If you really want to know what sells, talk to the people in the market place, they have a lot to teach us. A quick trip through the wine aisle in the Pacific Northwest reiterated this and humbled me once again.
While provisioning for our annual sailing adventure, I stopped in Haggen’s Market in Bellingham. After a quick grocery spree, I was headed for a run through the wine section. I always love to shop for wines in Washington; the choices are completely different than in California. With several inspiring bottles in tow, I was steaming at full speed to the checkout counter when I met Shelley, who asked if I had any questions about the wines. Her Haggen store smock made me wonder why someone from the bakery department would care. I hastily answered “No thanks, got it handled. I’m a package designer and make all my decisions based on how the label looks. “Shelley peered into my cart and became a bit agitated, “Then why did you choose that one?” and “What’s that doing in your cart?”
“You’re a wine label designer? Let me show you some wines that don’t sell.” Shelley grabbed my hand and off we went on a reverse tour through the wine department. I felt a little bit like Alice with the Mad Hatter. She pointed out a beautiful frosted glass cylinder with white silk screened imagery. Silver Birch, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. “This never sells, people just don’t think of wine in this shaped bottle.” “Here’s another one,” she said as she spun me around to face Voga Italia Pinot Grigio in almost the same shaped bottle. I had to admit, I was starting to think of shampoo or exotic bottled water. Is it coincidence that these two wines were imports? They clearly missed some important cues for American wine consumers. Is it that different in New Zealand and Italy? Shelley eyed my cart and picked up Horse Play, a nicely illustrated California blend of Cab, Merlot and Syrah, which was on sale for under $6. “You don’t want that, it’s a nice wine, but people just aren’t going for it.”
“Well, actually…labels with scantily clad or naked women are popular.” She answered without inflection.
“To men.” I stated.
“No, to both genders, they just find wine and beauty an appealing combination.” We made another circle and arrived at Marilyn Monroe Wines…of course. “Both men and women like these. And the folks up here like Abbott’s Table and Sharecropper’s wines from Owen Roe Winery. They like the old fashioned simplicity. But if they’re going to give wine as a gift, they choose CMS from Hedges Family Estate.” And off we went again, this time to a stack of cases. CMS has a lovely French looking label with lots of curlicues in silver foil. “This looks a little special, so people feel good about giving it as a gift, and it only costs $12.” Indeed, CMS does have a fancy flair in a Frenchy estate sort of way. Dressy and safe, like my little black dress and string of pearls.
Shelley had a lot more to share, but I was an hour late for the boat and had to beg off. What struck me was her pragmatic view of wine labels. For her, a wine label is beautiful if it sells. Get your cues right and make sure your bottle says wine, not shampoo. Keep it sexy, keep it simple, or dress it up, but stick with the classics. Shelley’s observations may prove to be sage advice for wineries navigating through today’s rough economic seas.
Paula Sugarman is owner and creative director of Sugarman Design Group, a California graphic design studio specializing in brand identity, wine label design and food package design.