The [yellow tail] Label as a Window on the Wine’s Soul
They may only be little rectangular pieces of paper glued on glass bottles, but they’ve changed life on an entire planet: Planet Wine. Analysing a wine label can quickly become terminally boring or turn into a silly intellectual game, but there’s so much to say about the [yellow tail] label I’m going to risk both. The genius of this package begins with its conflation of the kangaroo and aboriginal culture into an image of knockout clarity that etches itself into your memory whether you want it to or not. There’s quite a story behind the invention of this icon of modern Australian wine, but before I tell it let’s grab some context, not least because it gives the story more punch.
[yellow tail] is frequently described as being one of the first „critter wines“, that is wines whose labels feature cute or cuddly animals. Several years ago the American satirical magazine The Onion came up with a law of critter wines which says that the quality of the wine is inversely proportional to the cuteness of the critter. In my experience this is horribly true. If there’s a sweet labrador or a smilling pig on the label the wine is almost certain to be complete schlock. Though the „aboriginal“ kangaroo on the [yellow tail] label is obviously part of the western romanticising of noble savages – being so completely in tune with the cosmos we imagine the Aborigines must all be on first name terms with God and long ago unravelled all the great mysteries – it is positively hard-edged compared with the cloying sentimentality of teddy bears and other soft toys. [yellow tail] is a critter wine in the same way that Crocodile Dundee, the title figure of the 1986 film played by Paul Hogan, is a real Australian. Of course, the [yellow tail] roo and Dundee are old mates!
In contrast, the use of colour coding – yellow is the most important colour, but is supported by some warm reds and oranges and strong blues – is hardly original, having been introduced by the Champagne industry decades ago. As marketing guru Randall Grahm pointed out in his lecture ‘Bungle in the Jungle’ it, „owes a tremendous intellectual debt to the truly innovative packaging of Veuve Cliquot, designed more than thirty years ago. As he observes, „among wine sales and marketing people…Cliquot still retains a certain mystical allure, which is a testament to the enormous power of its brand.“ What [yellow tail] does is to thoroughly modernise this idea and give it an element of fun that is badly missing from Veuve Cliquot. Then there’s the reduction of the information on the front label to the absolute minimum necessary to communicate the identity of the product. This is a widespread trend on Planet Wine, but mostly the result manages to look half-hearted yet remain really confusing.
Let me describe what strike me as the most important aspects of the bottle of [yellow tail] Shiraz red wine on the desk in front of me now. Most obviously there is the eye-popping yellow strip-label with the brand name emblazoned on it that is as unforgettable as the Nike swipe. The way it is all printed in lower case in square brackets suggests the world of e-mail, in a way that makes it seem totally familiar to everyone who is part of [contemporary western mainstream].
The only other information on it is the name of the grape variety, Shiraz. Shiraz is the archetypal Australian wine grape, though it is actually the same variety as the French Syrah and was imported from its homeland in the Rhône Valley to Australia almost two hundred years ago. But that observation belongs to the minefield of wine connoiseurship which this brand hops around with such agility. Shiraz is only on the label to tell you which member of the happy family of [yellow tail] wines is in this particular bottle. By remembering just the brand name and the colour of the strip-label the consumer knows exactlly which wine you enjoyed so much yesterday evening. It’s a genuine no brainer, something incredibly rare in the incredibly complex and confusing world of wine!
The rectangular black label below the strip-label is dominated by the aboriginal kangaroo of which the only part that is actually yellow is its thighs and paws. This gently suggests to us that the name is ironic and the tail refered to might be of another kind altogether, which is both vageuly suggestive and rather funny. There is none of the Old World wine guff, but enough information (“vintage 2010“ top left and „Casella Wines – Product of Australia“ bottom right) to suggests this is an honest product with nothing to hide, neatly completing the user-friendly package.
John Casella likes to tell the story of how he discovered the brand name in a dictionary complete with the square brackets and lower case letters, and maybe that moment did occur, but for reasons that will soon become apparent this seems experience must have been a confirmation of their rightness, rather than a genuine eureka moment of discovery. What he can claim the kudos for is the decision to go full throttle with this package in the US market at the very moment when the largest Australian wine exporter seriously slipped up reorganizing their US distribution. Casella and his US importer grasped this golden opportunity with great energy.
It seems that the story of [yellow tail] as a Casella Wines brand goes back to a meeting in 1999 between the company’s then marketing director John Soutter, who resigned in 2007, and graphic designer Barbara Harkness, whose design agency Just Add Wine now has offices in Sydney and Adelaide. One version of the story says that they met at Sydney Airport, which seems appropriate for a global wine megabrand, and because the Quantas logo is also kangaroo; [what else?] According to www.justaddwine.com.au [yellow tail] was a „ready to go concept“ she offered Soutter, „off the shelf. In fact, the website claims that it was her first sale of such a fully finished „imaginative brand solution“ designed for the „international stage“, now the company’s contemporary speciality and an important part of contemorary wine marketing.
Incidentally, Barbara Harkness is a white Australian, so the label is only [aboriginal]. One of the few sources of hard information about the brand’s background is a 23rd April 2006 article in The New York Times by Frank Prial, then the newspaper’s wine critic. Prial asserts that Harkness was paid just $4,800 by Casella Wines for the concept, which would buy just 801 bottles of [yellow tail] retail in the US. John Casella got the ultimate bargain in the history of wine marketing.
Episode 4 follows on Sunday, September 25th !