Branding. It’s not as easy as you think
A lot of people have been asking me for advice lately. No, not advice on wines, advice on branding. As in, “How do we get consumers to understand and respect our brand?” The “brand” can be a particular winery, a type of wine or a wine region. Whatever it is, people seem to value my take on branding.
There are reasons for this. One is that I’ve been around for a while, and they think I must have figured out a thing or three in all these years. Which is correct; I have. I’m not a marketer or a P.R. expert or a salesman, but I have worked with marketers and P.R. experts and salespeople, and have some inkling about what they do, and how and why they do it. I see also how they do things wrong. So that gives me some insights into the fine art of marketing.
Critics also have their finger on the public’s pulse in a way that no one else in the industry does. The critic is in the fungible position of being the middleman between the consuming public and the industry; in fact, we’re the only middleman there is. The critic’s role is similar to the public defender’s, or the ombudsman’s at a newspaper. Someone has to represent the consumer, the average person who doesn’t have a voice, who may be getting ripped off, who needs help weeding through the conflicting and often phony messages she gets from the wine industry. That’s where we critics perform what is perhaps the most satisfactory and moral part of our job.
We critics have a feel for what people are feeling and thinking–what they’re going through, how they see things, their most fundamental sensations and thoughts. There’s a lot more to being a wine writer than merely being a wine “expert.” You need to have skills in psychology and sociology and even in politics, in order to effectively understand the marketplace.
That’s why being dialed into the news–political, economic, cultural, business, artistic, sports–helps a wine writer. Wine and its consumption don’t exist in a vacuum. They’re linked to everything else in the culture. When a giant wave moves through the culture–“Sideways,” for example–it doesn’t spring sui generis from someone’s brow (with due respect to Rex Pickett). No, it’s part of an irruption within the broader culture, the result of myriad forces, all converging at once, for complicated reasons; that Rex Pickett was the repository of these forces is almost random. The election of Barack Obama was an example of the convergence of powerful societal forces; so is the rise of the Tea Party. Steve Jobs has a genius for causing waves. Marketing people hope and pray that whatever thing they’re marketing will achieve such an irruption. Making a big wave is the wet dream of the marketing pro. But it’s very hard (no pun intended) to achieve.
The main reason people are asking for my advice is because they’re desperate. When times were flush, which they were pre-Recession, they didn’t need my advice, or anybody else’s, because their product, whatever it was, sold itself. Nowadays, nothing sells itself; everything has to be sold. That involves effort on the part of the seller, but a lot of these sellers aren’t used to selling. They don’t know how to put their shoulder to the wheel, or even where the wheel is. There’s a sense of flailing: hire a social media director, maybe that’ll do it! How about a label comb-over? Let’s cut the price and pray. Fire the old winemaker and hire a new one! Pick riper, plaster new oak-like flavors on! Bring on some pricey marketing consultant to tell us what to do! Sell the stuff off as bulk; at least that’ll make some money. And when none of that works, the ultimate Hail Mary: call Heimoff.
I don’t mean to mock these troubled people who are reaching out. I’ve always had a sense of how to market stuff. I don’t like the technical aspects of selling–I mean, actually having to go out and interact with people, some of whom you may not like, some of whom may be repellent. It’s discomfiting to try and convince someone to buy something they don’t really need. But I’m pretty good at the big picture. I like the creative part of marketing. For example, here’s what I told some sparkling wine people who came to me for advice. My idea for a T.V. commercial is based on the premise that a lot of men think sparkling wine is for sissies (you know, flutes, pinky extended), not “real men.”
We’re inside a sports bar. Big game on the overhead T.V., pounding rock and roll music from the stereo system. Place is packed with young, boistrous, laughing guys, like in those old Miller Lite and Bud commercials. Guy walks up to the bar, alone. Not bad looking, maybe a little nerdy, average “everyman.” Everybody else is chugging beer. Guy orders a glass of sparkling wine. Suddenly, total silence. Everybody looks at the guy. WTF? Who is this creep? Not one of us, that’s for sure. Then, out of nowhere, a beautiful woman, the most gorgeous, sexy lady you’ve ever seen, joins the guy. Guy says to the bartender, “Another sparkling wine for the lady.”
Message: the guy with the sparkling wine gets the date. The beer chuggers are total losers who go home alone.
To effectively brand something, you can’t just come up with a message that you like. It’s not about your opinion; what you think is bupkes. You have to get inside other people’s heads and understand where they’re coming from. The successful brands of the future will do exactly that.