Devil's Advocate - Time to Take Back Labels Seriously

New EU regulations are going to force the wine industry to focus its attention on back labels. Robert Joseph argues that this is no bad thing.

Reading time: 4m 45s

Robert Joseph - the Devil's Advocate
Robert Joseph - the Devil's Advocate

What is an advertisement? According to one simple, widely quoted, definition, it’s “the means of communication in which a product, brand or service is promoted to a viewership in order to attract interest, engagement and sales”.

Advertising space is usually priced by the square centimetre. Most advertisers would love to have more of those centimetres than they can afford, and would be overjoyed if anyone offered them some for nothing.

But read that first paragraph again. Why would it not apply to a wine label (around 60cm2)? A back label (another 40cm2? The carton used to ship the bottles (240cm2 for a six-pack)? The van in which they are transported? The exterior of the winery? All of which are available means to promote the brand to the ‘viewership’ for nothing or at minimal cost.

Wine won’t sell itself

Some wine producers have understood this perfectly. Anyone who has visited a liquor store in the US will have noticed the effort that has gone into the design of the cartons, promotional stacks of which are often the first thing a shopper sees when walking through the door. People who keep their eyes open when walking through the car parks at ProWein will have noticed occasional vehicles bearing the logos of winemakers.

But these are the exceptions, especially in Europe where wine is still supposed to sell itself. Even the front label often gets far too little attention, and many wineries persist in seeing no need to provide a back label unless obliged to do so by retailers who demand the presence of a barcode.

Back labels, like modern wine tourism, are generally viewed as a New World invention, and it’s certainly far rarer to see a US, South American or Australian wine go backless than one from France or Italy. But even in countries that have been routinely using them for decades, the back label is often treated in much the same thoughtless way as the necktie worn by many male office workers.

A place for mandatory information

Now, however, EU regulations are set to make back labels almost obligatory, even for the smartest estates. Producers of wines sold in Europe will have to provide ingredient and nutritional information, either in the form of printed text or via a dedicated QR code, neither of which will sit very happily on the main label of any wine. The warning symbol featuring a pregnant woman that is now mandatory in Ireland and some other markets doesn’t look very good there either.

Many, or perhaps most, of the historically backless brigade will grumpily put a back label together that includes everything that is demanded by the authorities and retailers. Maybe, because there’s a bit of space left, they’ll add a few words about how their estate dates back to the 1700s, or that the white wine in the bottle will go well with fish and white meat, or that the wine tastes ‘refreshingly crisp and dry’.

This will all be a step forward but, as Margaret Nolan, Global Creative Director of the Australian studio Denomination, pointed out in a recent piece in DIELINE, failing to treat the back label with the attention it deserves is to miss out on a crucial opportunity.

News Wine

The EU has amended existing wine declaration regulations – eliminating foil casing requirements for sparkling wine. The new provisions will be effective from 8th December 2023.

Reading time: 2m 45s

Make the back label work harder

I agree with Nolan, but would caution against paying too much attention to a 1999 study she cites suggesting that “57% of respondents “read the back label to help inform their decision when buying a bottle of wine”. While having been published by academics I know and respect, the research in question “was conducted among 56 students attending courses on wine and society in both South Australia”. How representative was this small group, nearly 25 years ago, of what happens in the real world today?

My own — admittedly less academically rigorous — research, based on observing shoppers in various retail stores and supermarkets, suggests that very few take the time to turn a bottle around before placing it in their basket. Most are more driven by an attractive price and familiar or eye-catching main label. And, quite likely, in the case of the women who are still the largest cohort of wine purchasers in supermarkets, by their desire to get their shopping done as rapidly and efficiently as possible.

Searching information at home

But the moment of purchase is not the only time that matters. This is a mistake that those who doubt the value of putting a QR code link to a website often make when they rhetorically ask: “How many people are going to scan a bottle when they’re in a store?”

The more useful question is “How many might read a back label and possibly scan a QR code when they’re at home – very possibly holding an unfamiliar bottle that was given to them or that they don’t remember buying?”

Even if this number were only 5% of the people who encounter that wine, this could represent thousands who might, just possibly, share some or all of what they have discovered with their friends and families who, as we know, have the greatest influence of all on consumer buying decisions.

Creative design 

Nolan’s point, as a designer, is that, with relatively little effort, it is possible to increase the percentage who do read the back label.

Why make it rectangular? she asks, offering examples of back labels that are oval, and irregularly shaped. Why not include eye-catching graphics that relate to the main label? Or symbols that might take up less space than words?

Bumblebee label - by Denomination Design
Bumblebee label - by Denomination Design
One Good Turn label - by Denomination Design"
One Good Turn label - by Denomination Design"

Things to consider

A long list of research papers suggest that some indication of wine style would be welcome, at the very least in the form of freshness, richness, sweetness, oakiness and fullness of body. It is arrogant to presume that everyone who picks up a bottle of Assyrtiko will know — or bother to google to discover — how it is likely to taste.

But, having just had to produce a back label for a super-premium Georgian white wine, I appreciate that, at $30 in a shop or three times that number in a restaurant, maybe descriptions are less appropriate. For wines at these higher prices, that are often hand-sold, the messaging might be different.

For larger volume brands, we no longer have to rely on hunches and guesswork when making these decisions. We can apply A/B testing – using different back labels with their own QR codes. We can also, with the help of our distributors in a large country like the US, measure whether offering different messages alters sales patterns in similar markets.

This data needs to be analysed carefully, but bear in mind that even a difference of one or two percent could have a significant long-term effect on a company’s bottom line.

The importance of getting a brand messaging just right is understood by the people who are commissioning advertising campaigns costing hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars. It should be treated just as seriously by those of us with tiny budgets but who still share that same need to “communicate… in order to attract interest, engagement, and sales”.

Insights Wine tourism

When a panel of wine industry experts convened to discuss the latest SVB Annual Direct-to-Consumer Wine Survey Report, they also offered some suggestions on how to make more money. Felicity Carter listened in.

Reading time: 6m



Latest Articles