Goodbye, castles and pastel hues. Hello, hexagons, rectangles and bold splashes of yellow, green, brown and black.
In the field of wine-label design, classical realism is giving way to a sort of vibrant cubism.
At least that's the message enterprising wine vendors may take from a recent study by two European economists. In what they bill as the first published work on how consumers respond to shapes on wine labels, they argue that some shape-colour combinations are distinctly more effective at conveying quality than others. For some reason, yellow rectangles and green stop signs, among other compositions, have special powers.
"We were surprised to see that there are very resilient combinations," Luiz de Mello, a Paris-based economist and co-author of the study, told me over the phone. (Dr. de Mello works for the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, but this research was unconnected to his work with the OECD.) In the study, Dr. de Mello and colleague Ricardo Pires Goncalves, of the department of business economics at the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona in Spain, presented a group of Spanish students at Dr. Pires's university with dozens of colour-shape combinations (blue circles, green diamonds, red triangles, for example). The students were asked to choose which they liked best.
If it sounds like no-brainer research you could perform with friends over a hearty bottle of merlot at your dining table, it's not. The economists deployed a barrage of inscrutable math equations to ensure statistical relevance. They also specifically studied shapes used as part of the label imagery rather than the external border of the label itself, which is predominantly rectangular.
And while much has been published in marketing literature about colours - yellow and green are generally perceived as exciting and imaginative; loud colours can imply frivolous products; dark, rich colours are associated with high quality - perhaps the most surprising finding of the paper is that shapes elicit even stronger preferences.
"There is a role for shape that people had neglected in the literature," Dr. de Mello said.
In the lead by a significant margin were rectangles, round-cornered rectangles (like an old TV screen) and hexagons. Dr. de Mello sees the hexagon revelation as potentially significant because the shape is not widely associated with wine. (Curiously, there is a Portuguese wine called Hexagon but it has a square label.)
Regrettably, the researchers don't name brand names. That would have entailed a totally different set of observations and would have opened up the experiment to biases. But I pressed Dr. de Mello - who, like many wine economists, is a wine aficionado - for a glaring example of a wine that may embody the quality cues underscored by his findings.
"The other day I was in a wine shop and I saw the Guigal Côte-Rôtie," a $70 red from a highly regarded producer in France's Rhone Valley. "It has a horizontal rectangle, green and yellow and brown characters, and I said, 'That's it, that's exactly what we found.'"
The full name of that 100-per-cent syrah is E. Guigal Côte-Rôtie Brune et Blonde, named after the "brown" and "yellow" slopes on which the grapes are grown. If you can't find it on the shelves but want to get a sense of its appearance, look for the more widely available E. Guigal Côtes du Rhône at about $18. They're almost identical.
For what it's worth, I love the Guigal Côte-Rôtie and Côtes du Rhône labels. A rectangular frame set inside the label's square border depicts a faint, barely visible sketch of a river, with the appellation name across the centre and "E. Guigal" at the centre-bottom of the sketch printed on a sort of faux plaque, like the nameplate on an old painting in a museum. They're classical and subtly evocative of the French countryside but not stodgy or banal like so many château-centric designs.
Guigal aside, the preferred shapes and colours identified by the study are easier to spot in contemporary designs, notably and perhaps not surprisingly on bestselling bottles from such New World regions as Australia and New Zealand. Some go so far as to reinforce the popular colours, as in Wolf Blass Yellow Label and Casella's Yellow Tail.
Yellows and greens and rectangles abound among other top-selling wines, including Babich Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand and Barefoot Pinot Grigio from California. But after browsing the aisles of a large liquor store last week, I concluded there were at least as many bestselling wines that did not reinforce the paper's findings as those that did.
The researchers believe their study is especially relevant now because of the shifting wine-design mentality. "In this new setting, the now well-studied quality signals associated with the château-on-pastel-background paradigm breaks down," they write. "A question that emerges is therefore how consumers infer quality, and hence their willingness to pay for a bottle of wine, when they are confronted with labels that do not conform to the conventional compositional patterns. This is particularly relevant in the case of infrequent drinkers, who are known to rely more heavily than regular drinkers on the information provided in labels."
As the researchers go on to note, the most affordable way to change a product is to change the packaging.
The findings may also be especially relevant in a post-critter world. The past decade has seen an explosion of cutesy graphics depicting animals, notably on wines from Australia, such the iconic kangaroo of Yellow Tail. Research shows that "there is a certain fatigue with those labels," Dr. de Mello said.
The paper, published this month by the American Association of Wine Economists, is not without its shortcomings. The biggest of which, the authors freely acknowledge, may be the age and cultural confines of the study group, namely Spanish students in their 20s. Would a 70-year-old Ukrainian-Canadian retiree in Edmonton or a middle-aged Chinese-Canadian lawyer in Burnaby, B.C., have different preferences? Probably. I for one know I would buy any wine that had the shape of a football on it.
The researchers say their intention is to study other countries and different age groups, ideally France, where the wine market tends to be much more conservative. Who knows, maybe they'll find that somewhere in the world it's hip to be square.