Wine is one of those things that’s easy to pick up, but takes a lifetime to become an expert in. Sure, some people might say, “But anyone can drink wine! A baby can drink wine.” OK, a.) DO NOT GIVE WINE TO A BABY and b.) very few babies could tell you the varietal, year, and the hill in the Rhone valley where the grapes in that wine came from, simply based on a tasting. (And even if they could, STILL DO NOT GIVE THAT BABY ANY OF YOUR WINE.)

A long-time wine nut, I spent years working as a server and a bartender, discussing wine with sommeliers and customers alike, absorbing all the knowledge I could, and most of all, just tasting tasting tasting as much as humanly possible. Along the way, I started to gain not just greater knowledgeof wine, but also a greater appreciation of it as well.

Something I was thinking about recently, though, is that there is actually a lot of overlap between the experience of a great wine and the experience of a great brand.

(Yes, I had been drinking wine when I thought of this idea, but stay with me here.)

The way I approach wine-tasting is pretty methodical, almost scientific, in its three steps: Look, Smell, and Taste. But, the way I experience that wine is based on way, way more than that — years of experience and intuition and training and discussion. For each of those three areas — Look, Smell, Taste — I have slowly formed different sets of criteria: attributes I look for and enjoy (or do not enjoy), little benchmarks a wine has to clear for me to consider it a success.

Similarly, a great brand is never about just a logo or just messaging or just customer experience; these are only a few of many, many important areas that we, as customers, eventually piece together to create an overall impression of a brand. We can take, for instance, the Nike swoosh and “JUST DO IT” and the design of their products and the tone of their ads and like 8,000 things, and we can mash them all together, and eventually, we start to have ideas about what Nike means. But if you hadn’t been given all that information, and you hadn’t been slowly trained how to think about what all of it represents — if someone just gave you the Nike swoosh, for instance, all by itself, without any of that other stuff — you would think that they were an insane person.

So, when considering a brand, just as when considering a wine, we want to break it down into its component pieces — here, Look, Smell, and Taste.

First, we Look.

When I open a bottle of wine, I immediately take a peek to see what it looks like in my glass. Specifically, I’m looking for color, clarity, and meniscus color. Color gives me some idea of the types of grapes I’m about to have, clarity and the meniscus (the small, clear ring around the edge of the glasses) lets me know if the wine has turned.

Meanwhile, when I’m evaluating the look of a brand, I check out its various assets, copy, and design elements. For Keen IO, these sort of things include our logo, website, social presence, blog, stickers, t-shirts, events, etc. This is our first impression of the brand — everything we tend to notice at first blush, right on the surface. And, just like the meniscus, If any of them seem strange or bad or off-color, well, we probably won’t be giving them much of a taste.

Next, we Smell.

Smell is an incredibly important part of wine-tasting (which is why you so often see people taking those big, crazy whiffs of it), because smell and taste are directly related. When you take in the scent of a glass of wine, it actually primes your taste buds for what they’re about to experience, Is there an oakiness here? What fruit notes can I expect? Basically: What am I getting into here?

In terms of brands, the smell step is that first real interaction we have with the brand. And that could be anything — unboxing a product, having your first meeting with a client, taking your first steps into a shop, whatever gives you a whiff of what it might be like to really work with them. For most of our customers, this would probably include our signup process and welcome emails. These elements are the gateway into the brand, so they should be a welcoming mix of the familiar and the surprising, the comfortable and the delightful.

Finally, we Taste.

Look and smell create an expectation, but taste is the full experience. And the more you taste, the more clear the subtleties of the wine become. In my favorite wines, I get a very clear picture of things like the oak and the terroir (earth notes) in the first sip. Then, as I continue to experience the wine, the fruits and other flavors start to come out: Cocoa, bing cherry, tobacco, leather, etc. But, if you sit down with a glass for a while, it starts to change — the more pronounced flavors step aside to reveal more subtle aspects: A little plum, a hint of moss, grass, stone fruits, fennel, rose. So it’s important to keep coming back over time.

In brands, taste comes down to the long-term experience and value you offer to customers. If your technology is solid and helps solve a problem, people are going to remember it. A positive interaction with the support team reveals something new about the company, and creates a little window into your culture. And, just like wine, brands evolve over time, and start showing new subtleties. But, as long as you maintain some of your core flavor, people will continue to understand and even appreciate these changes.

Of course, there is one last element of the wine-tasting process that I love: Sharing it! If I experience a wine that I love — a wine that fires on all cylinders; look, smell, and taste — I tell everyone I know about it. I open up my Delectable app to put my tasting notes down and see what others have been saying. The same goes for brands; you do a great job, and people will start advocating for you.

At this point, I’m hoping I’ve whet your appetite — both for tasting great wine and for building the sort of brands that people love. If you ever want to chat about your brand, I’m more than happy to help — just buy me a glass of wine to discuss it over. 😉