Shoot Holes in tradition to Give Consumers a ‘Steal’

How to gain impact as a new, everyday wine? Break the category’s marketing rules by scrapping sophistication for a ‘retro’ look.
Three Thieves is a small, upstart wine marketer. But its branding and packaging strategy just may prove to be the envy of competitors in the wine and spirits business.
Operating as a virtual company, Three Thieves sold 100,000 cases of wine under its namesake brand in 2003, its inaugural year. The brand is one of the hottest-selling table wines in the United States, and projections are for sales of 600,000 cases in 2005.
Three Thieves seems to be succeeding by breaking the marketing rules in wine. Rather than play off the category’s mainstay messages of elegance and sophistication, the brand goes its own way with a distinctive package silhouette. And it is rolling out a packaging form that most U.S. consumers don’t associate with wine. The company has:
n Developed a “retro look” by using the jug. Calculated changes in the shape and size give it distinction from traditional wine jugs. Through clever bottle design and eye-catching secondary packaging, the company has influenced retailers to stock the bottles in standalone floor displays.
n Moved to the leading edge as one of the first marketers to package wine in carton-based aseptic containers for distribution in the United States.
n Evolved its marketing and packaging strategies around a core belief of what wine drinkers really want. In a departure from many marketers, the company purposely avoids using focus groups.
Three Thieves accomplishes these objectives while keeping packaging costs relatively low. While competitors invest heavily in premium paper stock for labels and glitzy decorative effects, Three Thieves believes that “less is more.”
The “thieves” are partners Roger Scommegna, Charles Bieler and Joel Gott. Scommegna handles the marketing duties in Milwaukee, while Gott is a third-generation Napa Valley “insider,” operating Joel Gott Wines in Oakville, Calif. Scommegna describes Bieler as the “face of the brand,” whose family operates Chateau Routas in France.
In forming the company, the partners began to purchase surpluses of good-quality grapes at attractive prices, primarily from U.S. vineyards. The two wine varieties under the Three Thieves banner—Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon—are bottled in the United States and Italy.
Influences on package design
This approach to product development also pointed to an appropriate package-design strategy.
Working with Design North, a Racine, Wis., branding and package design firm, the partners created a brand they call a piece of Americana. The most important of the initial creative decisions was deciding on a name to drive the brand.
Three Thieves, Scommegna says, reflects “We’re kind of the Robin Hoods of wine. We ‘steal’ good wine from the big wineries and sell to the masses.”
Next, the focus shifted to identifying the right target audience. The partners identified the underserved segment of good-quality “everyday” wine with a personality, at a retail price less than or equal to competitors.  “We’re the anti-snob. Wine is a beverage to drink with a meal,” Scommegna says.
Packaging is front and center in supporting the brand’s positioning. Design North felt that with clever structural modifications, the Three Thieves brand could represent itself as a good-tasting wine, retailing for less than $10, without looking cheap.  
Design North Chairman Lee Sucharda Jr. says, “They were willing to take chances.” The end result is a brand that fosters perceptions that the Three Thieves consumer has “made a steal.”
Distinguished glass jugs
The brand’s first package—a glass jug—incorporates all the key elements of the branding strategy. The shape conjures up images of a 1930s era moonshine whiskey vessel. But the design also bears some striking differences from traditional wine jugs.
The neck is a little longer and more contoured to accept a larger hand ring than typically seen on wine jugs. This makes the bottle easier to pour.
A rounded, raised surface known as a “punt” sits at the base of the jug. This decorative tactic often graces bottles in the fine spirits aisle, heightening perceptions of product quality.
The jug contains other features which are unusual in wines but that achieve branding objectives while considering the budget. One is the closure. The jugs use a screw cap rather than cork closures, which usually signal premium wines. Scommegna says the screw cap costs 2.5 cents per unit, compared with 30 to 50 cents per unit for cork.
A second distinguishing feature is the label. Since it adheres to a 1-liter jug, wider than the familiar 750-ml wine bottle, the label can be wider, too. This provides extra “real estate” to capture the brand’s persona.
Front and center on the label is the logo—a line drawing that silhouettes three gun-toting outlaws on horseback. The logo provides continuity across the range of the packaging and extends to collateral materials.
But beyond the year of vintage and the product variety, the label is “clean.” This provides ample space to ghost in a larger background image of the logo and injects some mystery to the brand, Sucharda says.
Besides being bigger, the labels break other rules in the wine aisle. They’re bucking the trend of specialty papers with ultra-high-quality inks and embossing and engraving.
Three Thieves labels are pressure-sensitive paper, flexo-printed and use just two colors.
Wine…in cartons?
Even with a notable jug shape and an unmistakable logo, the decision was made to take Three Thieves into another packaging form. The design team reasoned that the jug has been prevalent in wine for generations and a different type of package could attract a separate breed of consumer.
Three Thieves is making another bold move by rolling out alternative wine packaging in the U.S. market. It selected Tetra Pak’s Tetra Brik carton-based aseptic package for Italian white wine, which it will market under the Bandit Bianco name.
Scommegna says the carton will target “the consumer who knows better.” He explains that both the jug and the carton hold 1 liter of wine. Yet since the jug is larger, most consumers mistakenly perceive they are getting more.
The carton will carry a retail price of $5.99, a bit more than half of the jug’s $9.99 retail price (the quality of its jug wine will be superior, Scommegna adds).
In attracting consumers who aren't fussy about the type of package their wine comes in, the aseptic carton is economical to produce. It costs about 14 cents per unit, compared with $1.50 for a standard glass bottle with a cork closure.
Tetra Pak Vice President Jeff Kellar lists several additional benefits of the aseptic wine carton:
- A barrier layer prevents oxygen from entering the carton and potentially reducing shelf life.
- Aseptic cartons repel light, which over time can also impact product quality.
Scommegna’s idea for a wine in an aseptic package grew out of a trip to Italy. There, about 50 percent of all wine sold in grocery stores comes in carton-based aseptic packaging.
Charles Bieler, one of the Three Thieves partners, notes that $1.6 billion of wine was sold in carton-based aseptic wine packaging in 2003. It is emerging as one of the fastest-growing new product categories.
Aseptic packaging for wine is just beginning to emerge in the United States. Why has it taken so long to catch on? Scommegna cites two reasons. First, it’s unfamiliar to most Americans. Second, if the Italian grocery shelf is a gauge, “pedestrian-looking” graphics impart perceptions of a low-end product. An eye-catching carton design may just help sell Three Thieves’ Bandit wine.
The carton’s off-yellow background replicates the color of white wine. And the “label” design on the front panel carries the signature logo and its ghosted, larger counterpart.
Shuns focus groups
Decisions on Three Thieves’ packaging design come largely through intuition. Scommegna, a brand marketer by trade, dislikes using focus groups because they create “more of the same.”
He believes that had it been left to focus groups, alternative packaging forms in other categories, such as the plastic milk jug, never would have made it to the store shelf.
“A focus group will tell you what they’re used to. I don’t believe consumers know what they want,” he says. BP
The author, Jim George, is the Senior Editor of BRANDPACKAGING magazine.

Shippers as appropriate floor displays
While providing marketing benefits, the glass jug initially presented Three Thieves with a challenge that, ironically, turned into another plus.
The jugs are a little wider than a standard wine bottle, making them an “oddball” on the bottled wine shelf. In addition, Three Thieves indicated a preference that retailers stock its brand elsewhere than on the store shelf.
That’s just what retailers are doing, and the catalyst is the shipper cartons. Retailers have discovered that the orange-and-black paperboard shippers, when stacked alternatively on their orange or black sides, create a checkerboard pattern that makes them eye-appealing as floor displays.
Three Thieves spends an additional 25 cents per unit on the cartons by opting for bleached paperboard from Box USA. The partners believe that investment is wise.
 “You can’t buy that kind of placement” in a store, Scommegna says.
Packaging creates the persona for the Three Thieves brand that carries over to the company’s Web site.
Text on the labeling encourages wine drinkers to visit “for cool stuff.” The company receives as many as 50 orders a day for items such as T-shirts and hats that bear the distinctive Three Thieves logo.
These collectibles help to create a groundswell of marketing communication through a “community” of brand loyalists—who also e-mail the company about their love for the brand. This tactic generates a buzz for a brand without an advertising budget.