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Winery P.R. and social media: Make the product cool, and make stars of the everyday people who drink it



The great advertising genius David Ogilvy, who founded one of Madison Avenue’s most successful firms and served as the inspiration for generations of Mad Men, in his 1963 memoir “Confessions of an Advertising Man” quoted his own father. “[He] used to say of a product that it was ‘very well spoken of in the advertisements.’”

Ogilvy’s father lived in an era when being “well spoken of in the advertisements” was convincing enough for a gentleman to buy the product. Ogilvy understood, partly through his readings in mass psychology, that it was important that the person speaking in the advertisements be credible. He was a stickler for the authoritative figure: in “Confessions” he cites Escoffier as “the definitive authority” in cooking; he recalls his own stint as an assistant chef under Monsieur Pitard, “the arch symbol of authority”; one of Ogilvy’s first clients, when he set up his advertising firm, was “an eminent authority on rare books”; in advising how to sell proprietary medicines, he notes that “A good patent-medicine advertisement conveys a feeling of authority”; and, finally summing up what it takes to be a successful ad man, suggests practitioners “become the acknowledged authority” on subjects ranging from ad budgets and media planning to getting scholarly articles published in the Harvard Business Review. An ad man who can do that “will be able to write your own ticket.”

David Ogilvy died in 1999, at the age of 88. His career spanned a period when authoritative advertising really could push products because consumers trusted the information in the ads. Ogilvy specialized in inventing “personalities.” Oldtimers will remember Colonel Whitehead, the cool white-bearded guy who told us of the benefits of Schwepps tonic water, and “the man in the Hathaway shirt,” with his eye patch (who was the spiritual father of “The Most Interesting Man in the World,” the Dos Equis guy). Believe it or not, there really was a time when advertising seemed to express the honest, objective truth, and people were credulous enough to believe it.

Today’s P.R. and advertising specialists constantly refer to “the story” as the backbone of capturing the consumer’s attention. Although the term “the story” wasn’t really part of Ogilvy’s lexicon, it’s clear that his character-driven narratives anticipated it. He refers to another advertising man’s use of the term “story appeal” in photographs: “the more of it you inject into your photographs, the more people will look at your advertisements.” (One of my favorite Ogilvy images, and one of his most famous, is this ad for Rolls Royce.



It’s almost impossible for the eye and the mind not to dwell on it. Who is that woman driver? Are those her kids? Where are they coming from–private school? What are they carrying? This is “story appeal” to the max, amplified by the photo’s caption, which captures the imagination.)

Hence, the modern goal of P.R. to “tell the story” is hardly new. Mucha did it in 1897 with this poster advertising Nestle’s:


a self-confident, classically beautiful maman mixing up the cocoa for her healthy, happy baby. When P.R. professionals take their first meeting with a new client, they prod for the story–and if they’re good at their jobs, they never stop refining and, if necessary, re-defining it.

But today we have the game changer called the Internet, and specifically social media, a paradigm shift if ever there was one. Businesses no longer need P.R. people to take them public; they can go public all by themselves, with more exposure than even David Ogilvy ever dreamed of on his most creative, three-martini day. However, as we know all too well, some companies, and particularly small wineries not well versed in social media, don’t know how to take advantage of the opportunities, thus leaving room for P.R. consultants for ply their trade, especially if they’re adept at social media. One successful example of a neat fusion of telling a story through the use of social media concerns Vans, the popular shoeware company (I own several pairs and love them). Vans has a new, online documentary series in which four filmmakers were asked to find interesting young people who embody the spirit of the brand and tell their story. For instance, here’s a short YouTube of an East L.A. guy named Anthony. He’s pretty cool: it’s interesting to get into his life, and he just happens to be wearing Vans, which gets a transfusion of Anthony’s cool via the miracle of emotional transference. We know for a fact that video is the future of social media. If a picture is worth a thousand words, an interesting video is worth its weight in gold.

The American public today is less susceptible to believing something just because it’s “very well spoken of in the advertisements.” I mean, we passed that milestone long ago. Nowadays people are more likely to skip through the commercials on T.V, and slip past the ads in newspapers and magazines. They do, however, respond to interesting and clever videos. The Vans YouTubes are wonderful to watch, and even though they don’t say a word about Vans, the shoes are part of the show. I’m not saying that traditional P.R. is dead or has no place, but the skill set for successful P.R. has changed. It now involves–not just the ability to make a good video–but proper insight, even more important, into the content of the video. Consumers will not respond if they’re hit over the head with product ads–at least, they won’t with wine. (I never fail to be amazed by the brutality and noise level of car commercials. I hate them, but maybe they work, or else the industry would have abandoned them long ago. But you can’t sell wine that way.)

So how is “Anthony,” the East L.A. guy, an “authority”? The fact of the matter is, for a younger generation the definition of “authority” has changed. It’s no longer some stentorian font of wisdom who knows more than you do, telling you what’s up. It’s someone just like you. Anthony is an authority on being a cool young kid who’s having fun who just happens to be into Vans. That’s way different from some talking head on a T.V. commercial blathering away about the quality of Vans soles or the durability of their laces. People don’t need that anymore, at least in everyday footware. Nor do they need it in wine. They want to see and hear from people they can relate to. That’s the lesson for wineries, for P.R. pros and for marketing execs in general to take home.

  1. Where’s the plot twist? There was supposed to be an earth-shattering plot twist!

    I might be especially thick today, but aren’t *you* (professional critics) the talking heads blathering away about lace durability (er, minerality)? “People don’t need that anymore… in wine.” Do you think most wine buyers relate to professional wine critics who know 100X what they know and express themselves with lithe prose about sensory characteristics? Or maybe the time has come for relatable Anthony to replace wine authority.

    (BTW, I don’t believe this and I doubt you don’t either.)

  2. *doubt you do.

    (Stupid Florida public school system)

  3. Dear Michael Brill, I think the times they are a’changin.

  4. Sam Dependahl says:

    Vans has spent decades embodying individuality and counter culture, which is one of the reasons why these videos are so effective. The medium is part of “the story.” I think other shoe brands—from Paloma Barcelo to Prada—will continue to rely on the role of traditional authorities. There’s no “one size fits all” formula.

  5. Hi Sam. People can look at a pair of Van’s and assess in 5 seconds whether they like the product. No amount of time looking at a bottle is going to tell you any more about it and so you have to rely on trusted sources. Random social recos don’t matter and, as of today, there aren’t platforms that connect influencers with their communities to drive purchases. So we’re still in a world where critics still are the dominant influence… maybe an end-consumer doesn’t see that directly, but rest assured that there is huge impact on winemaking styles and driving product through the channel. Of course it’s more than this – the quality of your winery’s sales force matters *hugely*. What doesn’t matter, TODAY, is Anthony from East LA. That will change… but people have lost tons and tons of money assuming that wine works like other consumer products. Empirically it hasn’t.

  6. Michael, you say that “No amount of time looking at a bottle is going to tell you any more about it.” But what if the bottle is so visually compelling it tells you everything you need to know — even if you can’t find the words to articulate it. Here’s a perfect example…

    This too is a form of “story appeal.”

  7. Fred, certainly branding matters. But you could put that same label on a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc or an orange wine or late harvest Zin. How would you feel to buy that wine, go home and find an innocuous green Monterey Cab in there? So a label isn’t enough for consumers to determine whether it’s a wine they want to buy. There are other considerations such as wine style (do you like party pleasing concentrated, ripe wines with oak and a bit of residual sugar – then you’ll love it). But there’s also quality considerations and who is going to tell you about the quality of the wine?

    In this case, I believe it was Wine Spectator who gave it ~ 93 points when it was around $25… and BAM!, David Phinney couldn’t buy enough fruit to grow fast enough. Good on him! But make no mistake, if Wine Spectator hadn’t bestowed those points, we would have seen a very different outcome.

  8. Steve, all,

    Welcome to 2010.

  9. Dear 1WineDude, thank you! I would have visited 2010 sooner, if I’d known you were there.

  10. Joe, I understand that it’s easier to follow conventional wisdom, but the problem with the smugness is that it’s not borne out by data. Simply wishing things were different from how they are doesn’t change facts. Look at the Wine Web Power Index released by VinePair a few months ago. The top 9 sites are either professional reviewers or they are non-social retail… nary an Anthony from East LA. Compare the scale of these to non-professional/non-retail sites on the list and it’s about 20:1. 5% is not nothing, but it’s scarcely something to be smug about.

    Sure there are wild cards like whether a Raj Parr tweet or whether mobile/social wine recos will have a material impact on wine sales (I’m pretty skeptical). But we’re in 2014 and these types of questions have answers backed up by data in other consumer industries. But not wine.

    Of course I don’t believe that a half-dozen professional wine critics will dominate forever… there will be splintering and specialization. But that (a) sure the hell isn’t happening now and (b) won’t be happening with blogs and facebook. Wine is a far more transactional product than we’d like to believe… and until the transactional environment can easily embed these splintered influencers, then I don’t see that 5% moving very quickly.

  11. Michael, if you’re addressing me then you’ve missed my point. The point is that the wine world is years behind on much of this, and mostly has yet to even deal with that 5%, which the data also shows will grow over time to be a larger percentage. Not sure to what conventional wisdom your referring? your last paragraph needs data to support it, because the recent Wine Opinions report presented at WWS and the MW seminar suggests blogs have actually splintered more of that influence among high frequency fine wine buyers (which is a start), and outlets with big distribution are hiring those bloggers to write runs content for them. Granted that isn’t going to move the needle with distributors/imports yet but there’s more of a change there than you might realize.

  12. By conventional wisdom, I’m referring to the belief that the dynamics we see in other consumer product industries (namely the impact of social media on wine purchases) apply to wine. Seems intuitive that they would… until you ask yourself why they haven’t already? Other industries have been completely transformed and wine is largely untouched. Why? IMHO, you can’t really predict the future unless you have a compelling perspective on why wine has behaved so differently.

    I am in no way saying that bloggers are irrelevant or that today’s critic-dominated model is the future. I am saying that there needs to be a much, much better way for consumers to make educated purchases – and critics, bloggers and a million tweets don’t matter a bit when you’re sitting in front of a 200 wine restaurant list or 2,000 wines in a store trying to make sense of things in the few minutes that you’re there. But until there’s something better, let’s not paint critics as a neutered force – they’re far from it.

    Just to clarify where my head is, I feel that there will be better platforms to help consumers figure out what to buy. And they’ll be populated with top 20 critics, top 200 (mostly regional) specialists, top 10K influencers and maybe another 100K mini-influencers. But this will be far more transactional than today’s model which is pretty much a mess.

  13. Michael – understood, thanks for clarifying. I think I have a good handle on where your head is on this, given your business model ;-).

    Regarding this: “Seems intuitive that they would… until you ask yourself why they haven’t already? Other industries have been completely transformed and wine is largely untouched. Why?”

    It’s a great question, but I think we need to take into account that wine is an artificially “protected” product, in that there are (being kind here) incredibly bizarre laws governing its commerce. Is it more likely that wine is immune from all of the forces that are transforming other industries, of that the effects of those forces are simply slowed by wine’s unique status as a governed product? I know which answer I’m choosing. It is changing, if the DTC growth numbers are to be believed, for example, it’s just taking longer than most other industries.

  14. Expensive for consumers to evaluate, insanely expensive to ship, virtually unlimited choice, inability for most consumers to easily get recos. Not a lot of products like that.

    While I generally reject the assertion that regulation is a meaningful drag on wine commerce (maybe it’s a 10%-20% drag), I do think you are right in that the pre-2011 CA ABC handling of marketing agents retarded progress in a big way. But, ok, here we are 3 years later and I’m not sure I see models other than WTSO variants (92 points for 40% off).

    Re DTC… vast majority of that is driven by tasting rooms and dependent wine club sales. Who in the world wanders across the internet, finds a winery and then pays retail for product plus full-boat shipping? Except for the odd highly-allocated brand, you really have to be extremely rich and/or a moron to spend 50%+ more than you’d pay at a local retailer. (Note that we see the same issue with mobile app-based wine purchases). If you remove tasting-room driven sales, the 5% of the market DTC represents probably drops to 1%. This is orthogonal to the issue of influence, but really significant. Just for grins, I picked a random wine (Brewer-Clifton SRH Chard). At a local wine store (K&L), my cost for 3 bottles picked up is $81.50. If I go to Brewer-Clifton site, my cost delivered is $144.60. That’s 77% more. I really can’t see DTC going anywhere with these economics.

  15. Michael – But doesn’t DTC start expensive in any arena and then the prices fall over time (given lots of factors)? And you’re painting DTC too broadly, because it’s for more serious consumers who cannot get the choice that they want in fine wines because of the regulation and the artificially protected monopolies within the three-tier system.

    Regulation begets the need for three-tier, and three-tier is WAY more than a 20% drag on wine.

    Be careful with the Brewer-Clifton example – I’m not saying you’re wrong, but it’s the fallacy of small numbers. That’s like me saying that Mars, Inc. shouldn’t plan to make any more 3 Musketeers bars over the next 12 months because I didn’t see anyone in line in front of me buy any of them at the local grocery store… 🙂

  16. As an aside, with 95% fluffy nougat, 3 Musketeers really shouldn’t be made at all.

    I certainly understand the evil optics of the 3 tier system but the reality is that it is a more efficient model than DTC primarily due to cost of shipping and wineries’ demand for full-boat pricing. Maybe it’s less efficient than a winery direct import model (2 tier)… common sense would tell you it is. But reality may be different when you take into consideration the capability of distributors to reduce sales and logistics costs for a winery. In other words, even if three tier wasn’t mandated, it’d probably exist anyway like it does is so many industries.

    I don’t see any structural changes that will make DTC less expensive. Shipping will get more expensive, not less. Wineries feel the need to protect their retail price point so they’re not going to heavily discount. Smart wineries will create more direct-only skus where they have more flexibility on pricing and the super-smart ones will create more interesting experiences around the wines that aren’t available at retail. In the meantime, I’ll pay $27 while others pay $48 for the true DTC experience (namely an inconvenient purchase process, waiting a week to get the wine, missing the FedEx guy only to have to call and then drive down to FedEx to pick it up, opening the cardboard box to find 3 bottles of wine and an invoice, break down the box and put in recycling, then I’m unable to drink the wine for a few weeks due to it being rattled around for days, oh and not being able to have it shipped to me for half the year due to weather holds).

    There’s a fair bit of snark in there and I appreciate the work that folks like Tom Wark and others have done over the years as it it could be far, far worse. I shudder to think what an over-aggressive NY SLA could have on other states wrt TPP legislation. So I don’t want to sound like an ungrateful recipient of the benefit of other people’s work. However, I spend most of my waking hours trying to find ways to improve how consumers buy wine and so when I run into perspectives that deeply conflict with my own observations, I tend to adopt a polarized perspective – primarily for my own benefit. Am I missing something that everyone else sees? The reality is that you, me, Steve and most others probably agree on 98% of this stuff.


  1. NEWS FETCH – March 6, 2014 | Wine Industry Insight - […] Make a cool product, then make stars of the people who drink it […]

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