The Losh Cause – Wine industry must explore new dimensions
Wine companies are fond of trumpeting comparatively minor changes in packaging design but, Chris Losh believes, have been far too timorous when it comes to embracing more substantial packaging innovations. But the adverse economic conditions could prompt a more radical approach at least in one area.
The wine industry has a bad habit of ineffectual fiddling, of metaphorically retuning its lyre while supermarket aisles burn all around it. Last week I was speaking to a PR who said of one of her wine clients, "they'd change a label from blue to red and expect it to make the front page of every trade publication. They just don't get that it's not a big deal".
You have to be spectacularly self-absorbed to think that a minor tweak on a label is worthy of press coverage. Certainly, over more than a decade of editing magazines, if I had a euro for every time someone has sent me an utterly pointless 'no story here' packaging release, I'd be able to buy several cases of heavily-discounted Champagne.
The irony is that, while producers attach ludicrous significance to trifling changes, they shy away from anything radical that might actually make a difference, haunted by fear of doing the wrong thing and alienating loyal customers.
And while wineries will happily argue about their techniques in the vineyard and winery, they are markedly less comfortable when discussing what their product looks like. Madness, really. Which area do you think has a greater impact on a consumer's decision to purchase: the shape and colour of the bottle/label, or the trellising techniques?
It's probably no coincidence, for instance, that the only really big packaging innovation of the last decade - the rise of screwcaps and plastic corks - has been driven by winemaking teams rather than marketers.
When they first appeared, many were sceptical that it would be possible to get consumers to accept a non-cork closure. Yet, because there was a broad base of support for these new closures within the industry, customers, assailed by a consistently positive message, were driven into accepting them.
Naturally, some markets are inherently more open-minded than others. There are, for instance, still plenty of Stelvin-sceptics in France, whereas in the Nordic countries consumers have no problems with alternative formats that are far more radical than screwcaps.
I believe over 30% of Swedish wine sales are Bag-in-Box - while in Norway, if my memory serves me right, it's closer to 50%. No stigma is attached to them; they are simply seen as a practical solution for weekends away.
Of course, logic can only go so far. At the last London Wine Trade Fair, I picked up some information from a company marketing wine in cans. I hear all the arguments in their favour - tough, portable, lightweight, practical etc. But still it doesn't do it for me. Perhaps I'm wrong, and in ten years wine from a can will be as accepted as screwcaps are now, but I doubt it. I would imagine that pouring Chablis from a tin would test even the most open-minded Stockholmer.
Not so tetra-pak. Progress has been slow but the format is gradually carving out a niche for itself, particularly in markets where green issues still play well, such as California. The large Burgundian negociant, Boisset, deserves credit for creating what is arguably the world's first serious tetra-brand: the day-glow orange French Rabbit.
Rabbit is unashamedly different, which is both a strength and a weakness, and in its very uniqueness it shows the kind of bravery and commitment that is generally absent in an industry that tends to stick to the tried and tested.
But look beyond the nuclear tetra-packaging and there's something else in Rabbit that other, less brave wineries could consider emulating. The sizes are 1-litre, 50cl and packs of 4x25cl cartons. It strikes me that these are eminently practical sizes. You might as well rename them 'party', 'couple' and 'single-serve'.
In fact, if you were inventing wine for the first time now, there is no reason at all to sell it in a 75cl glass bottle. Indeed, there are several very good reasons why you shouldn't. Yet producers have been curiously hesitant to embrace non-traditional sizes.
This, I suspect is going to change - though not perhaps for the reasons that it should. The desire to present consumers with formats that work for them should be the prime motivation for change but it's more likely to come down to money.
In the UK, a succession of duty rises and an etiolated currency have combined to create, in effect, a 30% price rise. At a time when consumers are more price-sensitive than ever, brand after brand has crashed through key price points over the last 12 months. And in the current economic climate the UK is far from being the only market where price sensitivity is the predominant issue.
But in a 'Mountain to Mohammed' moment, one big brand is in the final stages of nailing down a new 50cl bottle that will, presumably, bring the cherished GBP4.99 price point back within its range.
Supermarkets might have been hesitant to embrace half-litre bottle-sizes in the past, but in the current market conditions, I'm guessing they'll leap at the chance - and be putting pressure on other suppliers to follow suit. It's not stretching credibility to think that in a year or two we could see entire displays of 50cl bottles.
And with a bit of critical mass behind it, the half-litre revolution could soon make half-bottles as natural a choice for consumers as screwcaps have become. I, for one, hope so. If packaging innovation is to mean anything, it must be bold, practical and consumer-driven. And selling wine in bottle-sizes that fit the modern lifestyle is all of the above.
Wine companies are fond of trumpeting comparatively minor changes in packaging design but, Chris Losh believes, have been far too timorous when it comes to embracing more substantial packaging innovat...
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