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We'll take wine over design

Published:  18 January, 2007

Despite the best efforts of marketing and design gurus, the audience at this year's Harpers debate were unconvinced that what's outside the bottle is more important than what's inside.

The Oxford Union-style debate, held last Wednesday as part of the London International Wine and Spirits Fair, drew an audience of 150+ people, and featured Ehrmanns marketing director Keith Lay and Stranger & Stranger's Kevin Shaw proposing the motion, with HwCg director Robin Kinahan MW and Waitrose buyer Nick Room opposing.

Harpers editor Christian Davis oversaw proceedings, with Wine Intelligence's Lulie Halstead on hand with some research into attitudes towards packaging.

Lay said: 'I don't think there is a debate to be had here. I have never seen a consumer walk into an off-licence, take out a corkscrew, open a few bottles, make a selection and then pay for the wine. It doesn't happen, and if it did, security would be called. It's the packaging, in the first instance that attracts the consumer.

'You can, with good packaging, slightly improve the taste perception. I know this because we've done tests, and put the same wine in different packaging and seen the results.

'Good packaging will only sell poor wine once, and that's the simple truth - but a good wine inside bad packaging won't sell at all.'

Kinahan countered: 'Wine is about several years' long investment in vineyards and a long winemaking process - not a five-minute label design or two-week promotion. The trade must hold on to quality.

'Label design is important, and gimmicky ideas don't work long term - where has Pendulum gone? Label design is far more sophisticated and helps draw the consumer to a wine, but it is vital that the wine in the bottle delivers what the label says it is.'

At this point, Halstead said her research had shown that the colour of a wine bottle had a big impact on taste perception: for example, consumers expect a heavy, oakier style of wine in a brown bottle, and something fresher and lighter in a green or clear bottle.

She added that consumers were very quick to spot the 'dumbing-down' of wine, and that if you change the flavour profile, 'eventually, the consumers will realise'.

A question about how much information producers should put on the label provoked this response from Shaw: 'All consumers want is simplicity. Give them 20 words, not 200.

'Someone buying a 4 bottle of wine is a strange animal to us in the trade. All of us in this room have too much wine knowledge: it's like looking at a bunch of Ferrari mechanics in a Ford dealership.

'Most consumers want something unchallenging, quite sweet, and let it wash over them. No one sniffs it and says it smells of elderberries!'

Room likened the proposers' arguments to a concert promoter, and said: 'If I orchestrated the pre-performance hype, people flocked to the event and then had a poor show, what future would I have to do the same again?

'And so it is with wine. Wine should always deliver more at an honest price than the consumer expects. That way, you delight your customer, and, in the long term, get them back time and time again.'

The final vote saw 32 of the 158-strong audience vote in favour of the motion.