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Gallo’s social media strategy: First, do no harm

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David Bowman is vice president of premium and fine wines for E&J Gallo. His portfolio consists of brands like Louis Martini, Mirassou, MacMurray Ranch and William Hill, but not, say, Barefoot. In other words, Gallo over $9 a bottle. When I asked to be connected with Gallo’s top social media person, Bowman, 38, is who they hooked me up with. We spoke by phone last Friday.

SH: Does Gallo have a social media strategy?

DB: It’s all starting to develop. We’re in the early stages of trying to understand what role it should play in our media mix. We’ve taken a watch and wait role. Is it disruptive to something we’re already doing? It defies some of the characterizations we generally apply as marketers. What is the intent? What is the net result? But because social media is very democratic, it appeals to a broader audience than a Wine Enthusiast reader.

That’s all very theoretical, but what are you actually doing?

From a public relations perspective, Michael Heintz [Gallo’s PR director] is actively spending time with bloggers. He does outreach to certain bloggers. We send wines to certain bloggers.

How are those bloggers chosen?

The criterion is how influential we think they are, how broad an audience they garner.

How do you determine that?

A lot of it is based on the facts you can see. A lot of them make claims, “This is how many people read my blog.” Some of it is by reputation.

What would you consider a good enough readership?

I wouldn’t put a specific number on it. It might be geographically based, or this person has credibility in a particular region.

What does “credibility” mean?

Well, this is why I said it defies characterization. You’re going to a place where an individual consumer can instantly become a wine reviewer and influence a wider circle of people. This has to do with the democratization of wine.

So is print becoming less relevant?

From a credibility point of view? It can become much more marginalized in importance.

What will replace print?

That’s the hard part, with 1000 blogs out there, as opposed to setting up one meeting with a famous wine critic. He [Michael] is now interacting with hundreds of people. And that becomes difficult. How do you tell if someone’s credible or not? There are no rules. How do you know if they have reach? It’s very, very hard.

Can there be a single strategy at a company like Gallo where you have so many dozens of brands?

Great question. Each and every brand has a personality and a set of reasons for the consumer, retailer or restaurateur to believe the brand makes a great wine and has a good story.

Does anyone at Gallo actually blog?

From us on behalf of the brand? Not as of today.

Why not?

Well, we’re trying to figure out the best way to do it. Here’s the challenge. Think of Facebook: There are issues of protecting your trademark. And how relevant will you be in that context? Five or six years ago, everyone ran to the Internet thinking they needed a website. But what brings people back? So when you enter Facebook, I say make sure you have something to talk about! The last thing you want is to have a site on Facebook and say “I’m here” without having anything to talk about.

How do you figure out what to talk about?

Depends on the brand. Take Barefoot, which is in Stephanie Gallo’s group, not mine. They’ve been assertive in moving into the social media space.   Now, I could argue we haven’t done anything on our premium portfolio, but it appeals to a much more narrow audience [than Barefoot], and we’re still trying to figure out what we want to talk about so someone will log in. For example, what role will Michael Martini play [at Louis M. Martini]? What’s happening on Highway 29 today? Because if the content’s not fresh, why should the consumer care?

Well, how long will it take to figure out what you want to say? You can’t just think and think about it forever. Eventually, you have to just get out there and start talking.

I agree. I’m just saying it’s important that you have something to say. If you have nothing to say, don’t get out there and say it! For you, Steve, you have something to say. From my seat, as an individual brand, I wonder if there’s enough for the consumer to come back, because the last thing I want to do is bore them.

How do you keep that concern from becoming an impasse?

I understand where you get to a point of paralysis. We do have a lot to say — we just haven’t organized around it to ask who’s responsible for policing our site?  Who’s in charge? It’s like any company that’s new to this social media space — defining who’s accountable. This is why this area lacks so much definition in our industry. It defies characterization. You want people to be passionate. But somebody also has to be responsible to make sure there’s relevant content that’s fresh and accurate and doesn’t subject us to liability.

Is it conceivable that, ultimately, social media might not be a strategy that’s in Gallo’s future?

My answer is unequivocally no.

So what concrete steps can I expect to see you take over the next six months?

Well, you’ll see without a doubt some of our brands start to enter into a more active participation on Facebook, blogging, Snooth, podcasts, talking about what we’re doing at the winery. In my portfolio, the brand that makes the most sense is Martini.

Could you see Gallo hiring a Director of Social Media to oversee all brands?

Probably not. As it relates to individual brands, from my perspective I’d rather push that responsibility down. It will be up to the brands to make it work and keep the content fresh.

What did you think of the Murphy–Goode thing?

I thought it was an interesting P.R. exercise. They hired this blogger to be a blogger but the tent was for P.R. They capitalized on the broad interest in social media to exercise a P.R. tactic. It said, “This brand is progressive and thinking about the future.” But from my point of view, whatever we do it has to be based on authenticity.

Is it possible for any winery to be perceived as authentic in social media, when people know what you’re really trying to do is sell a product?

The consumer of today, my generation, Millennials, they are very sensitively marketed to. They tune it out instantly, and they want a sense of truth and authenticity. They understand if you’re online and have something to sell. They’ll enter into the relationship already knowing that. But they’re willing to accept it, because there’s something of value to them.

Are there any wineries you respect in the social media sphere, other than Murphy-Goode?

Umm. [long pause] Not in the true sense of social media. Everybody’s still toying with it. A lot are doing it to capture consumers for the wine club. The funny thing is the consumer and someone like yourself who blogs are most empowered by this format, but brands are still trying to figure out what this means. It’s not like a traditional P.R. campaign or buying a TV or magazine spot.

Do you yourself regularly Facebook or blog?

I do not. It’s a conscious decision. Mostly I’m in a sensitive position given what I do. If I’m online talking about wine, anything I say could be construed by consumers or press, so it’s more self-restraint. I’m very opinionated but right now it would be irresponsible for me to do so. But I’m online a couple hours a day, and I do it inbetween [other tasks]. Snooth has an interesting operating model. And Michael [Heintz] brings stuff to my attention constantly.

  1. Interesting stuff… Yoo Hooo…. Strategy?…. Where aaaareeeee yooooooooou???

    A Gallo insider contacted me a few months ago. Said that they wanted my help in trying to sell blogging and social media to the top brass there. They gave up eventually – I’m not sure of the cause of that, but reading this my guess would be that Gallo is close but still doesn’t quite “get it”.

    Every single one of their brands should already have social media as part of their marketing strategy. Every. Single. One…

  2. Very interesting look behind the giant wine corporation curtain, Steve.

    When you are as concerned with liability issues as this company so obviously is, it has to affect the way each individual who works for the company looks at any outside interactions.

    I share Mr. Bowman’s lack of certainty regarding the effective way to do “social media,” but at Steven Kent and La Rochelle, we are small enough to try a bunch of things, fail quickly, hopefully learn from our mistakes, and try a new bunch of things until we have a strategy that works for fans of our wines.

    This is definitely not my father’s wine marketing environment, and I find the “newness” of it exciting, scary, and something my generation can build upon as a foundational structure for the next.

    Steven Mirassou

  3. Thanks for sharing Steve.

    I get to have lunch at the MacMurray Ranch soon. Yeah Gallo!

  4. Dave Bowman. HAL has got to be looking down on you now with a big smile. This inertia, paralysis, whatever you choose to call it is what it must have been like in the boardroom at General Motors 10 years ago. “Everybody’s still toying with social media”??? Dude, Rome is Burning and those fires are not being set with toys.

  5. What he didn’t say was very indicative. That long pause means one of two things. 1) The entire industry has yet to leverage social media in a way that has reputably generated a direct link to ROI. 2) Gallo has focused too much internally and has yet explored the social media environment to its fullest effect.

    It’s probably a little both to be honest.

    One of my biggest pieces of advice is that as the “social media guy” he should be heavily involved in these social sites. He doesn’t have to discuss wine if it’s taboo, rather, his participation should be used as a means to educate and see how others engage within the space. As a parallel, if you were competing in a boating race, would you not practice in the same waters where you would compete?

  6. Awesome post! Steve, this is exactly the conversation we PR people are having. The boss asks us to develop a social media plan and we say “okay” but where to start? It’s like wrestling an 800 pound gorilla.

    What Dylan says makes a lot fo sense. Engagement and participation is almost half the battle. You have to roll up your sleeves and start someplace. As you said Steve – “when the train leaves the station, if you’re not on board, it might be too late.”

  7. It’s not easy to turn around a company of this size. Moms and Pops yes, but when you add the sisters and the cousins whom he reckons up by dozens (G&S) to the mix it becomes more complicated. You can’t make too many mistakes here. But the train hasn’t yet left the station. Besides, if the train is going to Boston, but you are going to Washington DC, perhaps you don’t want to be on it.

  8. Morton Leslie says:

    I think what immobilizes a large organization like Gallo is fear. They are comfortable with press releases that have been approved at the top and wordsmithed by a dozen people who each have a say. They are comfortable with buying someone lunch and taking someone on a well rehearsed tour. But anything extemporaneous is fraught with danger, treading on someone’s toes, second guessing, and internal political posturing. Being real and being yourself is just not part of the culture. Buying advertising is safer.

  9. Interesting interview.

    If his historical radar goes back to 2003 ala the quote, “Five or six years ago, everyone ran to the Internet thinking they needed a website.”

    … and if he is 38, as suggested by Steve, and refers to himself as a Millenial ala the quote, “The consumer of today, my generation, Millennials, they are very sensitively marketed to.”

    Then Gallo has marketing issues bigger than a Facebook fan page –which is likely true because Gallo has never had a strong consumer based marketing presence, they have distribution presence.

  10. Todd Havens says:

    Nice! You really dig in there with the tough questions, Steve!

    I was surprised to hear about their wait and watch approach. They’re surely not alone in taking that position, but it was jarring to hear that from such a big player.

    And who knew “protecting your trademark” was such a paralyzer over on dear old Facebook? They just sound stuck…again, not that they’re the only ones in that boat…

  11. Gallo still thinking about it? Too late!

  12. Steve,

    Finding what works for each winery isn’t easy. Without concentrating so hard on sell, sell, sell, the winery needs to look to it’s core differentiators.

    In a recent webinar presented by Jason Baer of Convince And Convert, one of his key takeaways:

    “Social media hinges on passion. Find your one thing and build around it.”

    Couple that with drilling down and using the platforms to tell your winery brand story via posts, pictures, short videos, inviting conversation, answering questions, posting links to articles on relevant issues, being responsive to fans/followers. Take that one thing and showcase it. Get your staff excited and involved. Be consistent. Ask your wine club members to join in on the conversations, share pictures. Fan pictures and stories on Facebook, a winery fan organizing a Tweetup at your winery, these are valuable ways of communicating, engaging and building awareness with winery fans and prospective fans between wine reviews, new releases, events and newsletters.

    The fan/follower content that is organically created is an extension of word-of-mouth and tough to get. But if a winery’s presence and conversation is exciting and engaging, the excitement will ring true with a face of the fan posted next to their content. Instant feedback and word-of-mouth! Eventually this leads to sales and tasting room visits or at the very least puts you ahead of wineries who are only using interruption marketing to shout at wine lovers and not listen to them.

  13. Melissa, you’re so right about finding your passion. What I discovered when I started blogging was that I didn’t know, at first, what my passion was. I had to blog for a while before I found my blogging “voice.” I think it’s the same for Gallo and other wineries who want to jump in, but are a little afraid. My suggestion is, just do it and don’t worry about it. Don’t over-analyze it. It’s an organic process that develops over time.

  14. Nobody is more sold on the power of the internets that me, but I think it’s silly to compare Gallo of today to GM of 10 years ago. Far as I know Gallo has plenty of cash, is not burdened by loads of debt and huge union contacts, and it produces very good product (at least the stuff I’ve tasted at the high end is) that is liked well placed in the market and liked by the public. I personally think they’ll continue to thrive regardless of how many facebook fans they have or tweets they make.

  15. Gallo has so many brands and positions in the marketplace that it could start out with one or two of them and find their way with those brands using social media. And each brand may approach it in a different way, perhaps some brands not even bothering with social media at all.

  16. Hi Steve,

    Great post! Smart winery folks could learn a lot by reading this post and the comments.

    Like I’ve been saying for months, social media is just another method of communicating about your brand. It’s not rocket science, nor should it be treated as something completely different from other forms of marketing communications. The goals remain the same, no matter what tools you are using. Integrate social media into your marketing mix. Don’t be afraid to fall down once in a while. That is how we learn.

    BTW, Melissa is spot on. You go girl!

  17. At the wine blogger conference, Marie E Shubin, Consumer & Product Insights for E.G. Gallo approached us at the evening wine hour. Marie told us she was on assignment to find out what wine blogging is all about. She wanted to know how we got into wine blogging and why we blog. I wonder what she learned.

  18. I wonder if one of the problems at E&J is too many chiefs and not enough Indians.

  19. If I was Gallo, I’d be blogging internally before worrying about the external world. Is there an easier way to communicate with the troops???

    I find it a bit strange that Gallo has nothing to say about their products. I thought the whole marketing thing was creating a unique identity for each brand. Anything with an identity should have something to say to somebody…..

  20. The history of Gallo over the last 30 years has been to wait as changes were taking place in the wine business. I will list 3 major examples. When White Zinfandel took a foothold on the American consumer, they waited as Berringer and Sebastiani established themselves in that category. When the consumer discovered box wines and were moving from the Carlo Rossi label, again they were slow to get into that phase of the bulk wine business. Finally as the consumer grew into varietal 750 ml wines, again Gallo was behind the times and it has only been basically through acquisitions have they now entered this phase of the wine business.

    Regarding the statement of the train leaving the station, Gallo feels they can get on their own train any time they want and arrive at the same time from when the original train that had pulled from the station.

  21. Donald Hynding says:

    Steve, nice post. Having been in the industry myself for 20 years I can tell you that the man you interviewed, David Bowman, is by far one of the better more effective marketers in the industry. In reading the comments posted about your interview many think that Gallo is late to the game. These same people should look at Gallo’s track record of slow, methodical growth and evolution. Many said Gallo couldn’t sell fine wines and now that argument doesn’t stand. Others said Gallo should have been more aggressive acquiring other wineries during the boon of the mid 2000′s….if they would have they would have been over-leveraged (think Constellation, Fosters, etc.).

    My sense and perspective is that Gallo and David Bowman and his team will eventually come up with a social networking strategy for some of their brands they see value in. Most likely given the track record of Gallo that strategy will be right and successful. Keep up the good work, Mr. Bowman!

  22. Gallo, as a few comments have pointed out, has traditionally waited and then killed their mark with distribution.

    Social media, for many of us small wineries, is effective when it comes to driving direct sales. How many MacMurray Ranch Wine Club members are there? Evidently, their lunch is much sought after.

  23. Steve,

    Same here, it took me a bit to narrow in on my blog focus. Sometimes we can get paralyzed by over-analysis, definitely.

    Michael,

    Keep rockin’ it! And thanks for your feedback on my comment.

    All,

    This string has been enlightening.

  24. Carol Reber says:

    Great post, Steve. While I somewhat understand David/Gallo’s “wait and see” POV as to how to best leverage and monetize social media in a company with a massive portfolio and finite resources (although less finite than other wine companies to be sure), I cannot understand one of the wine industry’s big marketeers incorrectly referring to himself as a Millenial. If David is 38 years old, he is most certainly NOT a Millenial. Millenials were generall born in the 1980′s and early 90s. Sorry, David, but you are squarely within Gen X.

    Here’s how the generations roughly break down for you:

    Gen Y/Millenials/Echo Boomers Born 1979-94
    13-28. 70M are 21-30 as of 2008.

    Gen X 1960s-80s: Born 1963-78
    29-44. 45M as of 2008.

    Boomers 1940s-60s: Born 1947-62
    45-60. 77M as of 2008.

  25. Great questions Steve! And I completely understand the hesitation from David’s standpoint. It can be an overwhelming challenge with the number of quality brands Gallo offers. Certainly it doesn’t make sense to hire a social media “guru” for each brand — but building a solid foundation with an overarching strategy is essential to begin and grow from there.

    As the lead for the recruiting firm that did the screening of candidates that applied for the Murphy Goode job, I can say that the campaign was an awesome testament to the power of social media as well as a grand experiment now that Hardy has begun in his role. I’m sure we’ll all see that not only is he — and the intention of this position — authentic, but Jackson Family Wines are poised to lead the pack on using social media in the wine industry.

    Companies like Gallo are certainly in a position to take the lead with the right strategy and a bit of courage. I’d can’t wait to see who comes to the table next.

  26. Gallo is private, it is big, it is family, and it has always done business face-to-face, one-on-one. The fact that it doesn’t want to throw itself to the “social lions” shouldn’t be a surprise. That it gave Steve the interview with Bowman is unusual (good interview, Steve) and certainly indicates there is interest somewhere in the Gallo chain.

    Now, think about this: the fastest-growing segment— “a full 40.2% of Facebook users are 35+” (Istrategylabs.com)— is not the millennial (though still largest #) and many in the upper age of this tier know Hearty Burgundy headaches. Or remember “What’s the word…”.

    This 35+ growth in ’08 and 09 (http://www.istrategylabs.com/facebook-demographics-and-statistics-august-2009-55-grows-25-in-one-month/) seems to be largely attributed to high school/college reunions – people being reconnected. What do we talk about with high school friends we haven’t talked to for 10-20-30-40-50 years? Those Hearty Burgundy/Budweiser moments (and sex — maybe Gary V is right, Steve).

    Meanwhile, Pearanalytics.com did a survey after wondering what people Tweet about: “Pointless Babble won with 40.55% of the total tweets captured; however, Conversational was a very close second at 37.55%, and Pass-Along Value was third (albeit a distant third) at 8.7% of the tweets captured.”

    Gallo has very separate/static brand websites where it is almost impossible to determine that a winery is connected to Gallo, it only appears on the tough terms-of-use, privacy policy, and trademark links. It markets globally. Should Gallo jump into the “be real, tell all” social-networking arena when it employees a cadre of lawyers just to protect its brand worldwide? (Oh, were I a fly on a Modesto wall in those conversations!)

    Meanwhile, Jackson first created separate companies (or subcompanies) to market as solely millennial brands. It hired bloggers (as noted in WE story on millennials in April). And now it is bringing them back under one roof. Is this a smart strategy, an “it didn’t work” strategy, or a cost-saving strategy? I’d be interested to know what it found to be the results of three+ years of separating millennials into their own niche. Sebastiani was heavy into social networking (and sold).

    So, as much as I might like to see Gallo enter the fray, the bottom line for Gallo, if not for us, is would it sell more wine? Does anybody have new statistical references specific to brands/wine sales and social networking by category? Liz Thach at Sonoma has done work related to this, Wine Market Council does some, Nielsen on plays when you pay, but where are other big marketing studies/numbers? Does Gallo know something we don’t?

    Good blog, good comments all.

  27. Kathy, I don’t think Gallo knows something we don’t. (Although if they did, I wouldn’t know it!) I think they’re following their usual strategy, which is caution.

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