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February 2008 Issue of Wines & Vines

Direct Packaging Is Lame

Yet it's the best place to give customers a memorable experience

by Josh Hermsmeyer
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I'll get this out of the way right up front: Direct-to-consumer wine packaging is lame. Minimalist. Underwhelming. Thoughtless. Cheap.

Paradoxically, direct is where we producers make our best margins. It's the place we can most afford to give our best customers a memorable, positive experience. And yet where do all the marketing dollars go? Why, to programming and incentives for corrupt distributors, and toward label and box designs aimed at retail, where margins are squeezed tighter every year.

As an industry, we've got it all backwards. Sure, retail is competitive, and to stand out you really need to loose the hounds (and the wallet) on the marketplace. But what message are you sending to your direct customers, your "brand ambassadors," when your $80 Pinot arrives unceremoniously in a plain brown box and a Styrofoam shipper, with nothing other than a receipt inside to prove that human thought ever actually entered into the packaging process?

I'll tell you the message you're sending:

"Hi there. You're a high-margin customer and we'd like to keep you that way. We might send you some expensive vintage announcements to entice you to buy, but once you've forked over the cash, we'd like to keep it in our pocket. Enjoy the wine, Mr. Direct Customer, because that's what you paid for, not some pretty package."

I think that view is pretty myopic. These direct folks need to be nurtured and cherished. Like a Labrador puppy, we need to pet them lovingly, and often.

Think back on the last time you had a really great, transcendent glass of wine. Chances are it had less to do with the quality of the wine in the glass than it did with what was going on in your life at the moment.

Alder Yarrow, author of the wildly popular wine blog, Vinography, puts it eloquently in a post he wrote entitled "When Wine Tastes Best:"

"After spending an afternoon fishing in the sunshine...we retreated upstream to the cabin that we rented and watched the snow continue to fall. When our boots were off and our hands were warmed up enough to operate again, I pulled a bottle out of the cooler, the label wet and slipping off, and poured some wine into porcelain coffee mugs, which we sipped as we watched the snow fall on a moonlit meadow and a bunch of confused cows.

And that's why the wine tasted so damn good."

Wine is all about experience. Why, then, are we sending plain brown boxes to folks forking over luxury prices for a bottle of juice? There's a reason why a Tiffany box is a patented shade of sea-foam greenish-blue, and it doesn't have anything to do with the quality of the silver inside. It has everything to do with the experience of opening the item, and managing the expectation of what lies within. It's an experience that we can also help direct with creative wine packaging.

Sure it will cost more. Sure it will take effort. But aren't direct customers worth it? And isn't the payoff--engaged and excited brand ambassadors--worth it as well?

One common thread I notice when I talk to folks about this is the notion that packaging is just about having your logo on a box. Specially designed direct-to-consumer packaging, they argue, is an exercise in vanity that will ultimately end up in the trash anyway. So why bother?

I agree that if you approach package design as simply another way to get your winery logo into someone's house, you've already lost the battle. It will quickly end up in the trash next to the rest of the Styrofoam shippers, or unnoticed at the bottom of an ice chest like the wine label from Alder's story. That's what invasive, no-value marketing deserves.

However, if you instead approach package design with consumers as your focus, and think of ways to surprise and delight them, then I think you're in a whole other universe--one with huge potential.

The U.K.-based Design Council recently commissioned a study on "design alert" businesses and how they perform vs. the broader market. The report shows that the cohort of design alert companies they studied outperformed the overall market by roughly 200%. The council also found that design alert businesses didn't need to compete as much on price as their peers.

There is value in design. Like it or not, wineries are in the fashion business. The key, however, is to design with the consumer in mind, not the winery. Make your logo small, focus on the product and the experience of opening it. At the very least you'll get more people sending your wine as a gift, and at best you'll forge a stronger relationship with your customers. One they'll be happy to tell their friends about.

Josh Hermsmeyer is the president of Capozzi Winery in the Russian River Valley, and writes about wine marketing and winemaking at To comment on this Viewpoint, e-mail

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