Meet George, my hound. Apart from being adorable click bait, he’s going to serve as an unlikely but apt segue into a post about wine labels, art direction and the power of intrigue…for humans. Stick with me.
Sometimes I take George out with the short leash, but more often we take the long retractable because I like watching him be a dog, meandering and smelling…everything. His extended snout, long neck and slightly shorter legs allow him to walk at a steady clip with his nose right on the ground. Hound breeds also have millions more olfactory cells and epic nostrils. He gets so focused on scent that sights and sounds often catch him by surprise. That one almighty sense creates attraction, focus and much intrigue as to what lay ahead.
The intrigue of sight, stimuli and perceptual logic.
While smell is the dominant stimulus for George, for you and me it’s sight. Our eyes, directly hardwired into our brains, are powerful influencers on our immediate attention and subsequent behavior. Sight first suggests what is happening in front of us—the intrigue—then, in the next nanosecond, sometimes longer, the logical part of our brain tries to work out what is really happening based on things like context and additional stimuli. The more intrigue, the more we’re compelled to deepen our understanding. It’s only human: visual stimuli and interpretation have been key to our survival for 200,000 years. Though a bit less important but equally as interesting, it’s also why art direction can be so effective.
Loitering in Whole Foods.
I was reminded of this last week while in Whole Foods waiting to see a client. I was passing time in their wine shop and, as I did, I realized that the first few labels that caught my eye were strongly or entirely based on illustrations. So I did what any design-obsessed person does and started snapping photos.
As I noticed these wines, I would pick them up and spin them around to get more information. For me it underscored the importance of 1. being different enough to be noticed (visual stimulus) and 2. being intriguing enough to be compelling (need to interpret). Both responses may happen subconsciously and in a blink, but they’re often necessary precursors to purchase, especially for a new product or brand. Purchase, of course, ultimately depends on the effect of the experience, emotionally and logically.
Old and trusty AIDA: attention, interest, desire, action.
The instinctive way to communicate on packaging, and what seems to be the predominant way, is to literally give the consumer whatever is needed to get them to buy the product. After all, purchase is the goal. But in any sales, focusing too completely on the end goal tends to overlook that a purchase is most often a mental journey. The result of overlooking that fact (shortcutting distinction and intrigue which are features of the purchase path) is a package that overwhelms with information. AIDA, folks.
Yeah, I do judge a book by its cover and so do you.
There are many analogs to packaging in my mind. Book jackets for one. Ironically, the old salt, “You can’t judge a book by its cover,” is a better metaphor for people than is a truism about actual books. It is why publishers pay much attention to the title, subtitle, typography, colors, images, and the paper stock and printing treatments for the book jacket. Fashion is another. Clothes are our labels. They say something about what’s going on inside. Like a book jacket, clothing is not the entire story, but just enough to intrigue someone to look deeper—to “consider” the next step.
One might argue that certain products—like wine—have more liberty to take chances and favor intrigue over information. Perhaps. It might be an emotionally-driven purchase for a dinner with guests, more utilitarian when you just need a bottle of plonk after slogging through a long Monday. Yet, wine has some lessons other packaged goods brands can take to heart. Storytelling is one. Since it’s packaging, nobody’s going to literally be able to convey a complex story, but intrigue can be developed through figurative storytelling. Imagery, product name, typography, color—all serve story. Semiotics is the term.
Going with illustrative and abstract visual messages is all the more amazing when you consider that, which exception of the very largest brands, wine marketers do little to no advertising. Instead of having print, outdoor, digital and TV to tell their story, they have about 15 square inches to catch your eye, physically draw you in, engage your mind and convince you to part with an average of $15 for a brand you hadn’t heard of just a few seconds ago. Quite the challenge.
Speaking of cost. If you have a more price-elastic customer (as wine buyers are) and/or are trying to establish your brand as premium (as many wines are), you need to build a compelling emotional component of your brand story. There’s not a lot of logic that compels you to step up from a $20 bottle to one twice as expensive. Maybe a Wine Spectator rating, a good vintage, the little employee recommendation cards—but mostly wine customers are feeling their way there, not thinking their way there.
It’s kinda crowded around here.
Another reality in the wine aisle: it’s crowded. The lesson is that, if your product is part of a bigger set of competitors, you really need some way to stand out. Wines are doing this by not only being graphically different on the label, as with the bold illustrations, but via tactile features of the paper, the label die and the “glass”—the actual bottle. Not too long ago, there were just the traditional types of bottles: Bordeaux, Burgundy, Alsace and a few other styles. These days, wines are really pushing creativity in the bottle shape, color, quality, and texture. Sometimes that means the “glass” is not even glass, but cartons, bags and cans. As with liquors, glass can be the visual stimulus, and wineries now are ditching conventions and embracing the idea of being intriguing in any way possible.
Your takeaway from my visit to the wine aisle and George’s whiskered proboscis? Embrace the reality that humans naturally and predictably react to interesting visual stimuli, so get creative in the area of art direction to really pull people into your story. Also, remember that people really do take a path to purchase, so do something to get noticed, be intriguing, then close the deal—in that order.