I’ll probably write about packaging design more than once. I’m sure I will.
When we began the design process that resulted in the original Buried Cane label, I wrote a creative brief. I do that before most new design processes begin. The creative brief is intended to provide direction to the designer. It also establishes any necessary parameters. In addition to this fairly mundane “here’s-what-we-want-you-to-do-and-these-are-the-limitations” instructions, the creative brief is enormously valuable in two other ways:
1. Writing a good creative brief forces me and my employers to be clear about what it is we’re doing, and why we’re doing it; and,
2. A well-written creative brief specifies outcomes for all parties, so that we can avoid “goal creep.”
But let me take a step back. There were actually two creative briefs for this “Washington Project” (that’s what we originally called it). The first was for a brand we called “Stormchaser” and this is what we wrote in the creative brief:
- Wines from the “dry side” … blends with evergreen style and varietal edge.
- But they should be able to carry a varietal designation …
- We’re assuming only two wines to start, based on Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, but blended with small amounts of something unusual
- CABERNET, and … (our Cab is marked with a slash of Shiraz)
- CHARDONNAY, and … (our Chardonnay’s long legs are swathed in Riesling)
- The lesser blending components, ideally, will sound a little “out there” to the wine cognoscenti, but those “out there” components must add some real style and flavor
Target Market: 21-35, women and men, U.S. national
Suggested Retail Price: $9-12 per 750ml
Packaging: Glass (traditional shapes), finished with screwcap. Label riffing on “noir” graphic art (current graphic novel look) but with a urban wine story carried through the label art (still with a sense of menace).
Concept Testing: Propose taking three label design concepts forward to on-line consumer survey.
Three different designers worked on this project. We took three different designs out for consumer input, using an on-line consumer survey process developed by MarketTools Inc.
The survey results not only gave us no clear indication which label design would work with consumers, the results also made us question the premise of our brand. Many survey respondents wanted something that looked more traditionally wine-like. We thought they’d want edgy, but they asked for traditional.
While we were mulling over the survey results, our national sales manager (who had advised us that distributors wanted varietals, not blends … thus the qualified language about blends and varietal naming in the creative brief above) suggested that what the distributors ALSO wanted was something that looked like the successful national brands from Washington State (at that time): Chateau Ste. Michelle and Columbia Crest.
We didn’t think our “Stormchaser” name was going to work on a more conservative wine brand, so we were pretty much back to the drawing board. Then, on a sales meeting tour of vineyards in the Walla Walla Valley, we were explaining the process for burying vine canes as insurance against winter freeze. “Buried Cane” said Rich Hanen, “That could be a cool wine name.”
Next: The second creative brief, in Rebranding Buried Cane, part 4.Share on Facebook
We set out with Buried Cane to make prototypical Washington State wines. That was the national distribution niche opportunity we were chasing. However, it has become very clear, from our presentations to wholesale distributors, retailers, restaurants, and consumers that while being a Washington wine is an interesting point of differentiation, it is not adequate to make a sale.
It is a rare wine consumer indeed who sets to wine shopping saying to himself (or herself), “I think I want a Washington wine today.”
No, they begin by deciding whether or not they want to buy wine at all, then think white or red or pink or sparkling, sweet or dry. From there they step up to a choice among varietals and wine brands (familiar or new), then settle on a price range as they peruse labels (on a store shelf) or wine names (on a restaurant list). About then “where’s the wine from?” might enter the decision making process. Pretty far down the list.
There are “homer” markets where local wines have a step up on the non-local competition. Thus, Washington wine is usually easier to sell in Washington than it is in Texas, for example.
Wine retailers and restaurateurs know this. Washington wines aren’t rare or special enough for their Washingtonness alone to get them on the shelf or list. They have to fit in with what the retail or restaurant account is doing (price, style, and range of offerings), and they have to have something extra, a “cool” factor (unless they are one of the handful of major national brands that are “must carries” in many accounts).
The “cool” factor, and the back-story appeal to wine geeks, is what can hook the retail or restaurant buyer, and get them to help sell our wine. That cool wine geekiness is also what appeals to the wine media: A story hook for an article, column, or review.
We had “pretty good wine from Washington State.”
That’s not enough wine geek coolth to get much of a sniff or swirl out of a wine buyer.
To begin our rebranding, we did a couple of obvious things for our winery. We began obviously identifying the Middleton family as the owners and operators of the winery, and played up the family heritage (a fourth generation family business in Washington State, founded in 1898). We began talking about Brian Rudin as the winemaker, and quoting him in information, press releases, sales materials, and the like. Having real people associated with a winery is essential for it to have any “personality” (duh). The family heritage and winemaker connection lift the winery’s story about just pretty good wine from Washington State.
We began doing lots more consumer wine tasting events in Washington State (something we need to keep focus on). Along with our regional restaurant partnership label (Anthony’s), participation in high-profile and high-attendance wine tasting events helps make the Buried Cane name familiar.
What about the wines themselves? I’ll focus on Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon because they are the primary Buried Cane varietals, for now and for the future.
We started out with the idea that the Chardonnay should have no or very low sensory character from oak fermentation or aging. Washington fruit (whether grapes or apples) has a general perception of (and reputation for) crispness. We wanted to emphasize that. What we’re doing now is running more vigorously down that path. Early harvest from vineyard sites that can give us mature varietal flavors at lower harvest sugars – that results in crisp wines (because they retain more natural acidity if we can harvest them earlier) with lower alcohol (less sugar yields less alcohol post fermentation). No oak barrels – no oak in fermentation or aging – so as not to mask the crisp, fresh fruit flavor. No malo-lactic fermentation (a secondary fermentation that converts malic acid into lactic acid and carbon dioxide) – “ML” as it is called gives Chardonnay a softer buttery character. We don’t want that, we want zesty zingy crispness!
This Chardonnay style may not be unique to Buried Cane, but it is different from most Chardonnay (although we’re beginning to see a few more no-oak bottlings). This style gives us something to think about, and talk about, and differentiation in our positioning. We can go into restaurants and identify real opportunities on wine lists. There is often a way to fit in a new no-oak, racy crisp Chardonnay by the glass, especially if it’s reasonably priced. We’re getting a little cool factor going with the Chard.
Cabernet Sauvignon is our current challenge. It’s a pretty good wine, and getting pretty gooder, as we refine our vineyard site selections and harvest protocols, vintage by vintage. It tastes like Washington State Cabernet Sauvignon (a little leaner and more elegant) rather than California Cabernet Sauvignon (usually riper and softer tasting). But pretty good (or pretty gooder) Washington Cabernet Sauvignon still doesn’t hit the cool factor. What do we do, or what should we be doing, in our Cabernet growing and winemaking that makes us something interesting and special? What would make some wine buyers (we don’t need all of them, just some of them) pay attention and say, “I need that Buried Cane Cabernet Sauvignon in my shop or cafe!”
The answer may be in the vineyards, or it may be in our winemaking plans, or in our blending creativity, or in our maturation process, or in our finishing and bottling (all Buried Cane wines are currently finished with screwcaps, by the way). We need to identify what it is that makes Buried Cane Cabernet Sauvignon special, focus on and heighten that specialness, and communicate that specialness to the correct subset of wine buyers (those who might care about what it is that makes us special). Then we’ll have a cool wine, and something to build upon other than “pretty good wine from Washington State.”
Next week I’ll start in on packaging design, the most important way we tell our story, in “Rebranding Buried Cane, part 3.”Share on Facebook
1. We created a wine called Buried Cane, with (ultimately) six varietal SKUs … Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, Merlot, Pinot Grigio, and Syrah;
2. Buried Cane is Washington State wines, targeted to retail in the $12-14 range, and developed to fill a perceived wholesale distribution niche opportunity, back in 2007;
3. That wholesale distribution opportunity either didn’t really exist, or disappeared during the economic recession (during which suppliers of all types have been working to reduce standing inventories and avoiding launching new brands);
4. Our original thought was to produce a limited amount of each wine from each vintage, then expand that quantity by sourcing similar wine on the bulk wine market, as necessary to meet growing sales deman;
5. But the Washington bulk wine market isn’t as robust and active as is the California bulk wine market, so we produced wine to match our sales plan projections;
6. With a new wine, and no base of sales, producing to match sales plan projections is risky;
7. And we ended up with substantial inventories of multiple vintages of Buried Cane varietals, with no or slow sales in the US wine market;
8. We identified and sold a few large customers (at reduced prices) to help reduce inventories;and,
9. We discovered that there was little interest and opportunity for us to move unbottled inventories in the Washington bulk wine market.
In 2008 and 2009, as we were trying to introduce Buried Cane around the US, and encountering such wholesale distributor resistance during these recessionary times, our sales team hung two criticism’s around the neck of the Buried Cane wines: First, they were too expensive; Second, the label was bad.
If you’ve been in the wine business long (I’ve been in the wine business since 1981) you will have heard these indictments many times before. Occasionally they’re true. Usually they’re a wild exaggeration or over-simplification. Many wines have succeeded with odd pricing and bizarre packaging. Those wine creators may be hailed as geniuses. Sometimes that’s true. More often, they were selling into a open or under-supplied market niche opportunity (either because they were in fact geniuses, or by luck and accident).
With Buried Cane, we missed our niche (see item 3 in the review list above). And we were then tarnished with the “too expensive, bad label” excuse.
Once your wine is so tarnished, there are only three options.
You can abandon the project entirely, and take the enormous financial hit associated with that (you’ll lose money).
Or you can drop the price and change the label, a sop to satisfy sales team distress (you’ll lose money).
Or, if you believe in what you started, you can rebrand and rebuild from the ground up, which is expensive and complicated. Which may not work. But if it does work, there’s a chance to NOT lose money, and maybe even make a little.
We chose the third path. And we’re on that path now. We’re thinking hard about what it is we’re doing. What’s so special about our winery and wines? And if we can’t express anything special, why are we doing this? How can we make our wines more special and interesting? We’re reducing the number of SKUs we make, to enhance focus for marketing and sales. And, yes, we’re working on our packaging to make sure it tells the story of how we’re special and interesting, in ways that should attract interest from potential customers.
Tomorrow, in “Rebranding Buried Cane, part 2,” I’ll talk about making cool wines. Then we’ll move on, next week, to how we’re communicating the specialness of our winery and wines, in our packaging and beyond.Share on Facebook
California wineries and distillers buy bulk wine for several reasons:
1. Because they have a wine sales program that needs more wine. Say you’re a winery that makes a Paso Robles Zinfandel, but your current supply and sources aren’t providing as much Paso Robles Zinfandel as you can sell. If you can purchase appropriate wine quality and quantity bulk from another winery, at a price that fits your production model, you have the opportunity to increase sales, securet market share, and make money.
2. Because you have a wine that needs other components to fit your target sensory profile. If you have a Cabernet Sauvignon that usually contains 20% Merlot (perhaps to soften the tannins, or add fruit character), but your Merlot is too hard and tannic in a particular vintage, you could source a softer fruitier Merlot on the bulk market to adjust the sensory profile of your Cabernet Sauvignon blend.
3. Because you are a distiller, or wine vinegar maker, and you need raw material for your product. This is usually the last option, if you’re a bulk wine seller, because these buyers pay the lowest prices.
Because there are many wineries in California, using many different wine label appellations (from tiny AVAs to the general California appellation), there are opportunities to sell wildly different quantities (from a hundred gallons to many thousands of gallons) and wildly different prices (from pennies on the gallon to thirty dollars a gallon or more) depending upon individual customer needs.
Indeed, the California bulk wine market offers those with access to customers the opportunity to make wine without ever crushing a grape. If you know you can sell 10,000 cases of unoaked Chardonnay to a restaurant chain in the Southeastern US, you can certainly find a winery to source and bottle that wine for you.
You might wonder why the winery wouldn’t sell to the restaurant chain directly. Ah, well, that’s one of the keys to successful business: Having CUSTOMERS. If you have a customer, you can be in business. If you just have the product, you either need to go develop some customers, or hire someone who has them. There is no public bourse for accounts buying and selling wine. Selling wine is still largely about relationships and connections, unless you have a well-reviewed highly-desirable wine in hand.
But back to Buried Cane, which is in Washington State. While there is bulk wine buying and selling in Washington State, it is on a much smaller scale than in California. If you made 3,000 cases of Riesling, but really only want to bottle and sell 1,000, you can try to sell the other 2,000 cases-worth as bulk wine, before you brand the goods. But in Washington State there aren’t many customers for that much wine. Despite it being a major wine producing region (2nd in the USA, after California), it is still much smaller than California … which crushed 24 times as many tons of wine grapes as did Washington in 2009.
We chased bulk wine sales, and we chased sales for private label and other brands. At the end of the day, those are far less available for Washington wine than they are for California wine. And worse, in a recession.
Tomorrow: Rebranding!Share on Facebook
Continuing the Buried Cane story …
We have wine, in a bottle, with a label, and sunk costs for multiple vintages. But no customer demand.
First, we put our sales team to work looking for a few large drop sales. The objective with this is to ship hundreds of cases to an account, or to a chain, rather than build account by account. We had to drop our price (so we don’t make any money), but we can catch up vintages and inventories a little. This worked in a small way, because we got a couple of good hits, and pushed the wine into some distribution. But it didn’t build a long-term base for Buried Cane. Nor did it take care of the inventory back up. And we made no money.
Second, we knew that another Washington winery had abandoned a “partner” label program with which some of our team had previously been involved. We went after that business ourselves. A “partner” label is a brand that is clearly connected to a particular account (in this case, a restaurant chain) in its packaging, while retaining its own brand identity. We cut the deal, on wine quality and price, and hurried to present packaging. Fortunately, we were able to create an oversticker for the upper diamond on the Buried Cane label. The oversticker carried the account logo and branding. We got the new label approved by the TTB (the federal agency that governs alcohol beverage production and sales). And established a steady, significant piece of business. We now had great brand exposure in our home market (the Pacific Northwest), but we still weren’t making any money.
Third, we re-focused our efforts in the Pacific Northwest, to begin account by account brand building in the home market, where we had the promotional benefit of the “partner” label. We worked the streets with our wholesaler, and tasked our public relations team to involve us with high profile charitable events in Washington State. Instead of counting on broad national distribution to get Buried Cane going, we dug into sales and promotion in our own backyard.
We’re still looking for those larger drop sales, particularly for those varietals that aren’t part of the “partner” label program.
And we started in on two other key angles: Inventory adjustment prior to bottling and labeling, and re-introducing Buried Cane with more exciting wines and a more compelling story (rather than relying on that distribution niche we originally identified as the opportunity for the winery). I’ll discuss those two other key angles tomorrow and the day after respectively.Share on Facebook
Here’s why that seemed like it should work. In most U.S. wine markets, there are at least two dominant wholesale distributors. Those two dominant distributors (Southern or NDC or Charmer/Sunbelt or another major regional player) usually carried one of the two nationally distributed lines of Washington wines: Ste.Michelle Wine Estates or the portfolio from Constellation Brands. With Clayhouse Wines, we are usually with a third distributor (not one of the dominant two). That third distributor lacked any major brand or wine portfolio from Washington, and we had the connections to create the wine to fill that open niche in our distributors’ book of wines.
We went out and bought wine, sourced grapes, set up winemaking, designed labels, created sales materials, and launched Buried Cane (which is named for a cold weather viticultural technique common in Washington State). And then … nothing.
The opportunity we had identified was either gone or had never really existed. By the time we hit the market, the economic recession had begun. No wine company wanted new brands to inventory and sell. There was no support from our wholesale distributors. But we had plenty of wine. Indeed, we had already INCREASED our commitment to the brand by switching to custom capsules, bottling multiple vintages, and creating promotional plans and materials.
All for a wine brand with these key selling points:
1. It’s from Washington!
2. The wines are pretty good!
3. We’re priced higher than the successful national brands from Washington!
What next: Check back tomorrow.Share on Facebook
Get grapes. Add yeast. Ferment and press (if red) or press and ferment (if white). Age in oak if appropriate. Settle, fine and/or filter. Bottle. Wait a few days or a few months or a few years. Open bottle. Drink.
If that’s what you’re after, you’re in the wrong place.
Vin Create is about making wine commercially. When you expect (or hope) that someone will buy the wine you’ve made.
Making wine TO SELL. Not always (or often) easy.Share on Facebook