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Selling wine by telling stories

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Storytelling.

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.


FTC to increase oversight of Internet alcohol marketing

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I have mixed feelings about the Federal Trade Commission requiring alcoholic beverage companies to reveal their “Internet marketing and data collection practices,” as reported here.

Most of the information I cite here came to me this morning from the Buffalo Trace Distillery, a Kentucky-based whiskey brewer, through an email blast. Unfortunately, the contents of that email are not available on the Internet, so I can’t provide a link.

But according to Buffalo Trace, the FTC “for the first time” has requested the information in order “to see how effective the industry’s voluntary guidelines are in reducing marketing messages to underage audiences.” The companies now under compulsary order by the FTC include Anheuser-Busch, Diageo, Constellation, Brown-Forman, Jackson Family Wines, Pernod Ricard and many others that are big players in the wine, beer and spirits industry.

The FTC is concerned, rightfully so, with Internet marketing of alcoholic beverages to people below the age of 21. According to Adweek magazine, which reported a version of the story yesterday, until fairly recently the FTC wasn’t terribly concerned with Internet marketing of alcoholic beverages. But all that changed following “the explosion in mobile apps and social media, reportedly a new favorite of alcohol marketers.” Seems the FTC became aware of a study which determined that “digital marketing…might be even more profound than the known risks of exposure to traditional marketing,” particularly when targeted to “youth who…increased their drinking levels more over time…into their late 20s.” You can find a link to this study by going here and then clicking on the “Alcohol Marketing in the Digital Age” link at the bottom of the page, which brings you the PDF.

The reason I have mixed feelings about this new policy by the FTC is because I’m concerned about the increasing encroachment of the government into our Internet activities. I grant that the government has a legitimate interest in combating underage drinking. It’s also obvious that alcoholic beverage companies are experts when it comes to marketing. See this report on how “Social networks are becoming the go-to platform for alcohol marketing,” which says “social media has become a new venue for promotion, and alcohol is no exception.” Check out, for example, this YouTube-like opener for Corona Beer. It’s really well made, addictive in its own way. Who wouldn’t want to be young, cute and lovable, on a warm beach at night, with other young, cute lovable kids, rocking out to live music while sucking up the suds? The possibilities for love are endless.

Of course these ads are reprehensible; they seek to entice young people into irresponsible behavior, at a point in their lives–teenage–when they’re least capable of self-discipline. On the other hand, how intrusive do we want government to get, even with giant corporations? It’s also unclear what the FTC means to do with the information it has required from the companies, which is due by June 11. Can the FTC force companies to drop their Internet ads? Is that censorship? What will the courts decide? As usual, the intersection of public policy, law and private behavior (remember, “corporations are people”) is an exceedingly complicated one.


Advertising wine: time to take it seriously

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Two articles point to the difficulties, but also the opportunities, the wine industry has before it in emerging from the Great Recession. The first, “Wine words baffle us, survey says,” was published in the British publication, the Telegraph. It’s one of those read-it-and-weep sob stories that makes you wonder if wine is doomed to forever be seen by millions of adults as the ultimate snob drink. After the thousands of how-to wine books that have been published, millions of words in newspaper and magazine wine stories, and even with all the wine blogs, consumers remain hopelessly muddled, baffled and intimidated by wine, and profoundly ignorant about it. Go on, read the story yourself. It’s scary: they don’t know how to pronounce most varietal names. They confuse a tasting sample at a restaurant with a full pour. They ask for a slice of lemon in the wine. They pretentiously swirl, then spill the wine all over themselves. And they’re terrified of walking into a wine shop.

I don’t think beer or spirits drinkers face anywhere close to the same problems. What it means for the wine industry is, collectively, it has got to re-think its whole approach to wine education. We’ve got to expand the consumers’ comfort zone. How? That’s where the second article comes in.

It appeared in the New York Times on Wednesday, and was entitled “Growing appreciation for P.R. on Madison Avenue.”

I have to admit it came as a surprise to me to learn “how much more interested marketers are becoming in using public relations to reach consumers.” I might have thought that, with the recession, companies had less money to spend on P.R., which could be seen as a non-essential frill at a time when they’re struggling to meet payrolls.

But no. Instead, CEOs are realizing how much they need P.R. specialists to help them with a growing array of fields: T.V. commercials, social media, database marketing, analytics, print advertising, search-engine marketing,  brand management, crisis management, reputation management, issues management.

I’m sure my P.R. friends, like Jo Diaz, won’t be at all surprised by this. When I think of winery P.R., I think of a one or two person shop, either in-house or hired, in which the P.R. person has too much to do and too little time and money with which to do it. That’s why winery P.R. can so often seem clunky and anachronistic. It’s not that P.R. people don’t have good ideas; they’re just not given the budgets to realize them, the way, say, Coca-Cola, Weight Watchers and BMW are (to name but a few companies cited in the Times article).

Gigantic wine companies have the deep pockets to launch massive advertising campaigns, but how about everybody else? That’s why, I think, the majors keep on being major, while 95% of all the other wineries are in a continuous scramble for existence.

The lesson to be learned, IMHO, is not a new one. It’s an old idea, one that’s been around forever. But it’s never been fully resolved. Why don’t the smaller wineries collaborate? They could all pool their resources until they had a budget that might not rival Constellation’s, but would be enough to hire a big Madison Avenue P.R. firm. Then that firm could go about educating consumers in exactly the areas the first article talked about.

Can you imagine it? A 30-second commercial during “Mad Men” on how to pronounce Viognier and Pinot Noir. An insert in PEOPLE magazine on how to order wine in a restaurant. Frank talk to consumers about how the industry has let them down and is now ready to make amends and try again.

I know it sounds crazy, but there are thousands and thousands of little family wineries in all fifty U.S. states. Couldn’t they collectively raise $20 million? How about a commercial during the Super Bowl? Remember, one Apple commercial — the famous 1984 ad — launched Apple Computer to where it is today. That ad was only shown once, but it had a huge, lasting impact on America’s, and the world’s, psyche. Aren’t there some creative minds out there that could do the same for American wine?


Gourmet back, in print, but for how long?

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I blogged last April that Gourmet magazine, which Condé Nast shut down in Oct., 2009, might spring back to life, not just as an online publication but even in some newsstand format.

Now, it’s actually happened. “Condé Nast has announced that it will indeed bring back Gourmet in print form,” says this article in the online zine, FishbowlNY.

It’s worth reading between the lines to see if we can infer any lessons to be learned in (a) why print publications die, (b) how they can continue online and (c) if they can actually pull a Lazarus and return to print form after they’re dead.

In my April blog, I wrote that, if Gourmet did return to print, it might do so as an advertiser-driven publication, one that straddled the tenuous border between “straight” journalism and what’s called, in the trade, an “advertorial.” So, I wrote, the new Gourmet “would be ‘Gourmet by Kraft.’ Could we expect to see recipes based on Oscar Mayer bologna, Oreo cookies and Philadelphia Cream Cheese?”

Such information as is available on the new Gourmet is scant, to say the least. What we know from the early reports is that the first issue is called Gourmet Quick Kitchen,

it will be 128 pages long, contain 81 “fast and easy recipes,” and will hit newsstands Sept. 7, at a cost of $11 — which seems pricey for a magazine.

But that’s about all Condé Nast has told the world. What we don’t know is whether the magazine really will be advertiser-driven, or whether it will be pure.

We also know, via the New York Times, that all of the recipes in Gourmet Quick Kitchen “were published in Gourmet before its demise,” and the first issue “has no paid advertisements…”. That’s pretty interesting, but before you come to any conclusions, the Times article also said that “future editions might” contain advertisers. You can only conclude that, when the Times reporter was given access to the Condé Nast P.R. person who broke the news, the P.R. person wouldn’t rule out the possibility of future advertising.

Knowing how advertising works, I suspect that potential advertisers are holding off for now, waiting to see if the new magazine actually sells.

What else is part of Condé Nast’s plans for Gourmet? The magazine “will see another iteration on the iPad and other tablets later this year with the launch of Gourmet Live,” reports min online. What is Gourmet Live? Condé Nast’s president and CEO announced it in an online press release last June 22. He called Gourmet Live “an entirely new digital content product” that will offer readers “articles, menus, photos, videos and more,” while bringing “monetization structures new to Condé Nast.” It’s not clear whether Gourmet Live will carry advertising. The company made a YouTube promo for it, but there’s no clue about advertising, or what those new “monetization structures” will be.

So it looks like Condé Nast is taking a multi-platform approach that incorporates print, newsstands, online, social media in all its aspects (there are also a Facebook and Twitter pages), and creating buzz through giving “insider” access to selected media, like the Times. Which is pretty much about all any publisher can do in these uncertain times.

Reaction, by the way, to the new Gourmet by old Gourmet Magazine fans has been less than enthusiastic. Here are some typical reader comments to the Times article:

Eleven dollars (plus tax) for a magazine? I would hope they wouldn’t have advertising at that price. You could almost buy a book for that.

Gourmet Quick! sounds like they’ve taken all of the quality out and left us with a Rachel Ray look alike.

I miss the old Gourmet…I’m not looking for quick recipes from Gourmet. I can find a 100 of the same thing on the shelf already.

Seems like cashing in on a well-loved name…Rerunning old recipes with new photos? I can go to Epicurious if I want to find old recipes.

It’s so sad to see a repackaging of old content and dare to say they are “bringing Gourmet back”.

Anyway (this is Steve again), it seems to me that Gourmet has a long, hard road ahead, and believe me, I wish them well. They’re one of the more conspicuous victims of the recession and the online revolution, but they’re hardly alone. It will be educational to watch Gourmet and see how they navigate the treacherous waters ahead.


When it comes to wine, is it still a man’s world?

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Does the wine industry do a lousy job marketing to women? That’s what this article in the Oregonian says.

“[T]he corporate wine world has got it wrong when it comes to marketing to women” is the conclusion, and the article offers plenty of supporting evidence, most of it anecdotal. There are all those dumb brand names that are supposed to appeal to women: Little Black Dress, Girly Girl wine, White Lie, and they might have mentioned Bitch wine, with its pretty in pink label.

The article also draws a sharp line between the way men and women shop for wine. Men, who are “more likely to be posting on eRobertParker,” will “bring in their Blackberries and look up Spectator points.” Women by contrast “come in [the store] by themselves…Their attitude seems to be more, ‘This is what I really like and that’s why I want to drink it.’ It’s really more about ‘me time’ rather than getting another 95-point trophy to show your friends,” says the owner of a Portland wine bar.

The article cites some female wine marketers who give advice on how to target women. “Emphasize the ‘elegance’ of wine…Advertise the activity, not the object…How about showing women cooking together or sitting at their book club, socializing and enjoying wine…”.

I asked my Facebook friends what they think of the industry’s marketing to women, and the replies came in fast and furious. “The wine industry does a crap job of marketing to everybody. Women just get an extra dose of crappy,” said one, a man. A woman, who sounds like she had a lot of pent-up feelings, wrote, “Overall the wine industry does a TERRIBLE time marketing to women. We are treated overall like second class citizens or as if we are attempting to enter an all male social club. I’ve actually had wine merchants say to me ‘Wow, not many women know what they are talking about when it comes to wine.’ Really? Really? Maybe if they would shut up and freaking listen to us, they would understand how ridiculous that statement is.”

Another woman summed it up: “Women don’t buy on points, first of all (the ‘mine is bigger than yours’ doesn’t work). And women don’t like dumbed down wines (less calories!) or ridiculous targeted names (girly girl? give me a break). This is why tastings are important, because women seem to buy what they like and in order to do that, they must have a reference.”

I thought about the women I know who buy wine. They’re mostly strong and independent, and can hold their own with a bunch of yakkity guy wine snobs. But maybe that’s just the women in my life. It does sound like there’s a problem out there, especially considering that women drink most of the wine consumed in the U.S.

If there is a certain anti-woman snobbism in fine wine shops, I can relate to how women experience it. I remember how awkward I used to feel when I went into Draper & Esquin, an upscale shop in the Financial District. This was back in the Eighties, when I was getting into wine. I was ready to buy (not the most expensive bottles, but still), I was curious and had questions, and I longed for the clerks to make me feel welcome. They never did. Instead, they made me feel like I didn’t belong there. You can communicate a lot through body language, and theirs was basically: get lost. As a result, I never bought a single bottle at Draper & Esquin, which eventually closed down. Gee, I wonder why.


Advertising, sponsorship: not dirty words

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As most of you know, I went to the Wine Bloggers Conference in June, up in Walla Walla Washington. The sponsors, a great group of guys who work out of a Colorado outfit called Zephyr Adventures, have been doing followup polling. Yesterday they sent an email blast summarizing their polling of the wineries who sponsored the conference. They got 16 replies.

The wineries seemed very happy with the conference and their sponsorship of it. Fourteen of the 16 said they were glad they signed up. When asked why they sponsored the conference, 14 said they wanted “to connect with bloggers who will remember my product or company name for possible future posts.”

The Zephyr guys concluded their email this way: “Our tip to bloggers? Remember the sponsors at each conference you attended. Write about their wines if you come across them at a later time. Contact the wineries and other companies, tell them who you are, and ask questions! The sponsors will love you for it.”

What I find so interesting about this concerns the concept of advertising, and particularly of wine magazines, such as Wine Enthusiast, that accept advertising in its pages. I’ve read much criticism of magazines accepting advertising, both in the comments made to this blog over the years and in other blogs. The implication from some blogging quarters has been that any magazine that accepts advertising cannot be pure — that it has to be suffering a conflict of interest, because how can it rate wines objectively from wineries whose ads support it?

I have repeatedly defended wine magazines for accepting advertising, and tried to explain that doing so does not cross any red lines — at least, I can vouch for that at Wine Enthusiast. But I still have the feeling that that suspicion exists out there in some parts of the blogosphere. So now, I find it funny that even the Wine Bloggers Conference is conceding that it depends to some degree on winery sponsors (and a sponsorship is really just another form of paid advertising, when you think about it). It’s interesting, also, that the Zephyr guys are suggesting to bloggers that they write about the sponsors’ wines.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not criticizing this practice. In the world of business, where nobody can afford to launch a product or service that doesn’t make money, you have to make certain concessions to your advertisers. You don’t have to promise to review their wines favorably, or to give them extra attention if they haven’t done anything to merit it. But I see nothing wrong with giving your advertisers a little love from time to time. If you’re writing a regional roundup and have the choice of including winery “A” or “B”, if “A” is an advertiser, “B” is not, and all other things are equal, why not include “A” in the article? Again, that doesn’t mean that if winery “C” is doing the best job there is, you don’t include them just because they’re not an advertiser. You do. The key phrase is “all things being equal.”

Does this mean that newsletters that don’t accept advertising, such as Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, have the moral edge over magazines that do? Nope. At some level, readers have to buy in to the discernment, good taste and honesty of any wine critic, regardless of how he publishes his content. They also have to buy into his or her expertise.

The wineries who sponsored the conference did so for exactly the right reasons: They wanted to be remembered by bloggers, and they hoped to be written about, in what I assume would be a positive light. What’s wrong with that? Any winery these days that doesn’t get out of the cellar and try to connect with as many people as possible is in trouble. I salute the wineries that sponsored the WBC; it’s the ones that didn’t I wonder about. I think that WBC 2011 should be flooded with winery sponsors. And since it’s on the East Coast this time (Charlottesville VA), this would give non-California wineries an opportunity to show bloggers what they can do.

Bottom line: advertising, or paid sponsorship, is not a dirty word. It’s a fact of life. And people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.


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