they really like a wine, they sometimes can't remember the name.

The telephone survey was conducted between Nov. 20 and Dec. 4 of last year by ICR, an international survey research firm based in Media, Pa. Results were released by Peter Click, the founder and CEO of the Click Wine Group. Click was an early leader in bringing Australian wines into the United States, and also introduced the very successful Fat Bastard wine into the U.S. in 1999. (That's the one with the cute little hippo on the label.) It may surprise you to learn that Fat Bastard is now the fifth best selling French brand in the U.S.

Slightly more than half of those surveyed, 51%, said they find wines with humorous labels appealing, and 81% said they want labels that are clear and easy to understand.

Okay, that's simple enough: Design a humorous, appealing label that is clear and easy to understand. Wines & Vines did an informal e-mail survey of the top label designers in the U.S. to get their take on appealing wine labels that are easy to understand.

Keeping the ICR survey results in mind, we asked four simple questions:
  • What will be the hot new label trends for the next few years?
  • How has wine label design changed in the past decade?
  • Are we just about finished with cute animals?
  • How does a wine label define the wine in the bottle?
  • Here are some of the answers we received.
Patti Britton, Britton Design, Sonoma, Calif.

"The marketplace seems to be flooded with inexpensive wines influenced from Australian and Italian label designers. We are now more than ever in a global market. Australian, Italian and Chilean brands are now at the local supermarket and at the neighborhood mom-and-pop liquor store--something that wasn't seen 10 years ago. Branding with package design is now more important than ever."

Are cute animals over the hill? "God, I hope so! Those cute animal labels really lower the standards of fine wine. Remember when 'reserve' meant something? [Yellowtail] reserve? What's up with that?"

How does a label define the wine? "Wine packaging is like a mini-poster, allowing only a few seconds to communicate a story. Impressions move from the eye to the mind to the heart. The design needs to gain trust and generate a loyal customer, even before the contents are proven.

"To pull it off, convey the essence of uniqueness--whether it's amazing winery architecture, a collaboration between two international wineries, or even a major wine corporation asking for something edgy and hip, yet classic. Talk to the owners and absorb their personalities. If the owners are quiet and serious, there's your label. Loud clients who blow smoke in your face deserve loud calligraphy. Quirky clients with Brahma bulls and standard poodles deserve a bold look with classic type."

Dan Huffman, Huffman Communications, Napa, Calif.

Looking to future trends, Huffman replied, "High-end digital printing seems to be catching more steam. As printing technology gets closer to original art, the greater flexibility a winery will have for regionally testing or short-run label designs."

As for changes in label designs, especially in the cute animal category, Huffman said, "Unique brand names will remain important in the future, as long as we are trying to bridge the new wine customers and build new loyalties, as Bartels & James did nearly three decades ago. They reached a new wine market by positively positioning the product in clever and original marketing. Trend-setting brands I'm reminded of are [yellowtail] and Red Truck, oh and unfortunately Two-Buck Chuck. All were first in their category and have been knocked off countless times since."

He added, "More so than in years past, the label must set the expectations of price, category and varietals. Like it or not, the consumer wants to be spoken to quickly and clearly. KISS--Keep It Simple, Stupid."

Pointing to a label that he designed to define the wine in the bottle, Huffman used Wiens Family Cellars as an example. The brand has 29 labels in four wine categories, and was rebranded for its recent move from Lockeford to a new market in Temecula.

"The original labels for these wines were fine for local distribution in Lockeford. When moving to a more upscale market and a more refined winemaking process, the product needed to be positioned as one of quality and tradition, while focusing on the family name. The new design is sophisticated and the printing (Ben Franklin Press, waterless process) included tight foil and fine printing elements. The change was successful in repositioning the brand, ultimately positioning the brand for generations to come."

Thomas Reiss, Kraftwerk Design, San Luis Obispo, Calif.

Reiss sees the following label trend: "Most likely you will see more labels with new, edgier, less traditional design. The wine industry is evolving to reflect more and more the styles and themes of popular culture. As generations X and Y become more involved both as consumers and label designers, this process is going to accelerate."

Designers Take On Label Trends
Cute critters have their place, says Kraftwerk's Thomas Reiss, but the label must match the wine inside.
Reiss said that cute animals are going to stick around, but maybe not for long. "Cute animals will always have a place, since people just tend to like them. However, animals have been a bit over-used, so we may start to see more artistic or avant-garde renditions than in the past."

On defining the wine in the bottle, Reiss said: "A successful label matches the style of wine and winery, and appeals to the target audience. Matching the label to the wine and attracting the correct target audience are equally important. A masculine label marketed to women will not be successful. Likewise, a label may attract your target audience, but if the label design does not accurately portray the wine, you will not have repeat customers."

Asked about a specific label design that solved a problem for a particular winery, Reiss cited the label he designed for Nicolaysen Family Vineyards, a small, family-run winery specializing in hand-harvested, upscale wines. "Our goal in designing the label was to convey the quality and style of the wine while reflecting the family-run, hands-on philosophy of the winemaker. At first the concepts of 'dirt' and 'high-end wine' seemed rather contradictory. But we were able to blend textures of the labor-intensive winemaking process with ornate detailing in the logotype to create a successful result. The label itself presents many layers, including references to limestone soil, abstracts of artwork from a friend of the winemaker and hidden elements with special meaning. But if you think you've found all the hidden meanings, you'll have to askthe winemaker."

David Schuemann, CF Napa-Brand Design, Napa, Calif.
Commenting on trends, Schuemann said, "Labels are doing one of two things: either moving back to more traditional, larger white or cream labels to differentiate themselves from the sea of color and animals, or continuing to capture an irreverent feel through a concept not unlike the animal fad, but done in a more sophisticated way and on more expensive wines as the wine consumer continues to grow in knowledge."

As for changes over the past decade, he said, "Wine labels have without question become more of an individual expression rather than tied to the story of the wine or the terroir of where it was grown. The introduction of a more typical marketing-driven strategy of animal icons, etc., while successful, has led to a formulaic conga line of 'me too' brands. This blizzard of animal labels and other iconic labels has seen the best of its days. I still believe if done correctly and tied to strong branding principals, they can be successful, but if you really want to stand out on a shelf, this is probably not the best route for the future. We have seen a huge influx of clients asking for exactly the opposite of the cute animal phenomenon."

Designers Take On Label Trends
CF Napa's David Schuemann has seen many labels moving back to more traditional white or cream labels to differentiate themselves from a sea of color.
How can the label define the wine? "Whether consciously or subconsciously, the consumer imparts a certain 'value' to the wine based on its appearance. Does the wine look appropriate for the price-point, etc.? After purchase, the label continues to work as a qualifier. Whether it reinforces the consumer's decision to purchase it becomes the item of interest for the consumer to share with others when it is given as a gift or brought to an event to share. The label and package are crucial to reassuring consumers they have made a good decision/ purchase. The label continues to work this way during consumption, and reinforces the consumer's perception that the wine is really good. It looks good, and thus it should taste good."

Addressing the 75% of consumers who can't remember brand names, Schuemann said, "Maybe most importantly, the label and package assist the consumer in remembering the brand for future repurchase."

Paula Sugarman, Sugarman Design Group, Fair Oaks, Calif.

On the question of trends, Sugarman noted that the technical process of pressure-sensitive labels has changed the design process. "More labels are pressure sensitive now. There isn't as much embossing as before, so the design is much cleaner."

She added that the Australian labels have changed the way we look at wine labels, cute animals and all. "I think those labels are really designed for a younger market. I don't think they know the vintage wines. They are shopping on price and label."

Sugarman said that designers are going to have to work harder. "There is so much visual noise when you walk into BevMo (Beverages & More!). It's really our job to make a label that attracts attention and has brand equity, and is also memorable. Once we do get a consumer to pick up a wine and buy it, then they have to remember the label, which is where the animals came in, really, so we have to look for other ways, and that's what we will be doing. I think there are brands coming out with more concept-designed labels, more like an advertising image which has a catchy and memorable concept--labels like 7 Deadly Zins. People will remember that because of the concept."

Getting straight to the heart of the matter, Sugarman said, "It's always our job to tell a story, to tell a story about the wine and what's in the bottle. That's what high-end wines have done for years and years. That should be the next trend, to get back to the essence of what's in the bottle and tell the story."

David Bowyer, Vintage 99 Label, Livermore, Calif.

Taking a look at trends, Bowyer responded: "Trends are beginning to be much more of a rifle shot approach towards market segments such as women, the introductory drinker, a cruise ship line or a hunting club. Wine is hip, and the public wants it, especially if it relates to where they are and what they do."

He noted that the spectrum of label design is wide. "Cute is good. Animals are still jumping off the shelves, along with cartoons and humor. Traditional shapes are still taking a back seat to being diversified, bright and different."

On defining the wine, Bowyer commented, "What is in the bottle will bring them back for the next bottle, but getting them to drink it in the first place is from the graphics. Back-label romance copy gives a story about the wine or the image on the bottle. With so much emphasis being put on the image, the wine character is not always portrayed."

Conclusions: not so easy. Trends are getting harder to spot as the market becomes more niche-driven. Evolving technology is also changing the nature of label design. Consumers like labels that tell a story, but you have to tell it fast and simple.

Oh yeah, those cute animals: don't write them off yet. Just this week I received a sample of the inaugural Pinot Noir from The Little Penguin, imported by Foster's from Australia. You don't have to be told what the label looks like. Cute? I'll say.
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