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Riding High: Dark Horse Demonstrates That Strong Design Drives Sales

by Kim Gaskins on 07/19/2021 | 6 Minute Read

Design might be considered the dark horse of the marketing world—a little mysterious and undervalued, but undoubtedly effective.

The Designalytics Effectiveness Award, included in this year’s Dieline Awards, was created to dispel some of the mystery around design’s impact on brand performance. This award is unique because it’s entirely data-driven; retail sales performance and quantitative consumer testing determine the winner.

This year, the redesign for Dark Horse, led by Brooklyn-based branding agency forceMAJEURE, was selected as the grand prize winner of the Designalytics Effectiveness Award.

So, how exactly did Dark Horse claim first place? 

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When the brand first appeared on store shelves in 2015, there was no question that it had been aptly named; it took the wine industry by storm, generating tens of millions of dollars in sales during its first year—and just kept on growing. While some brands who enjoy instant popularity become complacent in the years following, Dark Horse has remained vigilant.

“Many of our competitors were starting to adopt similar, darker packaging in the wake of our success, and we were getting a little lost on the shelf. We also saw an opportunity to communicate more clearly what each varietal was going to taste like and to reinforce that this is high-quality, great-tasting wine at a reasonable price,” said Anna Bell, vice president of marketing at E. & J. Gallo Winery. As a design-forward company, E. & J. Gallo Winery intuitively understood that, while packaging changes can be risky, they can also be incredibly rewarding.

In 2018, E. & J. Gallo Winery engaged forceMAJEURE to lead its redesign efforts. “The brand was in a positive place. This project was more about trends and improvements,” said Pierre Delebois, executive creative director at forceMAJEURE. “From an aesthetic perspective, the brand conveyed a lot of darkness and intensity, but that’s not what Dark Horse means—the term refers to an unlikely or unexpected winner. It’s actually a very positive thing, so there was a dichotomy between the name of the brand and the image it was projecting at times,” he explained.

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The agency conducted a deep-dive exploration of Dark Horse and its competitors, observing that many other wines in the commercial premium space had begun to adopt moody, edgier personas—all the more reason for the Dark Horse brand to embrace its more optimistic moniker. 

Approachability is a critical tenet of the Dark Horse brand, which targets newer wine drinkers looking for something adventurous and sophisticated yet welcoming. “Part of our goal as an organization is to continuously democratize wine—to bring new consumers into the category,” said Bell.

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Looking beyond the brand’s emotional aura, the team understood that clearer communication about the product’s taste and simpler line navigation could enhance approachability. The existing label design didn’t offer any flavor cues besides the varietal name, and those varieties didn't differentiate within the brand family.

As with any redesign, it’s essential to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the current packaging at the outset. For Dark Horse, some of these insights were blatantly obvious—the bold, distinctive horse iconography had to stay, for example. “We knew the horse icon was widely recognized and beloved by consumers. I love the wine glass created by the negative space within. Some people see it right away, and some people need to have it pointed out. It’s extraordinarily interesting and clever design,” said Bell.

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The agency removed or simplified other elements to streamline the design. Reasoning that the smoky graphic surrounding the horse icon wasn’t unique to the brand or meaningful to consumers, they eliminated it. The logo itself, which had featured outlined text, adopted a solid fill—emphasizing the brand name and removing unnecessary complexity.

After multiple rounds of refinement, informed by consumer research, the team identified a winning label design. The chosen route heavily emphasized the horse iconography, with impressive results. The distance at which consumers could recognize the brand—a measure of mental availability—more than doubled; on average, wine buyers accurately identified the old design from 6.7 feet away and the new design from 15.2 feet away, according to Designalytics’ analysis. Moreover, when they surveyed consumers familiar with Dark Horse about the new design, 90% identified the horse icon as unique to the brand. (For comparison’s sake, 64% of brand-familiar consumers identified Heineken's red star as a distinctive brand asset, while 74% said the same about Starbucks’ green mermaid.)

One of the most striking aspects of the new design system is the bold use of color, with a specific background color assigned to each varietal. “Buttery Chardonnay” appears smooth and rich in a unique yellow-orange, while “Big Red Blend” lives up to its name in a bright, unapologetic red.

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“We favored color over complex decoration. Color is timeless; if you see this design in 10 years, I doubt it’ll feel outdated,” said Delebois. The confident color blocks render the product line more navigable, evoke a sense of modernity, and provide more flexibility when creating derivative marketing assets—an increasingly important feature in today’s Instagrammable world.

“I watch designers work, and I keep telling them, ‘Guys, zoom out, zoom out, zoom out.' You keep focusing on that tiny detail, and that was great when we were designing billboards and printing large assets, but so much is digital now. If things aren’t clear when you zoom out, then forget about it—it's useless,’” said Laurent Hainaut, president and CEO at forceMAJEURE.

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In developing the color system, the agency not only considered taste perceptions but the competitive context in which the labels would appear. Notably, the team decided to break the accepted color convention for rosé. “Rosé is always a white or silver label and cap paired with a light-colored typeface. We went with a beautiful, rich, coppery-pink label with the black icon and a black cap,” said Delebois. The juxtaposition of pink and black stands out amidst other rosé bottles and adds some unexpected flair to the Dark Horse line.

“That’s an example of why benchmarking isn’t always the best practice for design. You always need to understand the market, but you also need to go beyond what’s standard or expected. Brands should be asking themselves, ‘When is it appropriate to disrupt the category codes and be a leader?’” remarked Hainaut.

The new design also featured significant improvements in communication. The agency rendered the varietal names more prominent and added concise taste descriptors below, such as “rich, toasted, oak” and “refreshing, crisp, citrus.”

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When asked which design best conveyed top purchase-driving attributes in the wine category, consumers noted the revamped label demonstrated massive gains over its predecessor. It better communicated crucial characteristics such as “full-flavored,” “tastes great,” “high quality,” and “good value.”

In May 2020, Dark Horse launched its new design to market to the delight of consumers and retailers alike. During the six months following the redesign, sales increased by 15% relative to the same period during the prior year—significantly outpacing the average for similarly-priced wines.* Designalytics’ consumer evaluation corroborates these results; twice as many wine buyers indicated that they would purchase the new design over the old.

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“At the end of 2020, we researched attributes that drive brand perception, awareness, and other key performance indicators. We found that the new packaging had become our strongest brand asset and was really driving important associations with our brand. Moreover, we had the highest packaging perceptions amongst our competitive set,” said Bell.

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“It can be difficult to attribute growth directly to new packaging, but from all of my experience working in this industry, the best branding initiatives are the ones that effectively excite our three contingencies: our consumers, our retail partners, and our sales team. This project really fired on all cylinders, and I would say that the design work had an incredible impact on that,” she reflected.

The initiative provides a powerful proof point for what all creative and marketers instinctively know but struggle to quantify—when it comes to brand growth, design is a true work-horse. 

We’ll toast to that.


*Nielsen xAOC + liquor, latest 26 weeks ending 10/24/20 vs. the same period in 2019.

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