May 2010 Issue of Wines & Vines

Strategic Packaging

Wineries launching new brands or doing facelifts should look first in the mirror

by Jane Firstenfeld

When you buy a car, you test drive it. When you buy a jacket, you try it on. When you buy wine in a retail setting—at least, outside of the winery’s tasting room—chances are good that you haven’t tasted it. Since wine itself is a moving target, even if you’ve happily sipped this varietal and this vintage from this producer, the wine itself may have altered with age. The packaging is as ephemeral as the product it contains: Once the bottle (or the box) is empty, it will most likely go the way of all recycling.

Given that wine packaging is both disposable and superficial, why do we devote pages and pages to it every year? For a vast number of consumers, the package is what prompts them to pick up and purchase that particular product. This month, we spoke with designers about what’s motivating their clients’ packaging decisions.

Why people buy
“Emotion is a key driver in purchasing decisions. People buy on emotion and justify with logic, so any time you can evoke an emotional reaction in your consumer—as long as it’s the reaction you want—you’re in good shape,” says Dom Moreci, principal and creative director of Plumbline Studios Inc., Napa, Calif.

“Presenting a sense of place is a trend, but it’s no longer enough to simply create a fine etching of the winery and place some fine script below it. To communicate a real sense of place, the creative must go beyond the obvious. You can create a sense of place without ever showing an actual place,” he says. “Winemakers should try to connect their consumers to the experience of their brand.”

Smaller, lesser known wineries especially need to use their package to tell their story, Moreci says. Creating and communicating their brand personality can help them stand out. “That’s not to say that one should invent a false persona,” he stresses. “Authenticity is key.”

“Like music and books, wine has a direct connection with the author,” adds Paula Sugarman of Sugarman Design Group, Fair Oaks, Calif. “You can buy a bottle of wine and know the winemaker, often sit down and chat with him about how it’s made. At least you can read about the winemaker and the vineyard. You can feel a connection.” Sugarman elaborates on the need for connection on her blog, “The cool thing is that wine already has this strong connection with real,” she says. “At least, it did…if they aren’t careful, they will lose it. People today are looking for authenticity.”

This principle applies when considering the environmental aspects of both winemaking and packaging. Packaging needs to convey a message: “I believe in this.” Vintners should “emote this—express this on their package,” says Erica Harrop, founder of Napa’s Global Package LLC. Global, “a bundled glass design and materials sourcing company” that emphasizes distinctive high quality wine and spirits packaging, is among many glass suppliers providing the lighter weight bottles recently sought by wineries for environmental and economic reasons.

Harrop acknowledges that the wine industry, like most others, is being squeezed by the economy. It’s a domino effect: Everyone is affected by other peoples’ decisions. But, she stresses, “It’s possible to still keep an image.” Many wineries are attempting to save costs, the environment and their high-priced image. “They still want to have that fancy look, but not as expensive,” she says. Harrop tries to present options that will get her clients where they want by making the best decisions. “Best will not always be the cheapest,” she notes.

Dave Schuemann, owner and creative director of CF Napa Brand Design, Napa, concurs. “Strategically, many brands have been upgrading their product lines to be more premium and expensive looking in order to hold their price-point,” he notes.

“With this 2010 economy, showing the wine package as quality comes first,” says Patti Britton, principal of Britton Design, Sonoma, Calif. In the 1990s, she explains, “A conservative, quality wine label design with the vineyard illustration, embossing, foil stamping (was typical of the) $20 per bottle price range. Now, it’s more like the $10-$12 range.”

Critters be gone
Oh, the Yellow Tails and other critter brands that led the Aussie invasion a decade ago are still hanging around on supermarket shelves, but the designers agree: “Animals, creatures are out. Hallelujah!” as Britton puts it.

Moreci concurs: “Critter brands are out, and have been for a while now, but humor and irreverence are in—especially with younger buyers.”

But Schuemann says, “The current economy has made many consumers weary of overly fun or gimmicky brands. There is definitely a shift to more conservative and reassuring labels. While we are developing some fun labels, many of the larger brands are repositioning themselves as more trustworthy brands. In many cases, we have been drawing a closer tie to real people,” authentic personalities, to resonate in uncertain times.

“Trends vary by price-point,” Sugarman points out. “They seem to take hold the strongest in the $8-$15 range, which is where the critter concepts took off running.…But here’s what I predict: A certain segment of wine—perhaps it will be about the $15 bottle point—will go back to labels that tell a story.”

A richly textured tale
Most discussions of wine packaging focus on its visual aspects, but several of our sources report rising interest in the tactile appeal that can be built into labels.

“We’ve seen a large increase in the desire of our clients to have a very rich, textural quality to their labels,” Schuemann says. “We’ve been achieving this through embossing paper with textures to feel more tactile, and look and feel thicker without creating application issues associated with thicker label papers.”

Schuemann notes that new wine label paper stocks are emerging, made from alternative materials like silk cloth, which “really allow for packages to stand out on the shelf and get noticed.”

CF Napa used this new stock on Gloria Ferrer’s Royal Cuvée. “It became an instant hit in the industry, and has since been used by Mumm and other sparkling producers looking to communicate luxury,” Schuemann says.

Moreci points to the use of sustainable materials, digital printing techniques and silk-screening on bottles. But new isn’t always better: Some high-end brands with high-priced products, he says, “are taking a step back to more traditional printing methods. It’s a small minority, but something worth considering.”

Harrop considers consciousness of tactile appeal part of the evolution of packaging. Some clients, she observes, “don’t see how it could apply to them.” It does, she insists; they just don’t recognize it yet. Harrop recommends “high-touch” labels for brands seeking to make a high-end or unusual varietal stand out.

If you are bottling a relatively unknown wine varietal, she says, “You’re trying to explain: This is different.” This can be expressed with an equally rare label. Harrop singles out a striking new label option: pewter. This tin alloy, with an antique look, can provide three-dimensional effects in sharp, high relief. Like tin capsules, the labels are very pliable. They are pressure sensitive, come on rolls and can be applied automatically, although she says that so far, most have been hand applied to runs of 200-300 cases. The cost per label is in the 20- to 60-cent range.

Private sector
Patti Britton reports, “Private wine labels have increased for my business. I name the brand, design it and sell it at a fixed price. It’s fun for me, and a fast way for a company to have an instant brand.”

Sugarman comments that today’s wine shelves display “a designer’s dream showcase.” She notes that many of the brands are “products of what I call ghost wineries. Clever label designs produced by virtual wineries.”

“We’ve seen a strong move by many wine companies to create private label brands in order to move excess inventory and to protect their main brand(s) from heavy discounting because of a backlog of wines,” Schuemann notes. “Many retailers have also gotten in on the game, and we are now working directly with several retailers and control states to create brands that they own, but that will be produced by wine companies that provide the finished goods.”

Schuemann also observes that some brands are moving to broader appellation or multi-appellation wines. “Over the past couple of years, we’ve seen a large number of appellation-specific wines extended into more flexible appellations for easier and more cost-effective sourcing and pricing, in order to establish a new, more affordably entry level tier of wines.”

For instance, a brand that has established itself as a Sonoma County brand can add a lower-priced California tier. “We did this for Chateau St. Jean for Foster’s,” Schuemann says. “Our Jade Mountain brand for Diageo has a tri-appellation, in order to give the winemaking team more flexibility to create the absolutely best wines at its target price-point.

Don’t be a fashion victim
As packaging creators, designers are partially responsible for trends, and working intimately with wine producers, they know what will be on the market long before it hits the shelves. But climbing aboard the newest trend is not always the wisest choice.

“Sometimes our clients come to us looking for the next trend to jump on,” Sugarman says. “This works if all you are looking for is a short run with your brand. But for those who plan to be around for a long time, our inspiration comes from some specific characteristics of their wine, winemaking, vineyard or location.” She and her team often visit the vineyards “looking for a story that belongs uniquely to that winery.”

Sugarman asks new clients to fill out a 30-point Design Brief (subtitle: Everything Your Designer Needs to Know—and Then Some). The questionnaire drills deep, asking details under the headings Project Parameters, Scope of Work, About the Company, About the Wine, Sales & Distribution and For New Wineries.

Even in these trying times, new brands are coming to market; older brands are getting facelifts, and no brand can afford to make a mistake. So if you’re in the market for a fresh look, be prepared to look first in the mirror.

This examination shouldn’t end with the physical package: Now you need a brand personality to go with it. As Dom Moreci notes, “We are now hearing people use the term packaging as a more inclusive way to describe not only the label and on-bottle elements, but also everything else that is needed to market a brand. The brand personality needs to be carried through to advertising, print and online marketing, events and so on. And more than ever before, the consumer will interact with the brand on the web, so not having a brand-focused web presence is unacceptable.”

Too new to be trendy

As bottle closures continue their battle for supremacy and bags-in-box finally enter the mainstream, will these newest alternatives find an appreciative audience?

The AstraPouch

Critter brands may be “out,” as our designers gleefully report, but the AstraPouch needs no kangaroo to bounce into the marketplace. These bags-without-boxes have been available in Australia, Europe and South Africa for several years, according to Dave Moynihan, president of AstraPouch North America, Penfield, N.Y. They are, however, brand new to the U.S., and will debut here this summer, he says.

The flexible packages are multi-layered plastic with a “one-way” spigot to keep oxygen out. Available in 1.5-liter and 3-liter sizes, they are strikingly compact: The 1.5-liter size holds the equivalent of 2 standard 750ml bottles, but it measures a mere 7 inches wide x 10 inches tall, and about
2 inches thick when full.

They are also lightweight: 98% wine, 2% package by weight, and durable: Go ahead and drop one, or take it to the beach or pool, where glass is prohibited. They can be chilled in a fraction of the time as bottles: 14 minutes vs. 40 minutes for glass, and according to the company, they have an 80% lower carbon footprint than the equivalent amount of wine in glass.

Like bag-in-box, they are resealable and claim to keep wine fresh for up to a month after opening.

Perhaps the greatest advantage of the pouch is sheer shelf appeal: Designers can work with a much larger billboard to showcase their brands. As the AstraPouch website says, “It’s loud. The whole pouch is your space to sell your wine, not like those tiny labels on glass bottles.”

“You wouldn’t miss it when you go into the retail store to buy wine,” Moynihan says. “The brand manager now has both front and back to use as a canvas for his artwork.” He notes that AstraPouch wines are displayed on end-caps, behind cash registers on hooks and in the chilled beverages section. “Unlike glass, because it is break-proof, retailers aren’t afraid to place it in high-traffic areas in front of the check-out,” he says. “Hit the display with a cart? No problem. No glass, no cuts. This is where it gets fun.”

The pouches can be filled by any semi-automatic bag-in-box filler, Moynihan says; AstraPouch also sells a manual filler for about $10,000 through Prospero Equipment Corp. There are approved fillers in the U.S. on the West and East Coasts, and in Ontario, he says. “The AstraPouch is best-suited for the winery with annual case sales of 30,000 or more.” Printed 1.5-liter AstroPouches with taps sell for about $1 in volume, he says; 3-liter pouches are about $1.35.

Copa di Vino
If you take your pouch to the beach, you’ll need to pack some kind of wine glasses, er, cups. A new, winery-based enterprise in The Dalles, Ore., aims to answer that need. Copa di Vino was launched last year by James Martin, owner of Quenett Winery and Silver Salmon Cellars.

Copa di Vino was inspired by wine packaging that’s been in use aboard France’s bullet train for the past six years. Martin worked with the company that developed these single-serving glass packages to come up with a resealable, unbreakable PET plastic goblet: Copa di Vino holds 187ml.

After designing and building a bottling line in France, Martin has installed it in his winery in Oregon: a refurbished 9-story flourmill beside the Columbia River at the “gateway” to The Dalles. After bottling the equivalent of 2,000 cases in France, he’s now filling the Copas with his own, high-end varietal wines retailing for $3.99: about the same price per serving as a $16, 750ml bottle. So far, they are available only in the Pacific Northwest, at Whole Foods and New Seasons markets and several specialty stores and golf courses.

Although they are available in two-, six- and 12-packs, Martin insists that single-serve, ready-to-drink (RTD) glasses of wine are the wave of the future. “Consumers are afraid of a $20 bottle,” he says. Buying it by the glass, he hopes, will encourage shoppers to try his wines. “In the marketplace, we’re selling singles.”

He’s improved the original package by developing a new screening process that leaves the goblets permanently marked with the brand. Since they are reusable, this will likely keep the winery brand on consumer tables for more than a single use. “A lot of my friends are using them for sippy cups,” Martin says. “We’re proud if people are reusing our package.” He claims that the shelf life of Copa-packaged wines is up to one year.

Martin has no intention of keeping the Copas to himself. His bottling line is mobile, and he’s more than willing to take it to other Northwest or California wineries. Something of an evangelist for wines in RTD, “We want to make premium wine more accessible. We’re looking to bottle for the industry,” he says.

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