The Australian approach to wine brand design

Just Add Wine was founded in 2000 to help producers targeting the wine export market. Director and owner Barbara Harkness created a portfolio of off-the-shelf ideas to show producers. One idea, bought by Casella Wines, has gone down in wine history as one of the biggest brands of all time – [yellow tail]. Just Add Wine also refreshes and designs for existing brands, including McWilliams, Majella and McGuigan. Today the company has four designers and works with companies all over the world.

Just Add Wine was the result of ten years experience of working with boutique producers in Australia. I started in 1990 and by the year 2000 I had seen a lot changes in the industry and realized that the consumer was being more attracted to labels than to the boutique producers themselves. My producers needed an avenue to get their wines to the export markets, so I came up with the idea of creating the wine name, as well as the label and the ancillary products that go with it. The idea was that clients would get the name, the label and the intellectual property, so all they needed to do was add wine.

Credibility is all

Wine sales used to be about the producer’s name, but then came the trend to attract customers by doing something better than the bottle next to it, which became a game in the end. That’s been pushed to the Nth degree, with people finding more and more clever ideas to use to sell wine. We’ve been through the gimmicky time of coloured bottles and so on, but in the end everything comes back to credibility. Coloured bottles and Tetrapaks are not perceived as the real thing. It’s the label that has to do all the work, though you can use it to get new ideas across. People will respond to a quirky label. Trends at the moment? Right now I am seeing a lot of producers going conservative. Nobody wants to take a gamble in the current climate (except that the conservative path may also be a gamble!) I still think, however, there is room at the commodity level with good quality wine which still makes a profit.

Some of our briefs are from established wineries and established products and they want something based on heritage, but every brief is different. More often than not if you have a meeting of minds and they like your thought process, you can build a good rapport and working relationship. But people in the wine industry aren’t marketers and don’t know what they’re looking for and you have to feed them an idea and get them to fall in love with it. We could get a big brief from a corporate company that has specific guidelines so specific that the label almost designs itself. The most interesting projects are for the boutique producers, because you’re designing for their vineyard and creating a whole new story. I had a client recently who bought a vineyard in Tasmania and they had inherited a name which had some value. We couldn’t get to the vineyard but, after all, a vineyard’s a vineyard, so I worked on the idea of selling Tasmania as a tourism destination. We created a whole new identity for the existing name which had no links to the old label. Sometimes the baby is so ugly you need to throw it out with the bath water.

[yellow tail]

We have off-the-shelf concepts which we design ourselves and then sell to companies. We came up with our concept for [yellow tail] by designing to our heart’s content. Brand Australia and, I guess, the kangaroo are the most iconic things that Australia has. We decided to use a kangaroo but a ‘Yellow Tail’ is also a variety of fish, and a black cockatoo parrot. It’s simply a very memorable name which we came up with after a brainstorming session. That design was in the portfolio that we took to Sydney. The concept was shown to Casella’s marketing manager in an airport meeting as we flew in to Sydney and the brand manager flew out to the USA to meet with their distributors. It was also showcased to others during that initial trip and although betrothed to Casella, we could have sold it many times over. Every producer loved it and saw the potential.

Coming up with ideas like this is the way the industry is evolving. There are a lot of virtual vineyards in the wine industry today, where people don’t have actual land holdings, and this is where the off-the-shelf concept really works. Sometimes people end up with labels that have no association with the producer, but often there is an element that will connect with their need and then we develop it further. The design is a starting point.

We offer three design categories: classic, modern and lifestyle. One category, classic, reflects what the market is like at the moment. We never used to offer this, as we were more about innovation. We have had a lot of enquiries for label designs going into China. They want European-looking design, as they perceive this to be more credible and expensive. They say the Chinese don’t understand modern design and they want French or Italian, so they ask for classic white labels with a little bit of gold foil. But this is the starting point, with the introduction of wine. There will be an emerging wine generation in China eventually.

Critter wines? I have very mixed feelings about them, because I probably helped invent the category. I know that the Australian wine industry is trying to reposition itself in the world market but it’s a hard task because they’ve denoted that they’re about happy, cheap and cheerful wine. I don’t have an answer to that and I don’t know how Australia is going to reposition itself overnight as it would like to do, because the consumer will continue to buy commodity level wine whether the producers like it or not.

New directions

The first designs we did for Argentina espoused Brand Argentina, so we used funky llamas, tango dancers, gauchos and the Andean mountains to promote this genre. Those labels lasted about five years and then ran their course and only one survived. But then the importer came back to us with a different want. This time, they didn’t want to go the Brand Argentina route. They bought a concept off the shelf and said there was no need to sell Argentina as a commodity wine. These days people don’t really care where the wine comes from and they see New World wines in general as having anything on the label. With this concept they didn’t even put ‘Wine of Argentina’ on the front.

Most of my clients don’t have the same label in the different markets. [yellow tail] is the exception, but even that doesn’t work as well in the UK as it does in the USA Very few people have the same labels across all countries; This makes naming a real issue, in trying to find one that hasn’t been trademarked worldwide.

Things that bother me? Really dumb names that somehow make Australia look stupid and make the wine producers look stupid as well. That’s what I hate the most about new product I see in the marketplace, because they denigrate the whole industry. I think the name is the most important part of the package and the imagery has to relate to the name preferably in a quirky fun sense. There are labels out there that are just trying too hard at the innovative price point (sub $10). There is so much choice out there that the new consumer is always going to be driven by the emotive connections to the label, because they have so much to choose from. Every week you can find dozens of new brands you’ve never seen before on the wine shelves. It’s incredible. But at the same time, there are very few credible products around. There are too many virtual vineyards and I find that frustrating, because not having real producers on the shelves makes the wine industry lose credibility.

We don’t design for specific demographics. It’s hard to do and you shouldn’t anyway, because you’re eliminating people you could sell to. Women don’t want to be targeted specifically because it’s an insult to our sensibilities. And why cut out the male population anyway?

I sometimes get these briefs where they want a label to target women specifically. I’m chosen for the job because I’m a woman and they think I can hit the market, whereas I think we should be getting back to more credible labels that relate to the producer. We should be getting that authenticity across.

I guess my challenge for the future of designing is still being innovative with wine labels, and a creator of ideas. The wine label is the producer’s face to the world, the designer is simply the link, and it is our task to connect to the consumer.
As told to Felicity Carter

This article first appeared in Meininger’s Wine Business International in 2009.