Find your inspiration

"The book or music industry is probably a really good one to look at"

Wednesday October 25 2017 by Sharon Nagel

Rowena Curlewis, director and founder of the Sydney and London-based Denomination agency, explains how suppliers can improve their brand appeal.

In what way would you say bottle designs for wine globally have evolved over the fifteen-year history of your agency?

Overall, I think clients have got braver with the designs that they are now putting on their bottles. When we first started, customers were very much saying they wanted to stand out, but not too much. We don’t really get that comment now. Also, in the past, winemakers probably relied more on the region and the varietal and a range of generic quality cues but they weren’t really telling their story. Now I see that clients are looking at their wine labels more as brands and more of a medium to tell that unique and individual story. I am a great believer in intuition and gut feel in successfully pinpointing consumers’ needs.


Do you think there are other consumer goods/drinks sectors where the wine industry could seek inspiration?

A lot of the wine industry is talking about how wine can take inspiration from spirits. I’m not convinced that this is necessarily the way to go. The spirits industry tends to have a lot higher margins so therefore they can afford beautiful proprietory bottles and a lot of embellishments and details on their packaging whereas wine has low margins and we have to be very cost-conscious when it comes to packaging. I think the book or music industry is probably a really good one to look at. You really do judge a book by its cover and publishers work very hard to make sure that what is on the cover is reflective of the story and the author and will appeal to whatever reader they’re targeted at. I think we should try and channel some of that thinking back into wine.


Premiumisation is gaining ground globally. What are key cues in bottle design that most convey the feel of a premium product?

I would rather talk about label design rather than bottle design because once you have a proprietory bottle it already gives you cues because of the money you have spent on it. In terms of straight premium cues I think that having the typography beautifully crafted so that it all hangs together and nothing looks out of place or jars is an absolute requirement if you’re going to look at premiumisation. In terms of premiumisation for boutique brands there are a lot of cues you can use, like bottle numbers and winemaker’s signatures. Across all of the categories, language plays a really important role – letting consumers know what is in the bottle, what is so special and why they need to pay more for it. If your wine is hand-picked, hand-crafted, if you only have a limited number of bottles, say it. All of those really help the consumer when they’re looking for something that, ultimately, is either a gift for themselves or something that they’re going to take to a dinner party or to serve in their home that is a reflection of themselves. They don’t want to be seen as someone who is serving something cheap or ordinary. At whatever price point, be it £5 or £25, you still need to make sure that people are not embarrassed to serve the wine but are really proud of their choice.


Are there major differences between mature and developing markets or will one model suit all?

I think that if all wineries thought more about the consumer, it can be a one model fits all. That’s not necessarily to say that everyone needs to be modern or everyone needs to be traditional, as long as your wine is perfectly suited to your consumer base, that’s fine. When clients come to us with a brief, sometimes they’re really unsure about where they should go and I never want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. If heritage is really important to that consumer group and to that brand then it must be retained. What we need to do then is make sure there is something in the label that is a clear differentiator or something that consumers will look at and remember. That is one of my criticisms with the labels, particularly in France – if you look at them your eyes just blur with crests and chateaux or classic typography with the same colour palette, it’s all cream and gold and black and red. It’s then really hard for consumers to say that they buy one or the other. If there are hundreds or thousands of wines with the same colours and chateaux imagery, you are making it very hard for the consumer.


Which do you think are the most common mistakes made by wine companies in marketing their wines?

One mistake not to make is throwing the baby out with the bathwater, I think that’s really key. Be respectful of where the client has been. If the winery has an amazing heritage and we can develop that to appeal to consumers, it’s fantastic. Another error is when clients mistake shelf stand-out for shelf appeal. A label may well stand out when consumers are scanning the shelves but doesn’t appeal. There is no point in coming up with a shocking pink label that no-one is going to buy. Striking that balance is important. Also, we are very aware of tight margins but clients also have to understand that for a consumer, buying a bottle of wine is a luxury purchase – it’s not toilet paper! It’s something that has to make them feel good when they drink it and share it with friends and family, so when it’s in their hands, if it looks really cheap and no effort has been put into it, what does that say about the product inside, about the winemaker and what he thinks of the product? Did the winemaker care or did he skimp on quality as well? All of these things may not be conscious but they are certainly in the subconscious, as when anyone is buying a piece of packaging. Another thing we find is that if you ask twenty people their opinion, you probably get twenty different ones! But the most important one is yours. As the brand owner, you have to love it because you’ve got to sell it, you have to present it at trade fairs and be proud of what you have and be passionate every time you pour a glass. Whilst you may not be the target audience, you should still be able to love the design.


There is conflicting evidence about what consumers are looking for in wine bottle designs –traditionalism or innovation. What is your opinion?  

It depends on what producers are trying to achieve. If they want to go into a major retailer they are going to have to do something that clearly differentiates them from their competitors. Retailers are pretty brutal and they want new and exciting things. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t want heritage or conservative, but you have to package that in a way that is different to the way everyone else is doing it. I think some research can segment consumers too much. I think it’s important to understand that consumers of wine, like consumers of everything, have a repertoire of brands and different styles that they choose from – they can dip into very traditional, heritage, old World or old New World styles, or very contemporary ones or quirky ones. That’s the beauty of wine, depending on the occasion or the company, it will dictate which brand you feel comfortable with and the repertoire is a very wide one. I understand why researchers do it – they’re trying to make sense of a very complicated market but sometimes they forget that just because you’re a highly involved consumer doesn’t mean you buy really traditional Old World wines. In fact the opposite is probably true: if you’re nervous about the wine industry or someone who is not that involved, you might see those traditional cues as having reassurance and credibility. But it’s not going to be 100% of the time.


Research by Asda shows that over a third of UK consumers always stick to the same bottle of wine and 15% spend less than 10 seconds choosing. How do you think the wine industry could overcome this?

I think it’s both a retailer and a winery issue. There is this terror of wine because it all looks really confusing, all looks the same and is overwhelming. I think brands like Most Wanted and I Heart try to take the complexity out of choosing wine – they have come up with a design and brand proposition that says ‘relax, we’ve got it, you just need to buy any of the wines with the heart etc on it and you’ll be happy’. People that buy the same wine tend to be in the lower involved category. Wine Intelligence actually has quite a good personality profile for those guys – they treat wine like an FMCG product and they tend to buy big brands. Often this type of consumer will buy a wine because it has an orange label, they don’t even know what varietal it is.


You have developed some concepts that add practicality to great design. Do you think the wine industry is missing a trick when it comes to offering consumers convenience?

Yes I do. I think there are a few producers who are starting to understand the different ways that consumers drink wine. Off-piste are really leading this in the UK – they have done Most Wanted pouches for picnics, which are very lightweight, and small 200 ml cans for their sparkling wines. I’m surprised that there aren’t more cans – I get a feeling they are on the way up. Certainly in America they are going can crazy – Underwood has done a really great job. I certainly see this as a trend that will continue growing. Wineries have dabbled with convenience before but haven’t quite got it right. The glasses with peel-off tops have a short shelf-life and that’s problematic for brands and retailers. There are issues with the 75cl bottle format and focus on actual serve size. One innovation is Frugal Pac. It’s a card bottle with the bladder of a cask, so it will keep the wine stable with a longer shelf life than one of the plastic glasses with a pull-off seal. It was launched at Prowein this year and it will be interesting to see how many people take that up. Whatever the uptake, it is showing consumer-oriented marketing.


What key advice would you give to wine firms to enhance their brand proposition and consumer reach?

I would say that hiring an effective agency is essential. Some firms still look within their group of family or friends and to me, they underestimate how important the bottle design is. I think that as many as 64% of consumers are influenced by the label at point of purchase, which is quite logical. So employing professionals is really important as is spending time to get the design right, and not leaving it until the last minute, when the grapes are being picked! Make sure that your brand is targeted and not just something that you or your partner thinks is right but will meet the needs of your consumers and your trade. You have to engage your trade to make sure they are on board with where you are going. 


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