Clever Wine Marketing


Killer Juice Cabernet SauvignonHow do you market a product that your customers know is bad before they try it, and which they may well dislike if they do? That’s the dilemma faced by makers of boxed wines – even those of high quality that would fare well in a blind tasting.

Wine is such a subjective product that I could probably devote a blog just to wine neuromarketing. We know that expensive wine tastes better, and that California wine beats North Dakota wine – even when all the wine tasted is the exact same stuff! And these differences have been measured by brain scans, so it’s not just a problem with the tasters saying what they think the researcher wants to hear.

So if the way people experience wine is heavily shaped by their expectations, pity the wineries trying to market box wines in America. U.S. consumers have been conditioned to believe that proper wine comes in a 750ml glass bottle with a natural cork. Artificial corks and screw cap closures are suspect, to say the least. And box wines are traditionally suited only for penniless college students, who will drink anything if it’s cheap enough. Hence, despite the major performance advantages of wine boxes (also called wine casks, or bag-in-box packages), wineries seeking to sell higher quality box wines have major neuromarketing obstacles in their way. What’s a box wine maker to do?

Killer Juice’s creative approach to marketing their product was described at Box Wines in Killer Marketing: How to Sell Boxed Wine. Here’s how that winery addressed a couple of the neuro-obstacles to selling their boxed Killer Juice Cabernet Sauvignon

Killer Juice Gold MedalSetting Higher Expectations. If people expect better wine, they’ll get it. While Killer Juice can’t erase the stigma of rectangular packaging, they attempt to set higher expectations by putting a prominent gold and black sticker on the front of the box. The sticker celebrates the wine’s winning a gold medal at the 2007 Critics Challenge International Wine Competition. I have no idea how prestigious that competition is, or how many wines took a gold medal in 2007, but it sounds good.

Since most consumer-facing wine marketing occurs on the shelf of the supermarket or wine shop, highlighting awards and favorable point ratings at the point of sale is a great idea for any winery. If you see that Robert Parker scored the wine you are checking out at 90 points, that will go a long way to offsetting the potential negative expectations from, say, a low price or unknown brand.

The research I’ve described in the past suggests that steps like this that set higher expectations will do more than provide a point-of-sale competitive edge; it’s very likely that they will improve the customer’s real experience with the wine.

Killer Juice 4 bottlesSetting an Anchor Price. In the last week, I’ve talked about anchor pricing in several contexts. The issue of anchor pricing – the predetermined price expectation people have for a product or service – is particularly tricky for box wine makers. Wine buyers may lack a frame of reference for a boxed wine. Here’s my rough guess at some price anchors for the typical supermarket wine consumer who enjoys wine but is not a wine hobbyist:

Price for 750ml bottle

Under $5 – very questionable, might be unpleasant
$5 – might be drinkable, depending on origin
$10 – should definitely be drinkable, maybe quite good
$20 & up – special occasion, better be very good

This is a gross oversimplification, but there is some weak correlation with published wine ratings. (Then again, maybe expensive wine tastes better to wine writers, too!)

While most regular wine buyers do have mental anchors set for bottled wine, they probably do not have such anchors for the less common boxed product. So, confronted with a 3-liter wine box, the U.S. wine buyer has to put the price in context. (Typically, 3-liter boxes of better wine sell for $15 – $25 in the U.S., while 5-liter boxes of undrinkable cheap stuff run from $8 – $12 or so.) If he’s looking at a box of Killer Juice Cab on sale for $16, a not unthinkable price for a wine intended to sell for $20 or so, two key questions will influence the anchor price:

  1. Does he realize that the very compact box contains four bottles of wine?
  2. If he DOES realize there are the equivalent of four bottles in the box, will he divide the box price by 4 and conclude that it’s likely bad stuff?

Killer Juice addresses both questions by pointing out on three sides of the box not only that the box contains the equivalent of 4 bottles, but that the wine is a $10 wine. The clever KJ marketers are attempting to reset the anchor price for boxed wine, in essence telling customers that (at least for KJ wines) a 3-liter box is worth $40, and the contents will taste like what you’d get in a $10 bottle. Now the shelf price looks like a real opportunity to score some decent wine at big savings.

This is a nice approach to the anchoring problem. If Killer Juice advertised boldly, “Only $4 per bottle!” they might appeal to some bargain hunters but would likely turn off many others who would relate the $4 to their existing anchor pricing and assume it was junk wine. Conversely, if they pitched it as $20 per bottle wine, the claim would be so extreme as to be unbelievable. And, in addition to helping reset the anchor, the $10 claim works with the gold medal sticker to boost the wine drinker’s ultimate perception of the wine.

Reportedly, in Australia over half the wine sold is in boxes or non-traditional packaging. If the U.S. is going to come close to catching up to the Aussies, it will be due to good marketing that not only moves higher quality boxed wines off the shelves but leads to a good experience when the wine is tasted.

  1. Peter Martin says

    Hi Roger,

    In double-blind tests people arrpear to like expensive wines LESS than cheap ones:

    Go figure.

  2. Roger Dooley says

    That’s interesting, Peter, thanks for the link. Perhaps it’s not too surprising, in one sense. While the very cheapest wines may be quite unpleasant to any palate, there are lots of inexpensive wines that might be called “accessible,” i.e., they are fruity, simple, and not too dry. To the average person, these are probably as pleasant as a more complex wine might be to an experienced taster. Just guessing, though.


  3. Richard Shaffer says


    I’d love to read your thoughts overall about wine marketing psychology!

    Want to write a guest post for us at our blog…or can we interview you for our podcast series?


  4. Victor Cheng says

    I’d like to make two serious comments that unfortunately in text might come across as being smart alecky (not my intention).

    1) Why doesn’t the winery just use a bottle? I mean seriously, why deliberately handicap yourself, put your marketing in the whole, do all this interesting that you point out, just to maybe get back to even? It doesn’t seem worth it to me.

    I definitely think there are psychological triggers when it comes to package a product, ideas, a person, etc… wouldn’t it be a smarter idea to stop using a negative trigger?

    For example, our company writes, designs, and publishes ghostwritten books to CEO of companies that sell b2b. We call this form of marketing a Bookmercial — a credible book that also introduces readers to one’s company.

    Our extensive research has shown that books are a positive psychological trigger. People expect / assume that information in a book is more credible, reliable, and accurate than say information from a sales brochure or junk mail–even if its the same information.

    So as this idea applies to wine, if the box is a negative trigger why not just ditch the box?

    My second point relates to blind taste tests. Last I checked, I’ve never seen anyone drink wine blindfolded.

    Blind taste tests are useful to test for true, objective product superiority or preference, but it’s largely irrelevant because the product is never purchased or used blindly.

    It’s always bought or consumed in context of the marketing.

    This is the how Coke got into a huge fiasco by killing Coke…. Pepsi’s marketing with its Pepsi Challenge was so effective, it got Coke to give up on it’s product and brand combo. Amazing!

    Sure blinded folded consumers prefer 1 sip of Pepsi to 1 sip of Coke 52% to 48%… but guess what nobody ever buys cola blindly and in real life they never drink just one sip.

    It turns out that with the label ON and the brand name KNOWN, consumers at the time (and still today) preferred Coke to Pepsi… and when you compare drinking 1 can of coke vs. 1 can of pepsi, they also prefer Coke.

    Marketing is not a part of the product but it IS part of the product experience.

  5. Roger Dooley says

    All good points, Victor. Box wine makers choose the packaging, I’m sure, because of its performance advantages and because some portion of wine consumers accepts the packaging for what it offers. In the U.S., most wineries DO put their product in traditional bottles. The bottle section in every shop dwarfs the box section. In markets where the package/quality linkage is less strong, more wines are sold in alternative packaging.

    Blind tasting is important because those who read wine competition results don’t want to think that the gold medal wasn’t based on flavor, but instead on the judge’s perception of the winery reputation, the packaging, etc. As “New Coke” showed, though, blind taste tests don’t make a brand.

    Thanks for the thoughtful commentary.


  6. Tom Frazier says

    Interesting article and interesting approach by KJ. My mental block would still not delve into the box wine however.

    One quick update… I DO live in Australia and I find your information about non-traditional packaging here suspect. There is a bottle shop on every street corner here and they are all 750mL bottles. Considering you can only buy wine in a bottle shop (as opposed to American grocery stores) you may want to double check that stat.

  7. Roger Dooley says

    Thanks for the info, Tom. I do know that the wine cask was invented in Australia and the amount of wine sold that way seems to be common wisdom among box wine makers. I’ll see if I can find a good citation. “Bottle shop” certainly sounds like an indicator of traditional packaging… 🙂


  8. Tim Robinson says

    @Tom Frazier – I think the majority of sales of boxed wine comes through wine programs or direct from the winery.

    I know my parents used to buy boxed wine all the time through some mail order system where a wine magazine sent out a box every fornight or so.

  9. Chris Brogan... says

    Swinging in from the Marketing Profs newsletter that just hit.

    My immediate thought was right in line with what you covered: wine in a box = cheap. Makes perfect sense why that’s not a given, and further, I loved reading the thoughts and ideas on how to get it out of the ditch.

    You just got a new subscriber from this post. Keep it up.

  10. Roger Dooley says

    Thanks, Chris. I’ve actually found a few boxed wines that are quite pleasant.


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