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Can wine labels be used more effectively?

Marketing, advertising and research specialist Jonathan Cahill believes wine labels are missing a trick due to the “seeming reluctance to focus on the specific”.

In a recent study by the University of Adelaide it was found that descriptions of wine on labels influence consumers far more than was originally thought, with more emotive descriptions convincing consumers to pay more for a bottle of wine, as well as increase their appreciation of it and cause more positive emotions than those with simple descriptors. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio has cited research which indicated that if you told stories of similar length with a comparable number of facts, differing only in that in one the facts had high emotional content, then far more detail is remembered from the emotional story than from the factual one.

Sometimes it is suggested that the label is a good way of selling in store. But hardly anyone reads back labels in the store. It is more likely to be when the bottle sits on the table at home or in a restaurant, when it is being drunk. In some respects the label is a Trojan horse for the wine. To help repeat purchase the wine needs to deliver in terms of product performance, but also to build up a relationship with the consumer – the essence of marketing. For many the label is the only route to achieving this.

The biggest error that many wines make when they try to sell to consumers is that they forget they are competing and that they have to differentiate their wine from competition. Usually they compete against other wines made from similar grape varieties and so there seems little point in focusing on taste characteristics which are broadly similar. A Sauvignon Blanc was recently launched with the promise that it could be enjoyed on “a variety of occasions”. Where is the competitive edge in this statement?

Often the copy appears to be filling a space. It strays off into self-regarding waffle or statements that any other similar wine could make. On a bottle of Peter Lehman it stated that: “if you were to paint a portrait of Peter Lehman it would express true depth of character, just like the beautiful and iconic region he called home”. This vacuous and pretentious waffle gives little to the consumer. In New Zealand, Ned Wines talks of “a unique environment providing distinctive characteristics to all our iconic wines”, but fails to say what these are.

Then there are product-related descriptions such as Lindeman’s Chardonnay which is “rich and fruity with a silk smooth finish” and Banrock Station Sauvignon Blanc, “an aromatic wine shows an abundance of fresh lemon”. How lauding the generic properties of these wine varieties gives any competitive advantage, it is difficult to understand.

In addition there is the benefit from specific detail which can greatly enhance the leverage of any writing. Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman (who later went on to win the Nobel Prize for economics) explored the effect of being more specific and how it affected simple probabilities. They found that: “when no specific evidence is given, the prior probabilities are properly utilised; when worthless specific evidence is given, prior probabilities are ignored[i]”. Just giving specific details, even if they were irrelevant, swayed judgement.

An example of the power of specifics is provided by the marketing of the Flexo lamp in the UK. This is a small aluminium table lamp from Spain. It was cheap. This overshadowed appreciation of the lamp for its intrinsic merits. A story, around the same amount of copy that would appear on a wine label, was featured on the lamp and shelf cards: “The Flexo is an integral part of Spanish life, having been in continuous production since 1925. Although the designer is unknown, the Flexo is a design classic, a version being in the Design Museum in London”.

The lamp received press coverage in the UK of over 30 million readers. It sold well in the principal design stores and branched out into chains, such as Habitat. The perceptions of it were radically different from those in its homeland – the Sunday Times describing it as “a masterpiece of modern design”.

The seeming reluctance to focus on the specific is illustrated by much copy on wine labels. A good example of this is the positioning and label on Tio Pepe Sherry. The current label copy is as follows:-

Tio Pepe

Jerez, Xeres, Sherry

Fino Muy Seco


For more than 150 years the uncompromising dryness of Tio Pepe has been appreciated by wine lovers around the world. Refreshing and distinctive, Tio Pepe is a wine for all occasions and is the perfect partner for fish, shellfish, cheese and white meats and ‘tapas’ of course. Drink it straight or on ice. Always serve chilled, refrigerate after opening and enjoy within a month.

This is similar to many other wine labels which are fine verbal vessels with little content of substance.

But Tio Pepe has a strong intrinsic story, stated in equally brief terms:-

Tio Pepe

The First in Fino


In 1835 Manuel Maria Gonzalez started the company that became Gonzalez Byass. Fino was then only drunk locally in Jerez. Manuel’s uncle, Pepe, suggested that he should be the first to make it for a wider audience. It was a big success and others followed. In gratitude, Manuel named it after Pepe, ‘tio’ being Spanish for uncle.

Tio Pepe is particularly suitable for accompanying the start of a meal. It is perfect with fish, shellfish, cured meats, white meats and tapas. Always serve chilled, straight or on ice. Refrigerate after opening and enjoy within a month.

There is also an extra tool on a wine label which appears to be neglected or maybe misunderstood – the QR code. This can provide an immediate link to a short film (two to three minutes) giving extra life to a story, as in the example at the end of the article. Unfortunately most use the code to take the consumer to the company webiste – a pointless exercise as it is unlikely that anyone would be bothered with the hassle of navigating a company website on their smartphone, or see the point of it.

Wine labels are a simple and direct way of communicating with consumers. Why not take as much advantage of this as possible?

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