Simplicity of Semiotics

There have been enormous innovations in the wine market in recent years. From the debate about replacing cork with plastic stoppers and twist-off caps to the use of boxes, bladders and even Tetra Paks, there probably has not been such industrywide upheaval in wine packaging for centuries.

But the downside of innovation is that it can appear to be "mere" novelty. In other words, is the carton truly an improvement to the experience of wine? We know where the purists come down on this issue! And is there a category whose definition and experience of value is more bound by tradition than wine?

Questions of this sort will ultimately be answered by the forces of the marketplace, but questions that deal with the visibility of brands in a dense merchandizing environment can be handled with some degree of confidence. The reason is that while the "shelfscape" is constantly changing, the perceptual apparatus of the shopper is constant.

Minutes of truth

As readers of this journal well know, the proverbial "first moment of truth" is approximately 2.5 seconds. That is, most decisions about simple household products are actually unconscious. What is surprising is that, for the most part, consumers make all decisions based on the emotional filtering system that drives that 2.5-second cycle—even when choosing, for instance, a financial institution. The average length of time most consumers spend when choosing a bank is (drum roll please) less than three minutes! That's right, under 200 seconds.

Now here is the kicker: Recent industry research indicates that wine shoppers spend a whopping six minutes on choosing a bottle of wine. That is twice as much time as on where they place their money! This reality tells us a lot about wine selection.
First, it is obvious that there is a clearly perceived potential penalty for a bad selection. It could be poor taste, or the possibility of making a statement that is out of character, either for the guests or the host.

Then there is the idea that the decision is somehow deliberate, even though the contents are (probably) unknown—which means that the consumer is making a series of inferences based on the package. So, how can designers get more tactical about making deep, lasting impressions during this almost luxurious time frame?
This is where the value of a semiotic approach comes in. Semiotics, the science of signs, offers a clear and simple framework to assess and compare various communication strategies from a functional and practical point of view. Semiotic analysis begins with a survey of the basic mechanisms that drive meaning, the signs that actually do the communicating.

Categories of signs

To start, there are three basic types of signs: 1) symbols; 2) icons; and 3) indexes. Symbols are signs like letters, numbers, words, characters, and similar objects that are simple substitutions for the idea being conveyed. Symbols are agreed upon by social or cultural conventions of common usage. The word "car" means what it does not because the letters or the sounds they make resemble a car, but because we agree upon this verbal shortcut.

Icons are signs that are connected to the thing represented by virtue of resemblance. A simple example here is the picture of the product on the label, or the image of a fruit to suggest flavor. Icons suggest plausible connections and make it easier for consumers to imagine the world of experience offered by the contents of a given package.

Indexes, or indexical signs, are slightly more subtle yet just as obvious because they make reference to physical connections. Examples of indexical signs used in packaging are the finger wells in the lever on a pump spray bottle. We look at such physical signs and understand immediately how our body is supposed to interact with the object before instructions are even necessary. Indexical signs are the most powerful semiotic tool marketers and package designers can use because they pre-consciously involve the consumer in physical possession of the product, invite touch, and thus trigger the notion of ownership upon sight. I always recommend that designers strive to identify, modify, and incorporate powerful indexical signs in every consumer communication.

Wine is a supremely indexical product. It is all about being physical—beginning with the physical properties of how it should ultimately be delivered to the mouth in terms of temperature, stemware, and even food pairings.

One could well argue that taste, along with its cousin touch, is an indexical sense insofar as we actually ingest food as signs—signs of energy renewal, of future pleasures and as signs of remembered rewards. And the elaborate rituals around the intake of wine make it a superbly semiotic act—we literally signal our sense of taste, or values, or priorities just by ordering a bottle at dinner. It is an archetypal "badge" product.

And let's not forget that the long heritage of handling bottles and the elaborate rituals of uncorking, decanting, pouring, and savoring also speak to the wide spectrum of sensory pleasures that have been encoded into the wine experience since the origins of civilization itself.

New structures struggle for space

In terms of shopping, the first major differentiator is structure—and right now, it is as simple as traditional wine bottles and everything else. Consumers who are open to the notion of wine being served from something other than a bottle are a distinct yet growing subset of the buying public.

The advantages of the newer containers are largely functional in nature—storage, portability, and thermal responsiveness. The aesthetic advantages of certain structures to prevent oxidation seem to be a secondary consideration, because connoisseurs are more likely, at this stage at least, to be attracted to vintages and varietals that are less open to the risks of open-ended experimentation.

As a whole, though, the newer structures offer a different meaning to the experience of wine—an experience that begins with the notion of surprise, and a different set of coordinates to the physical handling of the wine. As long as the new indexical signs offer an opportunity for sensory indulgence and ritual, they have a future. The reason is that new rituals are born, or created, every day. Why shouldn't oenophiles have the opportunity to blaze new trails of personal meaning, carve new memories, and create new social platforms? Why should they be trapped in what is largely an 18th-century formula for enjoying wine?

Signs of the times

Another dimension of consumer meaning is the graphic presentation of information on the label. And this takes us back to the six-minute decision framework. How much information is being actually accessed for rational, apples-to-apples comparison shopping?

Looking at wine brands with brisk, double-digit growth last year, it would seem that labels with very low symbolic (i.e., verbal) information lead the pack. All sorts of creatures seem to populate wine bottles these days: kangaroos, horses, penguins, monkeys, and even various forms of marine life. Then there are the objects depicted: guitars, pickups, footwear, boomerangs, and abstract art. Added to this are the usual run of word games and innuendos that make the service of wine an icebreaker or conversation piece.

So how is it that a simple design offering very little in terms of verbal information trumps the more "symbolically" elaborate examples that have come down through the French tradition? In a simple three-way face-off, let's consider the visual rhetoric of the Little Penguin (last year's red hot Australian shiraz) versus a recent vintage Châteauneuf-du-Pape from France and a Delicato from California.

The highly stylized, traditionally labeled Châteauneuf-du-Pape is all about the persuasive power of quality as a benefit of tradition. It displays a gilded heraldic device prominently to lend immediate authority to the winery by associating it with credible, historical traditions of aristocratic competition that date back to the middle ages. This is something of a "vanity" signal—only a handful of truly historic houses are able to deploy this kind of strong nonverbal message with true assurance and authenticity. The overall medieval quality thus imparted is amplified by the use of a teutonic "Fraktur" typeface to articulate the appellation.

In the years after wine appellations were codified by French law, two-color registration was a lavish graphical advance, although it now reads more like a specific reference to the tradition of using an off-red to highlight important or visually distinctive copy zones, a convention still used by French bistros. Such color references are strongly coded pleasure cues. The gold hatching on the chateau's all-capital register only adds additional luster, interest, and delight to the composition. With almost 60 words on the label, this is a verbally rich Bordeaux label. Interestingly, the importer has been able to elbow its way to a presence billboard—and as such, detracts from the emotional rhetoric of this otherwise superior exercise in persuasion.

The two-tone Delicato Pinot Grigio label is somewhat of a hybrid. It partakes of some traditional French graphic conventions while looking ahead to the more cutting edge graphic compositions of the industry's growth leaders. Delicato's visual language is dominated by ample use of an established semiotic code of depicting the source establishment, in this instance, the actual landscape of the vineyard. This was a common convention used in late-19th-century American business stationery and collateral that also has a long and noble heritage in French label design. One need only think of the famous portico of the Margaux estate which has graced its magnificent Bordeaux labels for generations.

On the Delicato, the use of an emblem—as opposed to the Châteauneuf's heraldic shield—is more of an exercise in flat organizational propaganda, trying to reach consumers who will endorse (and possibly pay a premium for) the notions of sustainability as linked to enterprise, the good life, and family values. The simple flat color zones, the restricted use of words and low number of font types keeps the visual clutter to a minimum, although the overall effect is reminiscent of the composition of a Campbell's soup can.

By comparison, the Little Penguin has fewer than half the number of words on the French label and is suffused with high contrast colors, swirling background patterns, a quasi-realistic depiction of the Antarctic bird, and a somewhat "primitive" quality to the typography of the brand name. While the visual information is far richer and more engaging, there is hardly any information to go by—only source, vintage, and alcohol content.

So why are such simple motifs (and simply named brands) dominating the sales figures? Some semiotic themes suggest themselves: these bold and bright labels break through the noise at shelf by simply advancing (in an optical sense) faster than a black and white or low contrast printed label like Delicato's. They also reward contemplation from an aesthetic, as opposed to an informational, point of view. Which is to say, they build a mood or a frame of mind. And for the consumer who is neither a gourmet, a wine connoisseur, nor Agent 007, this lightheartedness seems to give permission to the consumer to enjoy the process of experimentation and education.

It is an established neuroscientific fact that words deactivate emotional perception. Designers should heed this lesson well, and move more boldly toward clearly iconic and indexical cues. Open up your semiotic toolbox and map out the meaning and content of the competition—block out the themes in your space (animal, object, pun), chart the colors, and map them against a few quarters of sales data and you will have a clear idea of the meanings that drive consumer interest. Your messaging can be precisely aligned with your label graphics, wringing every ounce of neural association to your identity.

J. Duncan Berry, Ph.D., is director of the Applied Iconology Inc. research firm that specializes in neuromarketing research analysis. He currently directs the semiotics practice and manages deep consumer insight research for BrandImage – Degrippes & Laga, Dr. Berry can be reached at 774-722-0451 or

J. Duncan Berry