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Oct 17, 2017

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All The Right Labels
by Campbell Mattinson
Magazine Issue: AUS/NZ Issue Two

The role of the wine label is far more important than merely delivering information about the wine to the buyer. More like a siren that croons longingly from the shore, the wine label's job is to make you want it. And as Campbell Mattinson finds out, oh what a difference a good job does.

You'd be amazed at how important wine labels are. They're steaming. I mean, grab a box of washing powder, throw a sunny starburst on it, some huge garish lettering and you're on a winner. But with wine labels, it's much more difficult, a child of our age, a sticker with sexual ambiguity and confusion trained in. Straight up: the marketers reckon that over 70 percent of wine buying decisions are made after the consumer has walked through the liquor store door. Which is why you hear people like Tom Harris call wine labels "the absolute last frontier, where the buying decision meets the overall marketing strategy".

The wine itself is the sexy bit, sure. But make no mistake: the label is the foreplay.

Tom Harris, by the way, is the CEO of the Point of Purchase Advertising Industry (POPAI), and if you think I'm pushing things a little, consider this: whenever you step away from the winemakers and the viticulturalists (the people who make or break the wine) and talk to the suits about wine, you hear comments like this: "the brief to the winemaker was to over-deliver in quality, to make a $20 wine so that we could offer outstanding value at the sell price of $15." That comment was made by a brand manager at Jacob's Creek a few months ago. And it says a lot about how a new wine is put together.

It's dead similar with the label and packaging. Consider the modus operandi of Australian wine label-design legend Ian Kidd, who last year had about 35 wine clients on his books (everybody from Peter Lehmann and Orlando-Wyndham to the new grapekids on the block, including the superbly presented new range from Mudgee man Simon Gilbert). He too reckons it's all about the promise of "over-delivery". Which sounds to me like a steamy stare across a crowded cigar-room.

Kidd: "We always try to produce a design that is $5 better than the price it'll sell at. If you go too far with this then people think there's something wrong with it, and won't buy."

In other words, promise a seductive treat, but don't over-promise, or the prey will frighten.

Not that it's always easy to get people in the mood. With food there are clear triggers: red and yellow stimulate appetite (and a big hello to HJs/BK/Maccas) and green should never be seen on packaging of fish or meat, to name a couple. With wine it really depends on who you're trying to pick up. According to Kidd, "Most of the design rules have been thrown out. In Australia we've developed a really fresh, uniquely Australian style, with some of the European traditions thrown in. Yes, there are still a few no-nos, like typography clashes and bottle types. But more or less anything goes within the context of the product still looking like wine. There were some designers a few years ago who produced washing powder packaging that was classier and altogether different, but the products crashed. Wine still has to look like wine."

Though that's about as specific as it gets. "Black is always a particularly smart base to build a wine label around," Kidd says, "Because it helps build sophistication. Gold and red can also be very important, especially if the label's being exported to Asia. Blue has always proved difficult to incorporate into a successful wine label, though as a glass colour it can be effective."

Whatever dazzling beauties the likes of Kidd come up with though, he's the first to admit that the effect of all this "over-delivery" is as fleeting as an over-excited fling: "All we can ever do is sell you that first bottle. After that, it's up to the winemaker."

But oh what a lot of first bottles that can be. Barrie Tucker, another Oz label-design legend, is the one who came up with the "let's sell fortified wine in swanky olive-oil style bottles" --the idea that launched a thousand imitations. He did it first with the Seppelt fortified range, and you know what happened? In the first six months, sales increased by 1398 percent. Now that's a load of foreplay that'd give viagra a red hot go.

Tucker is pretty good at summing up what a wine label is all about, too. He reckons it's simply "a matter of capturing the consumer's eye long enough to give the winemaker a chance to seduce".

Which winks charmingly at Tom Harris' (POPAI) belief that about 40 percent of people buy on price alone, but that a really good label can make the "package stand out more than the price". That's one of the reasons why Oz wine has done so well in Britain (a wine market notoriously price conscious): traditional European labels thrive on their similarities, like they've all decided to turn up to the great world selling party wearing nothing but cardigans. The Oz wines (and other new world producers): well, they aren't just frocked-up and cut-jawed, they've got goddamn bits hanging out and promise all sorts of funbelievable shagadelia --within the context of who they're trying to score.

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