Tips for building better wine and spirit brands

Rules of thumb for wineries, distilleries, and those with private labels

Humans are creatures of habit. The heuristics, or mental shortcuts, we use to guide our decisions are so consistent across large populations that, given certain circumstances, human behavior is relatively predictable.1 There are numerous models of heuristics, but what is implicitly baked into every one is the notion that people prefer to use as little mental energy as possible when making a choice. Thinking is work. Decisions fatigue us.2 This is especially true when comes it to shopping; when offered too many choices, people freak out.

Wineries, distilleries, and those producing their own private labels must work to lower the psychological barriers consumers erect when confronted by a new bottle. Nielsen has estimated that between 50% and 80% of wine-buying decisions are made at the retail shelf.3

Making things more mentally “digestible” is imperative. However, too many producers confuse distinctiveness with appeal. This is a mistake. A car wreck slows traffic because it grabs attention; that doesn’t mean onlookers wish they were in one. Instead, the goal is to strike a balance between distinctive branding and approachability. I urge those making design choices to consider the five following ways one might lessen the cerebral burden of those antagonized by choice.4

  • It’s all in the name. Keep the name of your product short. I’m talking three syllables or less, if possible. Think about the names of the world’s most successful wine and spirit brands: Yellowtail, Bacardi, Franzia, Jack Daniel’s, Sutter Home, Patron, Cupcake, Tito’s, Grey Goose. They’re all succinct. Also, keep the name easy-to-pronounce. No one wants to buy what they don’t feel comfortable saying in front of others, particularly at a bar. This is especially important to remember if your intention is to one day export your product to a market where the native language isn’t the same as your own.

  • Good haptics equal happy customers. Haptics engage people’s sense of touch. How does the hand perceive the bottle? Is it fun to hold? How about easy to open? And is it a breeze to pour? These things matter. Ask any bartender how they really feel about Boston round bottles. They look nice in movies featuring old-time apothecaries and that’s about it.

  • Learn to love legibility. No one should have to hunt to find the name of your brand on the bottle. Or the wine variety or spirit category. Like McDonald’s golden arches, these features—brand name and variety/style—should announce themselves from a mile away. Does your packaging pass the squint test? Can its name be read easily from behind a bar in a dimly lit room? It should since that’s how it’ll appear in the wild. Long before you’ll be able to purchase magazine ads featuring fancy product photography, you need to ensure people can identify your bottle and what’s in it from more than six feet away.

  • A sense of belonging. You don’t want your brand lacking congruence with its neighbors. It should be in relative visual harmony with the rest of the bottles near it. This is to say a Tequila should look like a Tequila, a Veneto Pinot Grigio should look like a Veneto Pinot Grigio, and so on. This isn’t to say that there isn’t value in being visually different from the competition, but being too uncanny makes people question if what’s in the bottle is unusual as well. When something looks like it doesn’t belong, it’s matter out of place. Dirt on the forest floor is fine, but dirt on the carpet is a problem. Don’t let your bottle be out of place.

  • All jokes aside. Does the name rely on a pun or some inside humor? It shouldn’t. Does the bottle or label use some gimmick as a crutch? It’ shouldn’t. Some consumers will try your brand because they like the gag. Or gift it as a prank. These are not ideal circumstances for creating repeat business.

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Do yourself a favor and read the Wikipedia entry on the topic or, better yet, grab a copy of Michael Lewis’ The Undoing Project to read about the partnership between psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, the duo whose research revealed the constancies of our biases.


This is why former President Barack Obama used to wear only grey or blue suits. Offloading his sartorial choices freed his mind so he could focus on running the nation.


It’d be my guess that it’s a lower percentage for spirit brands since there are fewer overall spirit SKUs relative to that of wine and spirit category leaders are so highly concentrated around a few producers.


I recognize that not all successful brands execute every single one of these suggestions. There are always going to be exceptions. The difference is that they can likely afford to break all the rules. If you’re reading this newsletter, you likely don’t have as deep pockets as they do. Your mistakes will cost you proportionately more.