The challenge of making your wine label distinctive

By Justin Cohen, Senior Marketing Scientist, Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science, University of South Australia

Justin explains the distinctive assets of a wine brand as they apply to labelling and packaging and how they can be used to increase the chances of a wine being noticed on a shelf or online.

In the Spring 2020 issue of this journal, I wrote about distinctive brand assets and the role they play in marketing strategy.

It is worth revisiting this theme and building on the tactics outlined in last year’s article since one of the topics covered in this issue is labelling and packaging.

Please refer back to that article for the principles of distinctive assets and general recommendations for where wine brands can utilise these for brand building activities (Cohen 2020).

For further details on the measurement of the metrics of fame and uniqueness and strategy please read Romaniuk’s (2018) book ‘Building Distinctive Brand Assets’ which is the evidence-based resource on this topic.

Distinctive assets are the non-brand name elements that help signal the brand to a potential buyer (Romaniuk and Sharp 2016).

In the context of wine packaging and labelling, distinctive assets can be things like logos, colours, fonts, label style and bottle shape to name a few.

Sharp (2010) documents that penetration is the route to sustainable growth and that two key tactical levers are building mental availability, making the brand easy to think of, and building physical availability, making the brand easy to find and buy.

The repeated usage of potential distinctive assets co-presented over time with the brand name and alignment between what is communicated through a wine brand’s communications (mental availability) and retail (physical availability) investments will help amplify the effectiveness of this distinctiveness strategy (Romaniuk 2018).

The aforementioned framework for growth is based on evidence from buyer behaviour across categories, markets and time periods (Sharp 2010).

Viticulture and oenology are viewed as sciences. However, the marketing of wine is typically seen as an art form that relies on instinct and emotion rather than evidence. A tremendous amount of hard work goes into the process of making wine and it is certainly a labour of love.

It is therefore no surprise that wineries want their brands to be perceived differently by having a unique story and making a meaningful connection with those who drink it. However, what is the evidence that this approach matters to the masses?

The hard truth is that for most buyers, wine is a beverage that fits a particular category need on a particular day. The evidence shows that people buy from a repertoire of brands, regions, varieties and price tiers.

Cohen (2010) demonstrated this for extrinsic wine attributes in Australia and Cohen et al. (2011) demonstrated this specifically for varieties in Australia. So behavioural data on buyers does not reflect the impact of brands’ efforts to be different.

These perceived differences might be relevant to those who work the land, craft the product and perhaps a small number of the highest involved buyers who spend a significant time dwelling on the category.

However, what is going to actually increase the propensity to get bought is the distinctiveness that gets the wine noticed on a shelf or online via some pre-existing connection established through building memory structures to key category buying occasions, and the brand which helps it to enter the consideration set during a purchase occasion.

The wine category is constrained by current packaging types so brands have to work with what can be placed on a bottle and limited other formats as the main billboard for promoting their product in store or when displayed online.

From a graphic design perspective, there are said to be perceived visual codes for packaging for product categories which will leave a designer with the decision to either conform or attempt to innovate (Celhay et al. 2017).

Whilst Australia is recognised globally as an innovator in the wine sector, just how different are Australian brands from a labelling perspective? Research conducted by Celhay et al. (2017) analysed a broad selection of wine labels from both Bordeaux and Barossa.

For this article we will only discuss the Barossa. Celhay et al. (2017) found a strong alignment of visual codes concerning composition, layout, colours and typography of the labels.

However, the Barossa labels tended to differ in terms of the themes of style and illustration used with four main label styles evident: chateau, art, nature and winemaker.

The evidence from the Celhay et al. (2017) work suggests that Barossa brands are attempting to build their positioning through style and illustration where there tends to be greater variation.

There is a challenge for wine brands to stand out in the context of composition, layout, colours and typography. The Barossa may be more traditional than other regions that don’t have its long history, but the review of the Barossa suggests Australian wine labels are likely not as unique as we might believe.

Regardless of whether the brand strategy is to conform or deviate from category norms, understanding your distinctive assets presents an opportunity to be more distinctive and execute design effectiveness within a consistent framework that supports a broader growth strategy.

Brands need to review all the composite visual elements placed on a wine package in terms of their distinctiveness. Measurement of assets with wine buyers in a competitive set will allow brands to understand what not to change, emphasise the packaging assets that matter the most, indicate where there may be opportunities to evolve packaging to better influence being noticed and even indicate if there is a need to develop new assets.

This is why having a benchmark of your brand’s distinctive assets is so important. If building a new brand, it is recommended that before ideating a label design, brands start with the basics and focus on the science of growth in relation to who their customer base might be. You should be attempting to plan for a brand that will appeal to all potential category buyers.

Don’t limit your success by developing a brand to reach a particular demographic or tribe. You are looking to build a sustainable brand that will achieve success over time.

Be wary of being swayed by designers letting you know that particular colours, schemes and styles are what is fashionable now or specifically what young consumers want. You want to develop a brand that can stand the test of time.

Of course, in the brand’s infancy you might only be producing a specific red wine, for example, before you can scale and expand, but ideally you want to develop consistent branding and harness a set of design elements that, over time, you can build through co-presentation into distinctive assets.

On the other hand, established brands should avoid the temptation to change wherever possible unless a portfolio review demonstrates a schizophrenic approach to labelling without evidence of a consistent style.

It is recommended that brands obtain measurement of what their distinctive assets are from consumers and not the business. Understanding the metrics of fame, which are how many buyers can associate that asset with your brand, and uniqueness, which is the proportion of associations your brands get in the context of other brands, will help brands decide which assets are investable and if there are assets that should not be prioritised as they may be detrimental and cue competing brands.

With this knowledge in hand, brands can then develop a strategy to evolve labels and packaging over time to have better consistency that clearly present the strongest assets. It is recommended that in consideration of this attempt to align labels that the best-selling SKU should be used as the anchor assuming it prominently displays the identified distinctive assets. Distinctive assets help brands get noticed.


  • Celhay, F.; Masson, J.; Garcia, K.; Folcher, P. and Cohen, J. (2017) Package graphic design and innovation: a comparative study of Bordeaux and Barossa visual codes. Recherche et Applications en Marketing, pp.1-25.
  • Cohen, J. (2020) Change isn’t always a good thing — using distinctive assets to improve marketing strategy. Wine & Viticulture Journal 35(4):62-63.
  • Cohen, J. (2010) ‘Descriptive Patterns in Wine Buying’, doctoral thesis conferred by the University of South Australia.
  • Cohen, J.; Lockshin, L. and Sharp, B. (2011) A better understanding of the structure of a wine market using the attribute of variety. International Journal of Business & Globalisation 8(1):66-80.
  • Romaniuk, J. (2018) Building Distinctive Brand Assets. Melbourne, Oxford University Press.
  • Romaniuk, J. and Sharp, B. (2016) How brands grow: Part 2. Melbourne, Oxford University Press. Sharp, B. (2010) How brands grow. Melbourne, Oxford University Press.



This article was originally published in the Autumn issue of the Wine & Viticulture Journal. To find out more about our monthly magazine, or to subscribe, click here!

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