Bring a box: Making boxed wine socially acceptable again

Tuesday 09. July 2024 - What is it about drinking boxed wine rather than bottled that causes people to turn their noses up? Is it a perception based on a misconception that bottled wine is higher quality simply because of its packaging? And are people beginning to change on boxed wine?

Laylo Co-Founders Laura Riches and Laura Rosenberger on giving up their safe and steady jobs to de-stigmatise wine boxes, make boxed wine cool again, and turn them into something you can proudly display.
For most people, boxed wine is a nostalgic relic of the 1980s, evoking memories of cheap plonk sipped from plastic cups at raucous student parties.
Whether it’s sommeliers appropriately and consistently explaining the merits of boxed wine to guests or even that there remains some debate and judgment on bottles that have a screw cap instead of a cork—both are a sign that many people’s perceptions of wine are firmly held and in need of an update.
Thanks to technological advances and a cultural shift towards quality over quantity, boxed wine is making a stylish comeback. Gone are the days when boxed wine was the budget option, unsuitable for sophisticated gatherings. Today, boxed wine is synonymous with smart, sustainable luxury. This revival is more than a trend; it’s a movement here to stay, proving that great wine doesn’t have to come in a bottle.
When Laura Riches and Laura Rosenberger launched Laylo in July 2020 amidst the pandemic, they aimed to turn the concept of boxed wine on its head. A few years ago, ‘luxury boxed wine’ might have sounded like an oxymoron, but thanks to shifting attitudes and innovative packaging, it’s now a celebrated reality. Their vision was to create a product you’d proudly place at the centre of a dinner table, not tucked away as an afterthought.
“My background has been in wine for many years,” Riches told London Packaging Week. “I love the product as a consumer and because I think it’s a fascinating category. One of the problems is that people are increasingly drinking less. They’re also drinking better. I was interested in this idea, and you become very interested in it when you work in the drinks sector, which is a big existential problem.
“I had been looking at things like cans, pouches, and single-serve mini bottles and was surprised to learn that boxed wine stays fresh for six weeks. So, it means you can have the odd glass; you don’t need to commit to a bottle, and the quality of wine you can put in a box is not limited. I used to think boxed wine needed to be cheap plonk, and that used to be the case, but now the packaging is sufficiently airtight that you can put great wines in a box, and they don’t oxidise. It was exciting for me. I had this thought during the pandemic, and at the time, I had a little bit more time on my hands and was questioning how we live and how we work and thought, “If I don’t see what happens, then I never will”. So, in November 2020, my co-founder Laura and I bought 2000 litres of Rioja and shipped it to the country.”
Riches is the former Marketing Director at Naked Wines and CMO at 31Dover, an online retailer of fine wine and spirits. She started her career in Management Consultancy at Javelin Group, now part of Accenture Strategy, before building the Professional Services team at VC-backed tech startup Qubit.
Her Co-Founder, Laura Rosenberger, joined UBS Investment Bank after graduating. As an analyst covering the leisure and hospitality sector, she researched the impact of an emerging US travel startup, Airbnb, on traditional listed hotel groups despite owning no rooms. The startup seed was sown, and Rosenberger left to join Onefinestay, a high-end homestay startup, as a financial analyst.
“You must jump through many hoops to start a business,” she continued. “So, we registered the name on Companies House and put up a Shopify, but we didn’t have that much of a plan. It was very much a case of let’s see what happens, and at first, it was bought by friends and family and people who maybe felt obliged to buy a box of wine.
“Then it was friendship circles and the people we’ve worked with in the past or friends of friends, who shouldn’t have felt obliged, but I was very pleased that they did. Then it took on a life of its own, and we sold out of 2000 litres of wine in 13 days. So, at that point, our idea, which was to create a premium boxed wine, the sort of wine you’d love to drink on a Tuesday night and have the odd glass that looked beautiful and tasted amazing, became a reality. And here we are, nearly four years later.”
Boxed wine has long suffered from a reputation tarnished by its lower price point and portable packaging, often seen as the poor cousin to its bottled counterpart. But this outdated image is vigorously challenged by a new generation of vintners embracing the cardboard-clad variety. Savvy winemakers are proving that quality wine can come in a box and are making a strong case for it.
“Glass bottles will always play a really important role in wine because they’re the only way to age a wine, and for really fancy high-end wine that will always be important,” she continued. “So, I don’t imagine there’s a world where there are no more glass bottles. However, glass bottles are a format that hasn’t changed for 200 years.
“They’re not necessarily the most space-efficient packaging format, so for me, it was less about asking or suggesting a switch from glass bottles to boxes but more of an idea that glass bottles no longer serve us as consumers. They oxidise the wine quickly, and you have a bottle in your fridge door. So, I think it was just questioning whether a format that hadn’t evolved in 200 years could be done better. Interestingly, boxed wine in the UK represents a tiny portion of the market. It was only 2% of the UK wine market at the time, but it’s way more internationally. In France, 44% of supermarket wine is sold in a box. In Sweden, that number is north of 60%. I guess there were hints that this was how the market was heading, particularly internationally, and it does seem like a smarter way to drink.”
Embarking on the entrepreneurial journey is a rollercoaster ride of highs, lows, and everything in between. For those who’ve ventured into the daunting realm of starting a business from scratch, the challenges can be both surprising and humbling.
Despite these hurdles, Riches quickly pointed out that there is a silver lining to every dark cloud that hurtles by. She also admitted her resilience had been tested in ways she never anticipated.
“The number one thing I’ve learned in the last four years is it’s hard to go from nothing to something,” she said. “I used to work in a big wine company – Naked Wines – and we grew that business over the time I was there from £60 to £100 million, and I thought that was amazing. But going from nothing to £1 million is so much harder, and it’s a real lesson; something can be so important to you and consumes every waking minute, but if you walk out onto the street, no one cares. I’m just trying to wrap my head around that and then realising or starting to understand how to make people care, how to build a brand that people feel something about, even if that feeling is, “Oh, my God, I’m never going to buy that product in a million years”.
As a business owner, her sleepless nights are haunted by a trifecta of entrepreneurial anxieties: financial fragility, supply chain snafus, and the skyrocketing costs of wooing potential customers. The specter of running out of cash is a constant companion, as is the delicate dance of international supply chains or the quest for consumer attention becoming a costly pursuit. These intertwined worries conspire to keep her wide-eyed at 2 am, pondering the precarious balance of building a brand in an unpredictable world.
“We’re a startup food and drink business, and we’ve chosen to go down the investment route and take investments from angels and venture capital. So, there have been times I’ve worried about running out of money. That’s number one, but thankfully, we’ve just closed a big fundraiser.
“I worried about the war in Ukraine breaking out and realising how international supply chains are, and how all of us are so sensitive and how everyone who buys stuff is going to be impacted by the price of cardboard, shortages of different types of plastics or whatever, and realising that these big world events can materially change the cost of everything that we buy. I think that was quite shocking.
“And then I guess the other thing is just the marketing cost. My role at Naked Wines was marketing director, but I’ve seen it firsthand. It’s not just unique to startup businesses that it’s becoming increasingly expensive to acquire customers because of the price of digital marketing and it’s much harder to target people and a much busier marketplace. So yeah, I think running out of money, not being able to afford the product or product shortages, and the cost of marketing will be the three things that consume my 2:00 am waking brain.”
Navigating the complexities of packaging can be a make-or-break aspect of any burgeoning business. For Laylo, the journey began with finding suppliers who believed in their vision as much as they did. Little did they know two industry giants were willing to take a leap of faith in their startup. Now, as they scale and their annual packaging spend grows, the foresight of Smurfit Kappa and DS Smith to invest in their vision has cemented lasting partnerships.
“For our packaging, our primary supplier is Smurfit Kappa, and then we work with DS Smith on our outer packaging,” Riches continued. “And I think that the common thing that unites those two is that in the early days, they were willing to drop their minimum order quantity because they believed in us, and they believed in the vision that we had for the company and even at a point where we bought just 2000 litres. It’s interesting that they’re big companies and were willing to make that choice when many smaller-scale businesses could have grown with us. We’re now on a decent scale, and it would be quite a big contract – we spend a lot of money on packaging annually. I think it is a bit of a shame that some of the smaller ones didn’t take us. When we were initially scanning the market, they perhaps didn’t take the opportunity to support the underdog.”
At the heart of Laylo’s approach lies a simple yet profound question: why waste potential? Traditional wine labels offer a mere fraction of the storytelling canvas through box packaging. With five sides to work with, Riches saw an opportunity to contain wine and convey its essence. Through Gaudi-inspired prints and chic florals, they have arrived at something you’d be proud to pop on the dinner table. Laura, who will deliver her session titled ‘Thinking ‘Inside The Box’: Premium boxed wine for wine snobs’ between 3:15 pm and 3:45 pm on Wednesday, September 11, at London Packaging Week, says their design philosophy revolves around capturing the spirit of each wine through patterns, aesthetics, and a sense of place.
“We have five faces versus a tiny little space that you get on a wine label,” she said. “Our starting point was, why do nothing with that space, saying nothing when you can communicate something about the wine inside? We do that through design and trying to find patterns, aesthetics and a sense of a place through design, so our Italian wines feature a Murano glass or a Missoni print. I think that’s the sort of innovation I’m interested in and helping people to regulate better – although that sounds unsexy – but one of the reasons why people love our white wine is because they want to have the odd glass. On the flip side, you’ve got three bottles, and you know it’s all too easy to go and press the tap again. So, I think this is an area I’m excited to explore more – how can we help people understand their drinking amount?”
Fundamentally, Laylo is a wine company driven to deliver exceptional drinking experiences. And as Riches points out, even though they’re proud advocates of sustainability—with their boxes boasting a staggering 90% lower carbon footprint than glass bottles and being fully recyclable—it all boils down to one crucial question: will people love our wine?
She continued: “I’m clear that we are a wine company and that people drink wine because they want to enjoy a lovely glass, either on their own or with friends. It’s exciting that people are making more sustainable or environmentally conscious decisions. Still, ultimately, I think we have to deliver on our number one objective, which is to create a product people love to drink. Sustainability messaging is important, and people must know that the difference between a box’s carbon footprint and a bottle
is profound. It’s not just the 5% saving; it’s 90% less carbon than glass bottles and 100% recyclable. And I’m proud of that, and I think people will feel good about it. But I think people want a wine they will love from our product.”
From the outset, Laylo has dared to defy convention, forging a path where design isn’t just about aesthetics—it’s a statement. Their journey began with a bold decision: to create a product that stands out visually, even amid a sea of competitors.
“I think what made our business stand out was that we didn’t conform to how other products look,” Riches added. “We have created a unique product with a unique visual identity through design. Undoubtedly, the quality of the wine inside must be great, but if you ask most people who’ve heard of Laylo what they know about us, within the first sentence, they’d say they look beautiful. And that’s been key. The flip side is that we’ve achieved that while also going for things off the shelf where possible. We have a standard box size and use standard internal bags. That was important upfront because it allowed us to do minimum order runs and meant that it wasn’t prohibitively expensive. So, if I bring those two things together, it’s thinking creatively about taking off-the-shelf options but giving them your own language and visual identity.”
As Laylo continues to redefine perceptions of boxed wine, one thing remains abundantly clear: the journey has been a testament to innovation, resilience, and the unwavering pursuit of excellence. From challenging industry norms with their distinct visual identity to navigating the intricate landscape of packaging and sustainability, Laura Riches and her team have carved out a niche that’s as stylish as sustainable. Their commitment to quality in product and presentation has sparked a revival in how we perceive boxed wine and set a new standard for what can be achieved when passion meets purpose.
As we raise a glass to Laylo’s journey thus far, it’s evident that their story is far from static. With each box of wine, they invite us to reconsider tradition, embrace innovation, and savour the rich tapestry of flavours and stories woven into every drop. So, whether you’re drawn to their elegant designs or captivated by their environmental ethos, one thing is certain: Laylo isn’t just changing the way we drink, they’re reshaping the essence of what a wine experience can be.
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