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Selling wine by telling stories


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It’s one of the most venerable of marketing and advertising schemes. Give the consumer an interesting character he can relate to in an advertisement, and half of the sales job is done.

That’s why David Ogilvy invented Commander Whitehead to sell Schweppes Tonic Water in the 1950s

and why, 60 years later, Dos Equis invented The Most Interesting Man in the World to sell their beer.

Put a face on a product, make the face fascinating, give the reader/viewer a little back story, and voila, you’ve brought that consumer a step closer toward purchasing your product.

Storytelling is well known in the wine world, especially among public relations and media experts. They’re always looking for a way to make their clients compelling. People like me, who are gatekeepers to the media, are the particular targets of PR types. They know that all winemakers and winery owners are fundamentally the same, so they have to figure out a way to make their client different. It’s not unusual for a pitch to be crafted this way:

“Steve, I know you know a lot of husband-and-wife teams who made their money in another industry, then moved to Napa Valley to live the dream of owning a winery. But Bill and Tammy [made-up names] really are different! He’s not just another rich guy, he loves puppies! And Tammy is an artist in her own right, having exhibited her crocheted images of moths in the St. Helena Library!”

What the PR folks, bless their souls, are trying to do is tell a story, or, more accurately, sell a story, in the hopes someone will buy it.

Now, we’re being told, in the pages of Direct Marketing Magazine, that 2012 is “the year of brand storytelling.” Go ahead, read the article. It’s short and actually very acute in its perception, and the writer–Scott Donaton–is balanced. He’s not one of these people arguing that social media is the alpha and omega of everything. He gets to the heart of the issue with two really interesting statements:

1. “content can’t be relegated to a side role. It must be integrated into everything [businesses] do,” including traditional advertising but also tweets, YouTubes and other “consumer experiences.”

2. However, “The more broadly content is defined the more danger there is that the word will be washed of all its meaning. If everything is content, how can you have a content strategy?”

In these two statements lies most of the back-and-forth that’s occurred on this blog over the years concerning the value and role of social media for wineries. Many of my colleague bloggers have tended to the position in #1: Wineries have to become more socially engaged by telling their stories and engaging consumers, or else they risk being irrelevant. My position has veered more towards #2. If everybody is Facebooking, tweeting, instagramming, etc., all the time, then it all tends to cancel everything out. Donaton, the writer, calls this conundrum “questions that need to be addressed,” which is fair enough. It means we have to continue to have the conversation, even if it sometimes leads nowhere. In the meantime, Donaton writes, “brand storytelling is an effective weapon [that can] establish rituals, showcase product benefits and generate excitement.”

Problem is, if everyone has a story (and everyone does), then distinguishing your particular story becomes less and less possible, to the vanishing point. You really have to start splitting hairs. If Bill loves puppies, then his competitor, Don, has to love crippled puppies rescued from disasters. If Tammy’s crochets are in the St. Helena Library, then Bill’s wife, Tina, has to have an installation piece in the Louvre. (Actually, that would be a pretty good story!)

There have been some good recent examples of storytelling. The Envolve guys leapfrogged on Ben Flajnik’s star turn on “The Bachelor” to tell their story. They got tons of publicity, all of it free, but it remains to be seen if that has legs. As Donaton suggests in his column, the consumer’s attention span gets shorter all the time. Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame has turned into 15 seconds on a tweet.

Storytelling has its place, but whenever you hear someone talking it up, look for their agenda. Little wineries such as Failla or Saxum have great stories, but journalists didn’t get around to writing about them until they [the wineries] proved themselves by establishing quality. People tend to forget that quality must precede the story. You can tell a story about a mediocre winery and the winery will still be mediocre. Conversely, every story about a great winery is a great story.

  1. The story that goes as “I’m a 1%-er who bilked investors then got out while still ahead and now I bought a winery” just doesn’t have legs at this point. Who cares? Just anybody with enough money to own a winery comes from an executive or financial background. They might manage the business decently, but they won’t be getting their hands dirty. And that’s the only way to get good at something for real when switching fields.

    The stories I do care about involve winemakers who started out in the industry and worked their way up to be successful. These are real people who do real work, not Romney wannabes who think buying top notch workers and telling them what they want is winemaking. Heck, the folks who worked their way up actually have to run it like a business. They can’t subsidize their winery from other avenues, nor can it be a lifestyle. It’s a life they live.

  2. Greg, may I submit for your consideration that the “Romney Wannabes” may also be the employers from which the opportunity to ‘start out and work up’ in this business frequently comes. I’m sure you know who they are and which indy winemakers they have spawned. Those who are taking a financial risk and making a brick and mortar investment in our industry are to be encouraged and appreciated. Small winery startup subsidies are a proverb and take many forms; a working spouse, a family unit, a blown up 401-k, partnerships, second mortgages, etc.
    Would you recommend the “Obama Wannabe” government stimuli model instead?
    Your ire may well be better directed toward the proliferation of “virtual” wineries?

  3. Can we please keep politics out of this blog? Thanks.

  4. Kurt Burris says:

    Steve: Thank you for the no politics stand. I vastly prefer reading the debate on terroir. At least there we manage to refrain from name calling.

    I think the problem with most winery stories is due to most stories lacking any drama. And you can’t have drama without conflict. And unless you count dealing with zoning restrictions and special use permits there really isn’t much compelling conflict in a start up winery. Winery stories are far too often sort of like the feel good athlete profiles shown during the olympics. And I pay about as much attention to them as I do winery PR.

  5. george kaplan says:

    Agree on the ban on politics in the blog. It’s just another progressive way to spoil our fun.

  6. Thanks for the great post – you struck a number of chords with me here.
    I’m currently in the process of opening a small wine shop (in San Diego) structured around telling the STORY behind each winery, so I certainly agree with Scott on the growing value of “storytelling.” Given the sheer volume of well-made wines being produced these days around the world, there needs to be something more than flavor that resonates with a consumer. However, I also feel the challenge of sifting through the manifold tales being told out there. Finding the truth that underlies the copy writing can be difficult, as can finding the stories that truly stand out. There are lots of lawyers/finance guys/techies turned winemaker – my question, in each case, is why? There ARE answers that are worth re-telling – despite all of those that aren’t – and these are the winemakers I choose to share with the world.

  7. It’s unavoidable that I am jadded when it comes to winery PR so I don’t know whether this is relevant to the average buyer of luxury wine, but a story about loving puppies or being an accomplished anything in a previous life, does nothing to convince me to part with money and buy a bottle of wine. In fact, a lot of these stories particularly when they are human interest stories tend to cheapen my view of the product. What intrigues me to part with $ is something about the nature of what is in the bottle of wine that catches my interest. Not a side story.

    Once long ago I took over an operation and discovered that the winery was paying a wine writer to include something about the winery in four of his articles each year. The first one that year was about a stray dog that showed up at the winery’s tasting room. Not only was I mortified about the pay-to-play scheme, but I was irate that the piece was not about our wines, but a stupid dog! I fired his ass pronto.

  8. Neil Leddy says:

    Great insight.
    34 years after I poured my first glass of wine to an elderly patron in a small cafe, I too decided to move to Napa and enter the wine business. Its common knowledge that to make a million in the wine business, one should start with 10 million. As a newcomer to the industry, I have observed that the purchase of wine is largely emotional; and the unique stories behind each winery that conveys the history, terroir and family roots behind the wine is paramount. We feel the wine as we taste it. Oceans of the world may separate wine consumers, but its the stories behind the wineries that sell the wine and bring us together.

  9. Morton, I would love to know who that wine writer was!

  10. doug wilder says:

    When I worked in a fine wine shop in Napa Valley, I was able to experience first hand plenty of newly launched brands and their proprietors. It wasn’t hard to figure out what the good story was, looking back a decade later, I am happy to see many of the ones I thought mattered being important parts of the community because they walk the talk while others were equally unforgettable for being complete nitwits. Curiously, the latter usually flameout after a few years…

  11. Patrick Frank says:

    Most winery “stories” are dull. Totally true. But if the storytelling is done with a raised eyebrow and a postmodern smirk, the results are a lot more interesting, as in the case of the Paso Wine Man.

  12. @Patrick Frank: Gotta love that snark! So early 21st century.

  13. without offering too much self-promotion, I will just say that we have a very unique winemaking philosophy at the winery where I work. But the idea of “telling your story” has become so cliche in the wine world today, we rarely make the effort to tell ours. Instead, we offer quality juice for a reasonable price. Regardless of your sales and marketing agenda, good product for a good price always seems to be a successful strategy.

  14. Steve,

    I, as well as most others, I suspect, agree with you completely that quality is and always will be the top priority. Quality is the ultimate trump card. I also can identify with Greg’s comments regarding the people who actually do the work. One of the most difficult things for production professionals to deal with in this industry is people who don’t know which end of the tank or tractor or trellis post is the top or bottom taking credit for our work.

    What role does the winery setting play in the story and can a winery’s story, in an effort to offer mass appeal, become so broad that is loses focus and becomes lost? Great post, Steve.

  15. Mike Lane says:

    The longer the story the worse the juice. Sadly, it works, so Americans drink mass amounts of really bad, branded, storied wine. Oh well–as a Master Somm told me–they could be drinking ice tea and getting free refills–so a toast to the storytellers! (and please tip on the wine)

  16. As someone who works for an importer of several wineries I (sometimes) say that I am not in the wine business but in the relationship business.
    There are a lot of well made wines out there and my job is to distinguish mine from someone else’s. Yes, the quality has to be in the bottle but after that, the storytelling and its relationship to the wine are important.

  17. From a marketing perspective, the reason for the emphasis on storytelling is because of its proven ability to help cement specific memories in customers’ minds (as opposed to old-fashioned push marketing ads). With the high level of competition in this industry, it’s crucial to be remembered by customers and prospects (long after the bottle’s been drunk and discarded).

    Absolutely the story is worthless if the quality isn’t in the bottle to begin with. But given the proliferation of good quality wine — all vying for quality space in each customer’s memory banks — the quality of storytelling is crucial to ensure the wine and winery are cemented for future purchases and repurchases. It’s simply the way the trillions of neurons work in our brains.

  18. Great post. I particularly like the last two sentences! As someone who has worked both in sales and marketing, I believe in the story. That being said, I have always said the best marketing money any winery owner can spend is in making better wine.

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