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Conscious and Sub-conscious: Why Wine Label Design Is an Art in Itself

by Margaret Nolan on 05/13/2021 | 5 Minute Read

I’m approaching nearly three decades of designing wine labels. 

Over the years, it’s been fascinating seeing different methodologies at work as to how to determine what will hit the sweet spot with consumers. From quantitative and qualitative research to rigorous internal vetting processes, down to gut instinct or simply asking friends and family, I’d like to be able to say that from, out of these, there is a sure-fire and fool-proof formula of determining what will be a successful label. 

I’m sorry to have to disappoint you—there isn’t. 

Wine packaging is one of the most complex and sometimes baffling of any packaging I have ever worked on; and therefore, for me, the most enjoyable and rewarding.

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That’s because great labels have that certain something, sometimes something that’s hard to define. Business culture expert Martin Lindstrom believes that 90% of purchases we make happen subconsciously. So we may not be able to fully articulate the reasons for our choices, which is why labels you wouldn’t imagine would work sometimes do and vice versa.

Wine is a product like no other. It has its own language and rituals—from the art of opening a bottle of champagne to letting a red wine breathe to what temperature to chill a rosé. Also, wine is deeply personal; what you bring to a BBQ or dinner party says a lot about you. When I tell people that I’m a label designer, the most common reaction is to sheepishly admit that they buy wines because they liked how the label looked. 

And they are not alone. From AC Nielson research from 2015, over 71% of consumers make a purchase based on the label. Another survey by wine.net puts that figure at 82%.

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How consumers buy wine is complex, subtle, personal, and unpredictable. In this digital age, where everyone gets exposed to so much more online than ever before, it’s much more difficult to group consumers into the traditional age demographics. Baby boomers and millennials often respond to the same things: experiences, craftsmanship, and real stories behind brands. Most wineries don’t have the budget to carry out extensive consumer research on which design works for them, so it’s up to us to recommend what we believe will work the best. As a designer, a criterion I use is looking at designs through a consumer’s lens and whether I would buy them. If the answer is yes, it will likely be a yes with other people too. I’ve often heard from clients in meetings, “I love it, and I’d buy that, but I’m not the consumer.” 

But they are the consumer—everyone is a consumer. In this new global world, we can’t pigeonhole consumers like we used to. Swapping a marketing or design hat for a consumer hat is one of the simplest ways to evaluate a great label.

I think, over the years, there are some guiding principles I have roughly developed when designing or assessing label designs: does it have storytelling, sex, semiotics, or what I call "delightful surprise." They seem to generally be the things behind our most successful brands and the things that create the intangible appeal to both the conscious and sub-conscious in consumers. 

Storytelling is the absolute key; storytelling is intrinsic to creating a brand that consumers respond to. You don't have to tell their story with words, but I believe every great label originates from a strong brand story. Strong brand stories drive meaningful creative ideas.

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Sex is a relatively easy one for wine labels because, in the past, a sexy-looking pack could do a lot of the heavy lifting. However, especially post-Covid, consumers are moving away from simply good looks; they want more. That’s why the pack we designed for a luxury Tasmanian sparkling Heemskerk has been so successful. Their story was modern luxury—sparkling proudly done in a New World way. We recommended a collaboration with silversmiths Georg Jensen and designed a beautiful reusable stopper to cover the crown seal. That created not only a unique gift but also an environmental and practical one. There was no excessive gift box packaging you'd typically find in the champagne category, but a stunning reusable stopper that doubles as a gift and allows consumers to put an unfinished bottle back in the fridge (the delight element). Revolutionary on the shelf (the surprise element), the design resonated with young and old consumers alike on every level: the aesthetic, the practical, and the sheer sexiness of the packaging.

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Semiotics is probably the most powerful tool a designer can use on a label, and I think, the key to consumer responses to the following two brands. Not for nothing is the expression “a picture is worth a thousand words." However, in the visual clutter on the shelf, you have to use semiotics distinctively—this is where the surprise comes in again. Both Uovo and Tread Softly are great examples of this. Uovo gets fermented in egg-shaped concrete tanks, and Tread Softly is about light winemaking styles and sustainability. Both packs bravely use semiotics. Uovo is devoid of graphics—but somehow says it all—and an egg carton gift box extends the theme (again, surprise and delight). On the Tread Softly front label, the branding is deliberately tiny. Not only does this entice consumers to stop and read, but it also reflects the message of the brand name and creates a quietly powerful shelf presence. The surprise—and delight—is the lavish capsule and back label.

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With all these labels, the design invites the consumer to discover the brand and its story. That's how the back of the bottle comes into play. From a California State University survey of wine drinkers, 49% claimed the back label was “important to their purchase decision." And yet, the back label is often neglected and left for the printer to do. I believe writing and designing the back label—and indeed the capsule and shipper—is just as critical as the front label. It is the combination of these things that work together to give the consumer the whole brand experience.

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Wine packaging is a complex adventure. The best principle to use when designing labels? Be a consumer. Think with your head but also with your heart. Don’t over-analyze because sometimes it’s intangible. And remember, if you love something, invariably others will too. Wine is unlike any other product and so operates outside many traditional marketing rules. It is as ancient as civilization and yet continues to fascinate and captivate, and that's because wine appeals to not only our conscious and subconscious but also to our deepest inner emotions.

The poet E.E. Cummings said it beautifully:

His lips drink water

But his heart drinks wine.