Originally Published in Wine Business Monthly – April 2012

Leveraging the Language of Wine Labels | Part One

Script, Foil and Seals – How to Use Traditional Cues to Instill Confidence.

Editors Note: This article is the first in a two-part series. In this first installment, we’ll look at wine labels that use traditional visuals as well; in the second article, scheduled for the June issue of WBM, we’ll explore how to successfully use modern design for wine packaging.

Wine labels have been around for thousands of years. In fact, wine jars with etched labels detailing everything from vintage to varietal were discovered in King Tutankhamen’s tomb. As printing technology evolved, so did wine labels. By the 19th and 20th centuries, winemakers created labels incorporating illustrations, coats of arms, and language designed to extol a wine’s virtues and thus, wine branding was born.

Creating wine labels in the 21st century is more complicated, and involves using sophisticated visual cues and language designed to appeal to very specific audiences. In this two-part series, we’ll explore the unique language of both traditional and contemporary wine labels, and discuss how you can successfully engage consumers in a competitive, crowded marketplace.

Wine uses a traditional visual language that everyone recognizes: combine a seal and some gold foil on a classic centered layout with a “chateau” and a little script lettering, add a border and voila! We have a wine label. It meets consumer and trade expectations, and it feels safe to everyone involved. And – it’s too often undifferentiated, unmemorable and uninspiring. It doesn’t have to be this way. We can selectively apply these devices to trigger trust and desire in the consumer – and create packaging that that also packs a punch on shelf.

The Emma Pearl label uses an unconventional and surprising blue background color to grab the eye on the shelf. A monogram seal and jewel-like crest provides richness, tradition and credibility.

Balancing the Familiar and the Unexpected

We as wine marketers face an ongoing challenge – if we ignore conventions and design labels that contain no traditional cues, we risk consumer discomfort. While there are a growing number of adventurous consumers seeking fun, minimalist or youthful brands, a large group of consumers is seeking heritage and familiar quality cues. Our most powerful symbols of quality and credibility are gold foil, seals, borders, traditional illustration and a classic centered layout. And yet – so many brands use these same elements in their packaging that a traditional label can quickly get lost in the sea of lookalikes. The grocery wine aisle is incredibly crowded, and even brands sold on-premise or at fine wine retailers need to be memorable so that consumers can find them for repeat purchase.

How, then, can we use this symbolic language of tradition to maintain credibility with the consumer but still create a distinctive standout voice for our brand? Catching the eye is our first job. We must have the consumer’s attention if we want the opportunity to deliver brand messaging and ultimately trigger purchase. A powerful traditional label must strike a balance between the familiar and the unexpected.

The Emotional Messages Behind the Symbols

Let’s look at why each of these symbols has persisted for so long and still holds undeniable power to sell wine. First, these elements are familiar. And familiarity creates trust – a key emotional trigger for a product that many consumers find intimidating. Additionally, each element conveys a subtle but powerful message:

The Stamp of Approval

The seal has its origin in the signets of the powerful historic leaders of church and state, whose seals conveyed authority and authenticity. Seals are also like medals, or awards conveyed by an outside authority, and reassure consumers of superior quality. A seal conveys authenticity and prestige even when we invent it in the design studio, because we unconsciously believe that a stamp of approval carries authority.

Emma Pearl is a newly launched brand designed to appeal to women consumers seeking an indulgent treat for themselves. It’s the unconventional and surprising blue background color that grabs the eye on shelf. But the monogram seal then works together with the jewel-like crest to provide richness, tradition and credibility.

Layered over type and positioned like an official stamp of approval or certification, the Santa Barbara Wine Company seal creates an “established” feel and a sense of heritage for the new brand. This allows for a pared down, modern logotype and plenty of fresh white space for the brand name and icon to pop.

Gold Status

Gold foil holds great sway with consumers – even if we marketers are a bit tired of it. Historically, the rarity and expense of gold made it accessible only to those with wealth and power. Gilded items, including documents, were emblematic of society’s privileged; even today we see gold foil on diplomas and certificates of merit. Associated with valuable jewelry and ornament, gold conveys high value and prestige.

Wente Vineyards uses gold foil extensively to add sparkle and luxury to their package. Borders, the logotype and the jewel-like winery illustration are printed in multiple metallic shades and textures to create a high perceived value. To keep the label from blending in on shelf, the framed illustration is placed off center. This adds uniqueness and helps consumers find the brand when scanning the shelf.

Nicely Framed

Borders add formality and richness to a label. They frame the graphics so the eye stays on the label longer, giving a brand more time to make a connection and deliver messaging.


The Sutter Home Sparkling Moscato package is framed in a silver border that helps keep the eye on the label long enough to grasp the multi-layered product description. The opulent detail of the border delivers the luxe feel consumers want for sweet, sparkling wines – allowing the clean white space in the center to deliver strong branding.

Centered on a Long Tradition

The classic wine label layout – framed by a border, with the brand name and product description centered in a white field, and with or without a traditional illustration – was adopted from the European tradition as a way to connote credibility and quality for American wines at a time when French winemaking was the world’s model of excellence. As the American wine industry established itself as world class, brands such as Robert Mondavi maintained this association between quality and classic labels in the minds of American consumers.

Joel Gott and Rodney Strong wines have leveraged this look quite successfully. Their very traditional layouts provide instant credibility. For more shelf presence and memorability, bold background colors, modern typography and/or contemporary illustration style can be paired with the classic layout.

Applying the Symbols Successfully

Whether your brand is an existing category leader or a new-to-the-world niche concept, traditional wine cues can be used thoughtfully to create just the right blend of emotional messaging for your target consumer. Your price segment, consumer profile, brand equity and competitive set make up the context in which we must capture attention and trigger desire. If heritage, prestige, and tradition play an important role in your positioning, the thoughtful use of a seal, gold, borders and/or a classic layout can help you instill confidence in consumers, elevate your brand image, create a higher perceived value and invite consumers closer with reassuring messages. And, mixing these elements with fresh and clean layouts, eye-catching color and a little asymmetry can help your traditional label stand out from the crowd.

Cynthia Sterling is the owner and Creative Director of Sterling Creativeworks, a packaging and branding firm specializing in wine, spirits and beer. She can be reached at Cynthia@sterlingcreativeworks.com.

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Originally Published in Wine Business Monthly - April 2012Sterling Creativeworks

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