Practical Winery
58-D Paul Drive, San Rafael, CA 94903-2054
phone:415/479-5819 · fax:415/492-9325
Packaging -

July / August 1999 

Ten Commandments
of wine package design

The path to enlightened brands
that last beyond our lifetimes and build the wine category,
rather than shred it

By Lee Nordlund • Delicato Family Vineyards • Manteca, CA

Amid all the riotous success achieved by the American wine industry during the last half decade — revenues are up, volume is up, and the shelf price per bottle is up — our industry has made one glaring error that has the potential for long-term harm: we still rely on a small group of consumers to support our products. The number of wine consumers has remained decidedly stagnant.

Is anyone else getting tired of scrapping over shreds of the same small market?

We wine marketing managers feel ourselves getting older by the day. Wouldn’t we like our jobs to become easier? Imagine how wonderful it would be to see our brands grow as a result of a growing category instead of tacking vigorously back and forth to capture a puff of market share, always in someone else’s wake.

Brands can be category shredders — scrapping over share with other brands — or category builders, successfully inviting more consumers to our table. For our industry to overcome the problem of static consumption, more of us must become category builders. To grow the category, brand managers must avoid the all-too-easy solutions of shredding the category to promote individual brands.

Delicato Merlot Label
Delicato Family Vineyards' label transition (new label above, old label below) included a brand name change, an enrichment of the brand's hallmark blue, and a uniquely engineered gold motif. In keeping with the Ten Commandments of Wine Packaging, these elements reflect the family winery's origins in the 1920s. (New label printed by McCoy Label, Petaluma, CA.)

Every marketing decision, including packaging, falls under the competing influences of the angel of category building on one shoulder and the devil of category shredding on the other. The category shredder whispers into one ear, "It is so easy to steal market share. Just confuse the consumer and play on his insecurities." The category builder whispers in the other ear: "Your brand is your chance to speak to consumers in a bright, reassuring way, so that more of them will enjoy wine."

When I began the task of repackaging Delicato Vineyards’ 60-year-old brand, I could hear the angel on one shoulder and the devil whispering on the other. However, my express purpose was — and always is — to create brands that last long past my lifetime. That will not happen in a flat category; it will only happen if my brand package helps build the category.

When I first joined Delicato Family Vineyards just over two years ago, virtually all of my wine industry colleagues gave me the same "friendly" advice: "Let the brand wither away and start over again with another." However well-intended their advice was, I never saw this as a possibility. Neither, I might add, did the family whose name was on the label!

Yes, the Delicato brand was "a little tired." Yes, it had suffered many false starts over six decades. Yes, consumers weren’t interested. But I knew two secrets, and I will share these secrets with you.

Delicato White Zinfandel LabelThe first secret is that, according to Vic Motto of Motto, Kryla & Fisher (St. Helena, CA), there are over 19,000 SKUs in the American wine business. This is an awesome number that represents an incredible number of market niches. It means that no one brand can be a comprehensive market-share owner. There is room for everyone in the wine business.

The wine industry is so fragmented, and — let’s be honest — the consumer is so confused, that brands (even weak brands) can be resilient.

In my first task at Delicato Family Vineyards, I looked at the label, determined that it needed work, and set about redesigning it. The first thing I did was some research. I soon realized that for such an old brand I needed to go back to fundamentals. So I went back, way back — 60 years, 100 years, 3,000 years — and I discovered the second secret.

This secret is: The Ten Commandments of Wine Package Design!

The road to salvation

You may recognize these commandments. The first one is: "Thou shalt not have false gods before me." The second one is: "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain."

They are the same commandments given to Moses more than 3,000 years ago. Just remember they don’t come from me — they come from a higher authority!

If you follow the Ten Commandments of Package Design, if you are a devout believer in category building over category shredding, you will find salvation; you will create brand packages that will outlive us all.

I. Thou shalt not have false gods before me. Resist idolatry of the design for design’s sake.

Today we have so many packaging toys to play with — new papers, die-cuts, laser-cut papers, foils, bizarre inks, wild glass shapes, and cork options — that we can easily get carried away by novelty. It is important to remember that the package is merely an invitation to the consumer to try the wine inside the bottle; the package is not an end in itself.

Meditation: Look for eye-catching — perhaps shocking — package design. Then ask the wine shop manager if the wine is selling.

II. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, & Firearms (BATF) can lay waste to your label with one breath. Treat it with respect — and stay true to yourself.

Don’t think of the BATF as a four- letter word. Yes, it is a power unto itself that can strike at any time in the most unpredictable way, but remember that the BATF is not the indisputable arbiter of truth. False claims make it onto labels regularly, and true claims are denied regularly.

The BATF is simply a government organization designed to make sure that regulations are followed. Don’t depend on it to defend questionable claims. Don’t curse it when things don’t go your way. Rather, say the "Serenity Prayer" and try again. Stay true to category building, and sooner or later, you will pass BATF.

As an aside, do you know what "BATF" really stands for? Be Aware Time Flies. So when designing labels, be sure to allow time for a second try with the BATF.
Meditation: Identify labels that have unique graphic or copy features. Are those features category growers or shredders? That is, do they help consumers understand what’s in the bottle, or are they designed to confuse consumers?

III. Keep holy the Sabbath day. Take a break, particularly during work hours.

Think of your last really great idea. Did you get it while sitting in your office, staring at your computer? Or did your great idea come to you while you were out of the office, walking, drinking wine, surfing, or lounging with a cup of coffee? Creative ideas are fundamental to success. This is the number one reason you should be taking time off, especially when you should be working.
Meditation: Observe the Zaca Mesa label and note its non-traditional appeal. Notice how the label graphically communicates how the wine tastes. What an extraordinary idea! This was definitely an "out-of-office experience." It has resulted in wonderful brand loyalty.

IV. Honor thy Father and thy Mother. For consistency, integrity, and believability, let your label remain true to its origins, even as the brand grows and the packaging changes.

Looking back at the history of the labels of Delicato Family Vineyards was fascinating: the silkscreens of the 1930s, scroll letters of the 1940s, fluorescent numbers of the 1960s, and the corporate style of the 1970s and 1980s. Sadly, none of these had any resemblance to what the winery stood for then and stands for today — a really approachable family with an old-fashioned commitment to quality. Revising the label meant reflecting on the brand, indeed, the company itself. Once we did this, the packaging almost created itself. When we launched the new packaging in 1998, sales skyrocketed 300% because consumers at long last understood what the package stood for.

Keep these two key points in mind: First, honoring thy Father and Mother does not mean never revising your label. In fact, over time, an honorable label can become dishonorable if it no longer communicates the winery’s message correctly.

Second, there is a common misunderstanding that big corporate wineries are bad. Consequently, many large brands try to squeeze their big company into small, intimate brand attire. It might work for the short term, but before long, the buttons will pop off, and everyone will be embarrassed. The wine category is starving for reliable corporate wineries with clout to bring more consumers on board. Has anyone heard of Coke? Microsoft? McDonalds?
Meditation: Check out one brand before and after package design changes. Ask yourself if the new package communicates a more convincing identity.

V. Thou shalt not kill. Lack of time and decisiveness will kill your designer, materials suppliers, bottling team, and ultimately, your ambitions.

Think of it another way: as a marketing manager or designer, would you have any trouble designing a package that could never be created because of design or production problems? Easy, isn’t it? Well, we do this without intending to every day. It’s no wonder everyone hates marketing.
Meditation: Create a New Product Timeline and review it with your design, supply, and production teams. Be sure to sit down; the timeline will be longer than you think.

VI. Thou shalt not commit adultery. Do not subject your package to "design by committee." Marketing managers: stay true to your product.

This grave error of adultery usually happens because of actions (or inactions) that occur well before the design process. Every brand should have one person who is responsible for the brand image, for example. If there is no one with singular authority for your brand, find someone before you begin the design process. It may be you. If it is, make sure that this is clearly stipulated in your job description.

If you cannot do this, have your team agree to a formalized design process and use this process to keep on target. Control the design process, do not allow it to control you. Once again, if you are not the final arbiter, make sure to have check-offs beyond which there is no going back. Think of the design process as going through locks in a canal. Once you have your colleagues’ approval, ensure that decisions cannot be reconsidered. If you have a team that cannot agree, build in lots of extra design time and budget.
Meditation: Identify three labels designed by committee. Here are some giveaways: stylistic tone which does not match brand name; competing or confusing font types; mismatched styles (e.g., modern die-cuts which detract from existing traditional imagery); lack of a singular, easy-to-identify visual theme.

VII. Thou shalt not steal. The greatest achievements in packaging design are made under conditions of complete trust.

Package design is worse than salary negotiation for sports stars. We try to agree on price, but at the beginning stage, neither the designer nor the winery has a clue of what the final result will look like. If the design is successful, the designer never sees the profit. If it is unsuccessful, the designer gets paid for producing essentially nothing. So this is a perverse relationship. To set this right, try to get in the habit of giving your designers a bonus after the results are in. Create an atmosphere of trust.
Mediation: When your designer gives you greater results than you expected, offer a surprise bonus. A year later is not too late. (Don’t forget to build that bonus into the budget.)

VIII. Thou shalt not bear false witness. Be more like prophets, less like presidents.

Category shredders have a field day abusing this commandment. They promote their individual brands, while manipulating, intimidating, and confusing consumers with seductive words. Terms like "barrel special," extra reserve," and so forth may advance individual brands, but they increase consumers’ misapprehensions about wine. We need to make wine drinking a pleasure, not a torture. Loading the labels with strange or misleading information is not helpful in growing the category.
Meditation: Consider this thought: "If you have to ask the BATF to arbitrate the truth, no good can befall the category."

IX. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife. Know what you want and stick with it.

If a package design project is merely exploratory, tell the design team so.

Marketing departments are famous for not knowing what they want; a symptom of this sin is the "wandering eye." Other brands will suddenly have features that are appealing. This envy destroys that magical relationship between marketing and design. If you have problems with a design, be specific. I personally don’t like earthtones, and I announce this at virtually every design briefing. Saying, "It just doesn’t do it for me" is about as destructive to building trust with your designer as a comment can be.
Meditation: Provide positioning and objectives documents to designers. Insist that designers provide a creative strategy that you agree to before designing starts.

X. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods. There is room enough for everyone in this highly fragmented industry.

Let your brands be themselves, not cheap look-alikes with short life spans. Stealing label elements from other brands will give you an unintegrated, fractured-looking package. Consumers sense this inconsistency. They sense something fishy, and if there is one thing about wines that consumers want, it is to be reassured that they made the right choice. There is a niche for everyone among the more than 19,000 SKUs in this category. In fact, we all need to go after different niches to grow the category. The more our products look alike, the less wine we will sell. Have some fun with your niches: create your own identity; make people happy; sell more wine.
Meditation: As an exercise in marketing to niches, create a wine package targeted to chimney sweeps or dictionary editors.

Obey these Ten Commandments of Wine Package Design. Be a devout category builder, avoid the temptation to shred the category, and let your brands live long, fruitful lives.

Edited from presentation to the Second Annual Global Wine Package Design Conference, March 25-26, 1999, in San Francisco, CA.