Wine Brands for the New Economic Climate

shutterstock_252927586Boom to Bust and Back to Prosperity

The most recent recession of 2007 heralded the rise of the everyday wine—bottles priced at $9 or less—as consumers looked for ways to cut corners. Since these products could rarely support a quality vineyard or winemaking story, and because consumers were turning to these value-priced bottles for distraction from their financial worries, those of us who help wine companies create brands were called upon to punch up the personality of the price point. Enter the attitude brands, with their fun, positive appeal.

During the recession, no one was too concerned about a sourcing story behind wines called Butterfly Kiss, Snap Dragon, Herding Cats and flipflop, to name just a few, and that wasn’t the point. The point was sales volume through attention-grabbing approachability. The point was helping a consumer who doesn’t know much about wine feel good about his or her—mostly her—selection without breaking the bank. As the website for Diageo Chateau & Estates “The Wine Bar” (home to Snap Dragon, Butterfly Kiss, and others) insists:

“You don’t need a master’s degree to enjoy a great glass of wine. Picking a wine should not mean having to sift through 100 page wine lists or feeling silly because you have no idea how to pronounce Gewurztraminer. Don’t worry; neither do we half the time. Our spell check didn’t even know how to spell it!”

As the economy has started to turn around, however, we’ve seen the $9 and under price segment decline—in part because consumers aren’t feeling the financial pinch, but also in part because of the growth of craft beer, cider and distilled spirits, according to Jon Fredrikson of Gomberg, Fredrikson & Associates, as reported by Bill Swindell in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat (January 2014). In fact, wines at the $9/bottle and less have now been steadily losing ground since 2011.

A Move Towards Premium Wines

But it’s been all good news for premium wines ($10 to $14 per bottle) and super-premium wines ($15 to $20), both of which have seen dramatic volume increases—as much as 15% growth in 2014—as the economy has continued to recover [IRI, Scan Data, 52 weeks ending 6/15/14]. And Swindle points out that the increase in higher price points is especially good news for producers in Napa and Sonoma County, where many of the super-premium wines are sourced.

In light of this recent growth, the question becomes: what kind of design and communication do consumers expect around a bottle of wine priced at $15 to $20? How do we signal the high quality inside the bottle? Traditionally, we looked to European wine labels for credibility cues, interpreting centuries-old label styles for the American market. Brands such as Chateau St. Jean and Jordan Vineyards use this formula to convey credibility. Today, however, we’re looking to more contemporary signifiers of quality—credible brand stories that hit a little closer to home.

Authenticity & Substance

One way to signal quality inside the bottle is to make sure branding and packaging appeals to the consumer’s desire for an authentic story, and one of the most compelling parts of an authentic story is the person behind it, the story’s “character.” Highlighting a winemaker—often a winery founder—behind the wine is a tried-and-true approach for luxury brands: consider Robert Mondavi Winery, Hewitt Vineyard, and many others. While the use of names in these cases feels formal, and doesn’t particularly signal approachability, the use of names in the super-premium segment—specifically Joel Gott Wines, Josh Cellars, Tom Gore Vineyards—feels both high-quality and down-to-earth, and the results are hard to argue with. How do they do it?

  • Each of these three brands incorporates the most important element of story—character—into their names. The super-premium price point and the incorporation of nicknames, with “Josh” and “Tom,” allow these brands to feel more approachable than their luxury counterparts. The message: there’s a real person behind this bottle of wine.
  • The appeal and approachability of character extends to packaging. Joel Gott was one of the first producers to move away from back label copy that describes the way the wine tastes and where it comes from. Instead, each back label bears only his signature. Likewise, Tom Gore’s signature appears on the front label of his wines, right under the print version of his name. And Joseph Carr’s signature appears on every back label of Josh Cellars wines. Again—not a new concept, but one that stands for the character in the story behind the wines. The message: the real person behind this wine puts his individual seal on every bottle.
  • An informal website style reflects the approachability of each “character” behind these brands. The Tom Gore site features photography labeled by Gore’s own hand that suggests informal family photos (dogs, wife, dining casually outdoors). The Josh Cellars site is so informal that it’s one long page, written in the first-person—a direct address from Joseph Carr to the consumer. And while the Joel Gott website is clean and spare, his videos suggest the informality of a hand-held camera; they’re hosted by Joel Gott himself, with his tousled hair and his consumer-friendly terminology. You don’t have to know what “brix” is because Gott says “sugar.” The message: the real person behind this wine is approachable; he took—or could have taken—these pictures himself; he brings his dog to work; he goes on camera without primping, and records candid moments to share with us, his friends.
  • We get a straight shot into the heart of each character’s history and work ethic, made credible—and even emotional—by references to the previous generation. Gott recounts having grown up on the farm, trailing after his father; to this day, every time he sees a big tractor he feels like he’s six years old again, riding around all day under the sun. Fathers play a big role on the Tom Gore and Josh sites, too. Both incorporate appealing hand-drawn sketches or watercolors of vintage trucks—significantly trucks that belonged to their fathers. We learn that Gore’s father—recently deceased—was also a Sonoma County grapegrower, and we learn that Joseph Carr’s father—Joseph Sr., called “Josh”—was a veteran, a mechanic, and the proprietor’s hero. The website proclaims “every day is Father’s Day at Josh Cellars. I crafted this wine in honor of my dad.” It’s signed, “Joseph Carr, Founder and Son.” The site also offers a customizable label that the consumer can download and make out to his or her own father for Father’s Day, from Joseph Carr’s family to yours. The message: the real person behind this wine comes from a long line of real people who took pride in what they did. They carry forward the hard work and integrity of their families.

At the super-premium price point, few consumers expect the wines to come from single vineyards, or even well known vineyards. This makes consumer confidence in the integrity of the character behind each brand even more important. Confidence in this integrity stands in for actual sourcing information, information that would quickly become complicated given the multiple vineyard sources of any super-premium wine. Tom Gore is the grape farmer; Joel Gott is the fifth-generation winemaker; Joseph Carr is the son who makes high quality wines named for his father. Once established through strong storytelling and design, we trust that these are men who want to put only the best grapes into their wines, and who know exactly where to find them.

Wine Brands for the New Economic ClimateSterling Creativeworks
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