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Tales from Content City, or How I Learned to be a Storyteller

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I seem to have established the reputation as someone who knows a thing or two about “content marketing.” We’ll get to a definition of that in a moment, but first, two examples of how that view has attached itself to me.

In the last two days, I’ve been invited to participate in events by two organizations: The Unified Wine & Grape Symposium wants me to moderate a panel called “Content is King: How to Craft and Share Stories that Stand Out.” The other one is from The Exchange, a Nomacorc effort that holds forums on various aspects of marketing, to speak at a Yountville event called “The Art of Storytelling: How wine brands can become both top of mind and center of heart.”

Storytelling. As words go, it’s a marketing neologism (it used to be two words), but the history and myth of storytelling is as old as humankind. I think of shamans telling epic tales of olden times to small groupings of people, clustered in a cave around a fire ten thousand years ago. Aesop was a storyteller; so were Virgil and Homer. After the written tradition took hold, storytelling often found its way onto the page and, eventually, onto the big and small screens. For how else are we to describe the films of (for instance) Steven Spielberg or T.V. programs like The Sopranos except as modern versions of the ancient practice of storytelling? But whether written, projected, broadcast or told, they’re all still stories.

Why we humans should like and need to hear stories has been the stuff of scholarly analysis. Children love fairy tales, which are a part of how our species passes on precious knowledge, often of a moral nature, through the generations. Why adults love stories is harder to define. They take us away from our daily woes and cares; they entertain, enchant and occasionally inform; and humans are, after all, curious and social creatures. From our positions in life we like learning about faraway places to which we may never go, in the physical form; but a good story is transportive. Stories appeal to the imagination, without which life would be unbearable.

* * *

Individuals have always sold things, and one imagines that stories always have accompanied that old practice. Perhaps the camel dealer in ancient Carthage had a story about a particular beast of burden known to go further, faster, on less water than others, and with a sweeter nature, too; that was his sales story. In the eighteenth century sprang the seeds of modern advertising, with billboards and hawkers informing us of the virtues of individual taverns and silversmiths. The twentieth century of course witnessed advertising grow into a planetary behemoth; in 2012, global advertising spending amounted to $542 billion U.S. dollars.

Since advertising is simply storytelling, there’s little wonder that wineries want their stories told, too. The assumption is that having a good story is good for sales. Why this should be so—what the precise connection is between a winery telling its story and the consumer buying its wine—is a little obscure. As with many other areas of soft science, there are some assumptions going on, mixed with anecdotal information. For example, companies pay huge amounts of money to advertise—tell their stories—on the Super Bowl, on the assumption that it will result in increased sales. The evidence is mixed: Some studies suggest that this simply isn’t the case. Yet Cheerios, Audi, Budweiser, Coca-Cola and Microsoft are some of the most successful companies of all time, and one thing they have in common is that they advertise on the Super Bowl. So even though the final proof of the success of any particular ad can’t be determined with the rigor of a mathematical equation, enough CEOs believe strongly enough in the ROI of advertising for them to devote considerable sums of money.

I did not set out to be an expert on storytelling (if in fact that’s what I am). I set out to be a wine writer and critic. Telling stories didn’t seem to be a part of my job, but looking back, in retrospect, that’s what I was doing from Day One. It’s just that the concept and terminology of telling stories didn’t invade the wine industry until comparatively recently. Yet when I wrote about the early history of Napa Valley, or how the Russian River was born, or how Bill Harlan came about being a winery owner, or how Boz Scaggs ended up with a winery on Mount Veeder, or how Francis Ford Coppola gambled his Godfather money on Rubicon, or how the Talleys of the Arroyo Grande Valley decided that winegrapes, not row crops, were the path to the future, or how Gary Pisoni let other wineries establish the fame of his vineyard before starting his own brand, or how Ehren Jordan cleared his land in the remote wilds of Fort Ross with his own hands—what are these besides stories, tales, adventures, myths, movies in the mind?

Which brings us to “content marketing.” I don’t know when this rather inelegant term arose. Probably fairly recently, I would think. It sounds modernish and scientifikky, but it really isn’t. It’s just one of those neologisms, like B2B and social media, that describes phenomena whose antecedents have long existed. And of course, like all other forms of marketing, there now exist scores of content-marketing consulting businesses making claims like “marketing is impossible without great content” and “content marketing is educating people so that they know, like, and trust you enough to do business with you.”

Well, this latter formulation is pretty spot-on. Wine companies want people to like and trust them, just as the producers of other commodities do. I like and trust Whole Foods, so I shop there even though they’re expensive. But I’ve come to absorb the Whole Foods story enough so that I’m willing to pay the premium for that positive experience (which is reinforced every time I shop there). Yet storytelling can exist at any price point, for any product.

Why storytelling should have become the huge 800 pound gorilla in the wine business it now has, is explainable by looking at the market in our 21st century. It’s a cliché, but true, that competition never has been fiercer. I hear the tales of road warriors out there on the blood-soaked sales trail, with hard-nosed buyers demanding $3 less per case and some competitor always willing to give it to them. It doesn’t matter if you’re Harlan or Fred Franzia or anybody inbetween, you’re looking for that extra edge. And that’s what stories give you.

Then too, stories never have been easier to tell. With the press of a “send” or “publish” button, a storyteller can send her tale across the entire face of the planet—and beyond, into the endless reaches of interstellar space. Given that ease, it’s a wonder why the wine industry, taken as a whole, was relatively slow to get into social media, blogging and all the rest. I always attributed that to the fact that winery owners tended to be older types who didn’t understand computers and were in fact intimidated by them. But they’re catching on now, with a vengeance (or they’re hiring young people to do it for them).

Where all this is going, I don’t know. Since I like writing and telling stories, it’s good for me. It can’t hurt a wine company to have its stories told. Telling its story, though, can be only one part of the marketing mix—but it’s a vital part, a lung or kidney, if you will, not the whole organism, but without which the being would have a hard time getting on.

And finally, this: if the storyteller doesn’t have credibility, neither does the story. In fact, the storyteller and the story are inextricably linked. This is why star athletes get fired from their pitchman gigs if they’re caught in scandals. Their stories haven’t changed; but their credibility and likeability have eroded to the point that they’re rendered functionally useless. As people turn against them, personally, they turn into the wrong messengers.

By the way, storytelling works when you’re tasting wine with others, too. I’ve long been a steadfast defender of tasting wine blind to get to its root worth—but there’s clearly much more to the winetasting experience than merely what happens in your mouth. Your conscious thinking is involved, too, which is why some winemakers will allow critics to taste only in their presence, at the winery. They want to get their story across. We will never, ever, all agree on the best way for critics to taste—openly, closed, single- or double-blind, at home, at a winery—but that is not to take away from the value of telling a story that’s real, credible and compelling.

  1. redmond barry says:

    Yet people are having big success with brand names like Yellow Tail, Cupcake, Menage a Trois, Bicyclettes, assorted Bastards, etc. This is all Randall Grahm’s fault. The stories often appeal to buzz concepts like status, authenticity, rugged individualism, but as a rule they only get people in the door. Hanzell has a story. Montelena has a story. Some will claim, with reason, that advertising is less about story than conditioned reflexes. Still, Jackson chose well if a storyteller is what they want, since telling stories is one of your signal virtues, and not a common one among wine writers( one thinks of Gerald Asher. Or Samantha, whose stories bring out her genuine enthusiasm for the wines she loves. This makes it personal, probably a good approach to the 51%. Fredric Koeppel tells stories in ways that enhance his reviews: I think he would be a good model.

  2. MORTON HOCHSTEIN says:

    GAAD STEVE….IT IS ALWAYS SUCH A PLEASURE TO READ YOU AND ENJOY YOUR REASONED APPROACH. WELL DONE. MORT

  3. Only a small percentage of wine enthusiasts in the United States subscribe to, and read, hobbyist wine magazines.

    Only a small percentage of newspapers continue to run wine editorial with any consistency.

    So where are consumers most likely to be exposed to a winery’s “story”?

    In the grocery or wine store.

    On the bottle label. The one piece of marketing “real estate” that a winery controls. A veritable “billboard” for its brand.

    (Subject to Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau guidelines: http://www.ttb.gov/pdf/brochures/p51901.pdf.)

    And yet, how many labels give you a sense of history and pedigree and a dedication to the craft of wine grape growing and winemaking?

    Wineries are owned and run by farmers.

    Most take the Field of Dreams approach: “Build it and he will come.”

    Packaging is an after-thought. That is a self-inflicted wound.

    As Paco Underhill states in his tome “Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping,” consumer packaged goods research studies consistently report that a SPECIFIC brand selection decision happens at the last moment in the sales aisle.

    Those same studies consistently report that a shopper will linger no more than 3 second when perusing the label of a product on the shelf.

    Advice: Capture the shopper’s attention through eye-appealing graphics, hold the shopper’s attention through artful storytelling, and you just might elicit a one-time trial purchase by the shopper seeking a new experience.

    And as Underhill further states, product sampling significantly raises the probability of a shopper buying your product.

    So wineries, why aren’t more of you talking with the leading grocery store chains and scheduling “Brand Ambassador”-led tastings in the wine aisle on weekends?

    The war for the consumer’s dollar is being waged in the sales aisle.

    Not in the analogue or digital media.

  4. THANK YOU MORT BUT TRY TO KEEP YOU COMMENTS IN UPPER AND LOWER CASE!!

  5. Dyann Espinosa says:

    I’m in agreement with Bob Henry. Most wineries overlook their most important piece of “real estate” in marketing their wines–the back label.
    This belongs totally to the winery and is a way to provide the consumer a glimpse of the culture and personality of the people, the characteristics of the wine and anything else that they feel brings the reader closer to their story.
    I definitely can be convinced to try a wine I don’t know–not because WS gives it a 94, but because I’ve been drawn in to the wine by the way the company expresses itself and reaches out to me.

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