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It’s all in the label

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I’m a lurker. Yes, I admit it. Sometimes, I’ll go to a liquor store — Beverages & More! is one of my favorites — and hang out in the wine section. There, I’ll espy (nice word, a bit antiquated) customers, and check out their behavior as they decide what to buy.

Oh, the humanity. Craned necks, puzzled looks. Picking bottles up and turning them around. Putting them back. Scratching their heads. Frowning. Stooping to read shelf talkers. Looking for help but too shy to ask for it. Or, if there are two people together, strange conversations. “What do you think?” “Dunno.” “Ever hear of it?” “Naah.” “Looks okay.” “Hmmm…”

What a confused web we (the wine industry) have woven. Is there another consumer product in the world that has such a dizzying array of brands and types? No wonder the poor shopper feels overwhelmed. He needs all the help he can get just to make the simple decision of what to drink with tonight’s barbecue. (By contrast, it was so easy to buy the ribs.)

Now comes a new study, published in this month’s issue of the Journal of Marketing, “Holistic Package Design and Consumer Brand Impressions.” It shows what we’ve anecdotally known for a long time: When it comes to wine-buying decisions, the label is super-important.

Briefly, the study’s authors analyzed how the designs of wine labels influence consumer buying decisions. They deliberately chose small, obscure brands that were unfamiliar to most people, because familiar brands (e.g. Robert Mondavi) would have skewed the results. They pre-sorted the labels into 5 categories: bold, contrasting, natural, delicate and non-descript. Then they showed photos of the bottles to 268 wine consumers in Oregon, asking for impressions of the wines’ “brand personality.”

These impressions ranged over a complex spectrum and included high quality, corporate, everyday, cheap, feminine, evokes happy memories, stylish, will impress my friends, value for money, excitement, spirited, up-to-date, imaginative, upper class, sophisticated, sincere, rugged, low quality, healthy, expensive, classy, and so on.

The findings suggested that there is a direct correlation between the “brand personality” the consumers inferred from the label, and how they made their eventual buying decision — including how much to pay. To cite but one example, the consumers found the delicate design of Travaglini to be sophisticated, and so they expected the wine to be classy, of high quality, and expensive. On the other hand, they found a well-known California label, which I will not identify, to be insincere, and they associated it with a corporate image that was of low perceived value for their money.

The authors came to some interesting conclusions. For one, they said that brand managers “need to determine which impressions are desirable for their brand.” This is so obvious, you’d think everyone knows it, but next time you’re in a wine store, study all those labels. It’s amazing how little thought goes into the design of many labels, which seem mere ego trips on the part of their owners.

The study also concluded that “clusters of similar package designs (visual competitors) might produce a general negative cluster effect and/or a positive lone-alternative effect.” In other words, critter labels, take notice! They were cutesy pie when there were only a couple of them, but now that every other bottle on the shelf seems to have a colorful animal (or vehicle), the consumer may go for the bottle that doesn’t.

  1. Nice website!!

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