branding 180x180 - The three traps of label design

We should spend more time talking about wine labels, because they matter more than ever before – and badly-executed ones can be disastrous for your brand

The wine label has a central role in wine marketing, but – some notable exceptions aside – is often the last thing a producer thinks about before they finish a product.  That’s unfortunate, because the evidence is growing that design and labelling do matter to consumers – almost certainly more even than they are willing to admit – and that visual cues play a central role in helping our brains make decisions.

We also know that branding in general (of which labelling is a significant element) is now playing a lot more of a role in decision-making in most large wine markets compared to 10 years ago. For instance, our recent USA* research shows that 45% of regular wine consumers think design attractiveness is important when choosing a wine, and 75% say that brand recognition is important (2nd most important factor only after grape varietal).

Attractive labels vs strong brands:

Talking about labelling is also important because it is a complex and nuanced subject. Why do some labels connect strongly with consumers, and others leave them cold? Or labels that work beautifully in one market totally fail in another?

At their heart, designs have a dual function that is important to distinguish. On the one hand they have an aesthetic value based on the colours, shapes, images and typography, but on the other, and most importantly they have a signalling value that is based on the same attributes of colours, shape, images and typography.

While the aesthetic value is a result of the individual’s preference, the signalling value depends on how many consumers are guided to make a choice by the design features.

The design element´s signalling value helps consumers, or more precisely consumer brains, to easily find wine in a shop. When consumers are faced with many wines they will ultimately decide between the wines that catch their attention and brands they already know are more likely to be noticed, as the brain alerts us of their presence (even when seen as blurry in our peripheral vision). A known wine is like a known face, we unconsciously recognise it even when we are walking in a busy street when not paying attention.

Over a decade and a half of research, we have found, generally, that the strength of the signalling value is what really differentiates a wine that hardly sells from one that can guarantee a high volume of sales year on year. The difference between being delisted or continuing is not just the aesthetics, but actually how many consumers recognise and trust you.

As it turns out, this finding is counter-intuitive for brand managers, and demands a lot of discipline to stick with. The result is that unsuccessful labelling projects tend to fall into three related traps.

Trap #1: Chasing fashion   

Brand owners get bored of colours, shapes or other elements of their label much faster than consumers do. Sometimes they are poorly advised to follow the latest design fashion, at the expense of removing elements that help consumers’ brains recognise the wine in the aisle. These valuable identification elements take very long to build but can be quickly destroyed by an unthinking designer.

Trap #2: Getting lost in detail

Sometimes we are asked to test designs that are a great showcase for the designer’s talent but only work when examined very closely. When was the last time you saw someone in a shop forensically examining a product? Even in the wine aisle, where dwell times are generally longer, a label has less than a second – if it is lucky – to convey its message. In our experience, consumers prefer designs that are easy to recognise and ones where information is clear. And before any close examination can occur at all, a wine design first needs to be noticed from afar in a wine aisle.

Trap #3: Creativity in the wrong places

As well as eradicating the familiar, and getting lost in detail, a lot of creativity in the design process is wasted – on brand evolutions that mask consumer icons, or radical executions that might be attractive but also confuse.  However creativity is very important to the marketing process, because wine (as with all consumer goods) needs to be constantly recruiting new consumers and re-activating old ones. Creative displays, advertising, brand partnerships, articles and recommendations, innovative brand extensions and new products all help the brand get noticed and talked about.

Ultimately, the best tonic for label design is to break it out of a monocultural feedback loop and expose it to the ultimate test: the consumers themselves. Brand owners, wine trade professionals and wine label designers are not representative of the market and are responsible for a tiny proportion of overall sales. So, it´s always a good idea to test with the real everyday consumers when we want to review brand elements. We can do this by asking the following questions:

  • What is the strength of the existing elements of the label? Are the wine design elements recognised by consumers? Are they associated strongly with the brand or confused with others? Which elements are more important, and which are less important? The value of each design element is measured by how many consumers choose the wine because of it.
  • Does a new design actually help? If we have a new design, does it clearly improve on the existing one? Is the new design linked to the brand or is it too different? Is the new design better at catching the attention of potential consumers?
  • Is the design recognisable when blurry or at a distance? If not, it means we might have gone a step too far in removing useful design elements consumers use to recognise the brand.

A brand’s role is to help consumers make the right decision when there is too much choice. Our job as marketers is to help consumers make that decision as fast and as easy as possible. Sometimes we think that we’re being creative by redesigning, but that is risky without knowing what works or what doesn’t. For more information on brand design and how Wine Intelligence can help answer these questions, please contact me at

Author: Juan Park


*Source: Vinitrac® USA March 2018, n=2,629 US regular wine drinkers

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