Dressing to impress

We’ve all had impressed on us the idea that we mustn’t judge a book by its cover. It’s one we tend to repeat at opportune moments, while singularly failing to follow it when buying books, or anything else.

Indeed, we often judge books by their covers. There’s almost no other way of doing it, short of reading them or consulting trusted reviewers. We are reliant on covers, packaging and labels to guide us, hopefully honestly.

In the drinks industry, attention to packaging and labelling is variable at best. In the world of spirits, packaging is taken seriously. Brands have developed aesthetic signatures, such as Bombay Sapphire’s blue glass bottle, Crystal Head’s skull, or Chambord’s gilded orb. Even with Scotch, a tradition-oriented category, we see creativity such as Grant’s distinctive, three-sided bottles or Bruichladdich’s signature aqua colour.

Craft beer too has embraced packaging in all its possibilities, rehabilitating the can, popularising the growler and offering everything in label design from plain brown paper (The Kernel) to skeletal hot-air balloons (Beavertown). And then there’s wine. Some wine lovers might blanch at the fact that they can buy it in a single-serve pouch, and there is a general conservatism in the trade dictating that deviating from the traditional green/brown 75cl bottle with a French or Italian label design is a bit vulgar, and that, in any case, all our energies should be focused on the liquid. 

I was recently at a WSET course that was part of a series under the heading So You Want To Be A.... This one was a look at wine label design, featuring presentations from Denomination and Coley Porter Bell. At one point, we were shown some wine in cans. Everyone had a bit of a giggle. Wine in cans. Pull the other one. Except we have craft beer in cans, not to mention Bloody Mary mix, G&T, Fever-Tree and San Pellegrino.

Like most design, when done well, with the right product (and the right customer in mind) there’s absolutely no reason why wine in cans can’t work. Yet with wine, staid packaging has become almost desirable. Yes, we say: it looks like wine. Even if we don’t revolutionise the format just yet, is it too much to ask to have a well-designed, impactful bottle at least? Good packaging and design is still a delightful surprise with wine, rather than a daily expectation. Most wines labels are text-heavy and deeply generic in their information. I’ve lost count of the number of times customers have come back into the shop, enthused about a wine they bought recently, but with no ability to remember what it looked like, or even recognise it again. It was orange and Italian they say. When we finally track it down, it’s yellow and Spanish. Who can blame them? Even staff get the remarkably similar-looking cuvées of the same producer mixed up.

Yet good label design increases sales and bad label design reduces sales. We know this from sales figures, and we know it first hand. I can’t be the only one to have proposed some delicious but naff-looking wine, only for it to be rejected as the person is taking it to dinner. Don’t worry how it looks – your friends will judge it on its intrinsic quality,” we seem to be saying.

In a crowded marketplace, good quality labelling (and there are many different ways to design a good label) really can make an enormous difference. Even in independent merchants with staff on hand to help and advise, the customer is presented with a wall of sameness. Wines – just like any other consumer good – are missing an opportunity to distinguish themselves in the market by ignoring creativity and good design in their packaging.

Jason Millar is the retail director at independent wine merchant Theatre of Wine. He can be contacted at  jason@theatreofwine.com and found on Twitter @jasondmillar

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