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Hunter Valley wine brands and branding

What's good, mediocre, bad or just plain ugly in wine branding in the Lower Hunter Valley? A weekend visit provided an opportunity to assess developments.

With over 120 wineries the Hunter Valley region in New South Wales has huge brand pull. It is the most popular tourist destination outside Sydney. In 2006 it is estimated that 2.3 million tourists visited the region, up from about 1 million in 1996-97 and 1.5 million in 1998-99.

Turning to individual wineries here are facts or personal opinions on the good, mediocre, bad and ugly.

The Good

An obvious entrant in the good category is Scarborough. It has built a strong and elegant "brand architecture" by:

  • branding bottles prominently with the name Scarborough on labels and seals; and
  • branding a wine range segmented by screw-top cap colours, eg yellow, white, blue etc.

hunter_tempus_twoOne exceptional practice distinguishes the Scarborough brand from all cellar doors I've ever visited. It is its restaurant-like table service. Visitors immediately have a table set for them. They sit, receive plates of cheese and crackers and, most importantly, have an attractive glossy "place mat" put before them. Several tasting glasses are then placed on the "mat" adjacent to the name of the variety written on and described briefly on the "mat". So you can more comfortably and conveniently sit, taste, read and experience the wine. Each of my weekend companions on my table walked away with a mixed dozen.

Scarborough was established in the mid-1980 by Ian Scarborough, a winemaker whose experience stretches back to 1969 and involves working with Peter Lehmann at Saltram Wines (Barossa Valley), Ryecroft (McLaren Vale), and Tullochs (Hunter Valley). Scarborough is focused on domestic sales, not exports. It is recognised as producing among the very best chardonnays from the region, or anywhere in Australia in my opinion.

Yet even for Australia it has no trade mark registration. It could get one if it wanted one. But it now has to compete with a logo trade mark registration in Australia for Scarborough Fair, in class 33 covering wine, effective from 5 April 2005.

Scarborough could also achieve more if its Website was refreshed. Its existing Web presence is surprisingly low level. Not one decent image of a Scarborough bottle is captured by Google, Sensis or Yahoo!7 images. The simple fact is that improved Web presence helps win court case legal battles over brands.

I've focused on Scarborough to make some comments in depth. Over the last decade some new wineries have gone for modern architect-designed cellar doors, distinctive groovy labels and original bottle designs. Not all the new labels work effectively from either design or legal perspectives in my opinion. At a glance good ones include Bimbadgen Estate, Tempus Two and De Iuliis. However, I can't quite see the point of De Iuliis then having as its domain www.dewine.com.au. Like Scarborough, Tempus Two could benefit by improving its Website.

The Mediocre

Wine makers tend to see the world from their perspective - let's call it the growing environment perspective. This is only natural. Wine industry people love their work and their environment, so they reproduce it in bottle labels and marketing images.

It never ceases to amaze me that many wine makers fixate on images of trees, vineyard, rocks, grapes, and grapes with rain droplets on them. All very sensual. But are the images equally inspiring for the bulk of consumers?

Ask yourself if the bulk of consumers get as excited about these growing environment images as the wine makers obviously do? Are not the wine consumers more interested in what they do with wine and when they do it? They enjoy it. They enjoy it with friends, over a BBQ, at parties and events. Call all this the consuming environment perspective. Time for a label refresh?

The Bad

Some wine labels in the region continue to make the following strange brand selection and use decisions:

  • use of obscure or unappealing brand names;
  • multiple colours and fonts used on bottle labels for the name of the producer, the winery and the variety;
  • difficult to read images on bottle labels, eg all text in a gold colour on an all black label;
  • placing brand names behind images, such as behind a painting of a tree, thus making the brand name hard to see and read; and
  • placing the main brand in a position on the label which is not the main position catching the eye, eg too far up or down on the label.

In trade mark and brand infringement legal cases these minute "legal design" points of detail become the battle ground for determination as to whether there is, or is not, a legal breach of brand monopoly rights. It is best to seek legal advice BEFORE wine bottle label design decisions are finalised.

The Ugly

In magazines freely distributed in the region you come across blood red photos of human hands shoveling crushed red grapes. Not all the images are appealing to consumers. One photo resembles the  bloody slaughtering of a pig. I fooled one of my weekend companions into thinking that is what the photo represented. My ruse worked for up to 20 seconds. Everyone at the table was in debate, is it a pig slaughter or is it not?

In those magazines another winery takes pride in displaying its wine next to an unappealing, and out of focus, photo of a St. Bernard dog. The photo appears in the 2006 and 2007 Hunter Valley Wine Country Visitors Guide. Nice dog, but does it sell the wine?

Speaking of Hunter Valley dogs, leading this post is the photo of Maynard which graces the cover of the hit book, Wine Dogs. The book is published by a client of our firm, Sydney publishing house, Giant Dog which also publishes Footy Dogs.  Maynard is an Australianwine_barrel blue healer and Australia's most famous wine dog, having worked with Len Evans, then with the folks at Brokenwood and now with Tower Estate.

This review ends with a note to keep it in perspective. While the focus here and in the Further Reading list is on branding, in fact wine quality and price are vastly more important in their role in helping to sell wine.


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