Eight months in business, and I learned it was time to put the liebfraumilch on hold. I was an inexperienced Blue Nun wine drinker at the time (Oregon’s wine industry was still in its infancy), and learned that I was pregnant. I wasn’t the only one putting Blue Nun on hold. According to Quirk’s October 1989 article, Changing with the times, Blue Nun sales in the U.S. were declining, despite being one of the most popular brand name wines in the world. What the article points out is, “probably the most valuable thing that any research can do for a consumer product; it can reassure a company that they can make a substantial change and still retain their present consumers and open up a whole new market.”
The product group director responsible for distributing Blue Nun in the U.S. could have been describing me in 1989 when he said, “Blue Nun drinkers no longer feel that ordering the German wine is a sure indication that they are knowledgeable about wine.” And, research uncovered others like myself enjoyed the wine, but felt uncomfortable serving it or gifting it. At the time, California was introducing wines such as chardonnay and zinfandel with a higher level of sophistication.
So, Blue Nun did some extensive research with the following goal: “to come up with packaging that would capture the attention of the buyers of California varietals without alienating the loyal Blue Nun consumers.” They held focus groups with current and past Blue Nun users and competitive brand purchasers to narrow down eight package variations. From that they narrowed down the choices even further and took those into the field and did shelf tests. In the end, the new design that was chosen was the furthest away from the current label.
Package design research was how I kicked off 2014. The project goals had changed very little from October 1989, when Frederick Mittleman, creative director at Mittleman/Robinson Design who was working on Blue Nun, said: “You don’t want to lose your present customers, but at the same time you want to attract new people who have never tried the brand. Advertising can help, and sales promotion can help, but it’s what people see on the shelf that really decides. Packaging is the final silent salesman.”
Blue Nun understood the important role that market research plays when designing a wine label. The article, Judging a Wine by What it Wears, in the Wall Street Journal had this to say: “While readers are urged not to judge a book by their covers (and are less likely to do so in this Kindle age), wine drinkers have long been expected to buy bottles precisely because of their labels. From the world-class artistry of Chateau Mouton to the marketing masterpiece that is Blue Nun, there are wines and wineries and even winemaking countries whose reputations have been earned, at least in part, on account of their labels.”
I have experienced first hand how consumer perceptions vary widely based on the design of the label. Consumer research that has been conducted in the wine industry produced similar results to research I have conducted with the food industry, pizza in particular. In both cases, when two identical wines (or pizzas) are presented, the consumer perceives a higher value and quality for the wine (or pizza) that has the label they like most. In focus groups it is sometimes hard to keep a straight face knowing that the products are identical, as consumers grossly exaggerate the features of one against the insurmountable shortcomings of another.
I myself am guilty of grabbing a bottle of wine off the shelf because of the label. According to David Schuemann, author of 99 Bottles of Wine – a book that exposes wine industry secrets regarding how the wine industry manipulates us with label designs, “Novice wine drinkers require more visual stimulation” to make the bottle pop off the shelf. Those labels tend to be more “whimsical in a clever way.” Schuemann also points out that, “In general, people associate minimalist, uncluttered designs with high-end vintages and sophisticated flavors. More expensive labels tend to have a cream or white background with a simple logo. Maybe a splash of gold or metal. But they don’t have critters on them. Otherwise, experienced wine drinkers think it looks cheap.”
I don’t agree with Schuemann on the point about the critters. One of my favorite wines has a critter on the bottle, as many Aussie wines do, and it is not cheap. In fact, Mr. Marquis, whose name is on that label and the owner of Mollydooker, also disagrees. The Mollydooker labels express the personality of the owners in extravagantly colored cartoons depicting boxers, dancers, violinists and carnival acts. When asked if he worries that his labels might give buyers the impression his wines were also a bit of a joke, Mr. Marquis noted in the Wall Street article that, “when the bottle is poured it’s not about the label anymore.”
One of my favorite wine producers, King Estate, not only uses design elements that shout sophistication on their labels, they are also breaking barriers in wine packaging and distribution by promoting wine on tap. King Estate sells about 600 kegs a month to restaurants across the country, which is about 5 percent to 10 percent cheaper than selling it in bottles, according to the Alternative Wine Packaging 2013 article, Oregon millennials embrace “Growlers”. King Estate Winery’s executive vice president, Steve Thomson, said “Wine on tap is a really, really, hot project around the country right now. It’s exploding.” The Oregon wine industry is hoping to deliver wine to the masses in 64-ounce reusable jugs called growlers, the same way the microbrew industry is. If this trend does take off, what will happen to the importance of the wine label?
It will probably be a while before I fill a growler with wine. Baby Boomers, such as myself, tend to buy bottled wine from grocery stores. Picking off the shelf, I tend to lean towards labels with whimsical names, so I’m sure Blue Nun’s marketing tactics back in 1985 would have worked on me. I don’t recall seeing this marketing campaign, but I imagine it helped draw some attention away from those sophisticated California wine labels. Apparently, it wasn’t enough to save Blue Nun.