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Researchers categorized wine bottle designs into five basic types (from left): contrasting, delicate, massive, natural, and nondescript.

Researchers categorized wine bottle designs into five basic types (from left): contrasting, delicate, massive, natural, and nondescript.

by Chelan David

Over the course of thousands of years, wine containers have morphed from goatskins and earthen jars to glass bottles in a wide array of sizes, shapes, and hues. The exterior packaging has changed in tandem with the vessels. It’s safe to say that a modern-day bottle of wine served in ancient Greece would scarcely be recognized.

Images on today’s labels range from idyllic mountain scenes to cartoonish depictions of monsters to scantily clad women. Some labels feature black lettering on a white background while others are splashed with color. The prices accompanying wine selections are as varied as the packaging itself.

Such contrasts make wine an ideal product to juxtapose, its divergent nature ideal for a study examining how packaging elements affect brand personality perceptions. "We wanted to pick a product where there was a lot of variance: different prices, different shapes, and different colors," explains Keven Malkewitz, an assistant professor of marketing at Oregon State University.

The study, "Holistic Package Design and Consumer Brand Impressions," co-authored by Malkewitz and Ulrich Orth, a marketing professor at the University of Kiel in Germany, analyzes the key types of package designs and determines how they affect consumers’ impressions of a brand.

Past research has shown that packaging plays a critical role in selling products because consumers encounter them when they’re highly engaged in making purchasing decisions. However, scant research has been done on which designs evoke specific, desired responses from consumers.

Malkewitz and Orth photographed 160 wine bottles and asked over 100 experts—graphic designers and industrial designers—to rank the design elements. A number of elements were evaluated, including symmetry, location of brand name and logo, color scheme, image resolution, and label orientation.

The researchers then categorized responses into five primary design types: massive, contrasting, natural, delicate, and nondescript.

The first type, massive, comprised 25 of the 160 package designs. Characteristics of massive designs include above-average size and weight and are best exemplified by labels like House Wine and Wine by Joe. Contrasting is the smallest group in the sample, comprising 17 package designs. Contrasting designs include critter labels like Yellow Tail and Bear Crossing as well as other irregular designs like Ferngrove.

Natural is the largest group in the sample, comprising 45 package designs. Overall, this design can be described as natural, representative, or archetypical. Examples include Chateau Lagarenne and Chateau Ste. Michelle. Delicate, which comprises 32 package designs, can be described as muted, sleek, and delicate. Examples in this cluster include Mystic Wines and Prinz von Hessen. The final cluster, nondescript, comprised 33 package designs described as simple, clean, discrete, and transparent. Examples include Bierzo, Fusee, and Saint M.

Next, researchers showed photos of the bottles to 268 consumers throughout the state of Oregon. The average age of respondents was 41 years, 57 percent were female, and a small number were registered students. The respondents were asked questions to measure each bottle’s brand personality.

The consumers found massive packaging to be exciting and eye-catching. However, they also expected brands in this cluster to be unsophisticated, with lower quality and cheaper offerings. Designs that fell in the natural cluster were perceived to be sincere, competent, and sophisticated. Consumers expected these wines to be expensive, but of high quality and a good value. Delicate designs also rated high on competence and sophistication and were expected to be of high quality and expensive. Nondescript designs were found to be insincere, and consumers believed they were of little value for the money.

Any company—wine, food, or athletic footwear—can benefit from the study’s findings says Malkewitz, who spent 15 years as an executive with Adidas before joining Oregon State University. He recalls working on tennis shoes for the German-based footwear company and trying them out on tennis courts, seeking input from serious tennis players, and conducting shock absorption and abrasion tests. In many cases, however, the purchasing decision was made simply because people liked the way the shoes looked.

"With wine, it’s kind of the same thing," relates Malkewitz. "People that make wine and people that are serious about wine think a lot about the contents. That is very important, absolutely. But in terms of getting the wine sold, in terms of building the brand, and in terms of helping people understand what they’re about, the wine package is a tremendously valuable tool."

The researchers developed empirically based guidelines to assist managers in selecting or modifying package designs in order to achieve the desired consumer response. For example, exciting brands should have colorful designs with plenty of contrast to help images stand out. Brands striving to convey sincerity should use natural designs and incorporate nature scenes and earth tones on their labels. Rugged brands should use large, bold fonts and bottles and labels that appear to be massive. Competent brands should have delicate designs.

It is crucial, says Malkewitz, to make sure the design is unified and represents the core of the brand. A brand wanting to convey sophistication should make sure the label works in harmony with the bottle. "A taller, thinner bottle with smaller italic font signifies sophistication," he points out. "Think of the wine bottle not as simply a wine bottle, but as an opportunity to give information to your consumers."

While not specifically covered in the study, it’s interesting to note that design affects more than a consumer’s impression of wine: it can even affect taste. "Without a doubt, how something looks affects how things taste," states Malkewitz. "There are studies where researchers took the exact same wine and put it in different bottles, and people’s responses varied tremendously. Package appearance affects how people perceive taste." 

Chelan David is a freelance writer based in Seattle, Washington.