The subject of wines whose marketing campaigns seek to target them to women has been much in the news lately. In this piece, nicely written by Bloomberg’s Elin McCoy, she hits the nail on the head with the requisite amount of barely concealed outrage appropriate for a 21st century woman with a healthy amount of self-respect and a keen eye to penetrating the cynicism that midwifed the birth of these brands.
In this column by the Wall Street Journal’s resident guru, Lettie Teague takes a more restrained approach, as to be expected given the constraint’s of her paper’s editorial style. She doesn’t exactly come out and say she finds the whole womanist thing contemptible, instead crafting her piece in terms of the comparative merits of mens’ and womens’ palates. But various phrases she uses, including calling such wines “a veritable ocean of plonk…produced with the sole purpose of appealing to the supposedly superior female palate,” gives us a glimpse into the answer to the question, What does Ms. Teague really think?
Ms. Teague and Ms. McCoy are, as mentioned, both women. But how does a male view the wine-to-women targeting? In The New York Times, correspondant Austin Considine, in this Grey Lady-esque piece of stylebook journalism (which means finding people on both sides of the fence to quote), calls the wines in question “cheap, cheery wines appealing to conventional notions of contemporary women, à la Carrie Bradshaw,” although he does concede that women’s wines are “enjoying something of a pop culture moment” given, especially, Cupcake’s success.
Six years ago or so, the venerable Wine Institute, headquartered in San Francisco, first took note of the phenomenon, noting that “A greater marketing awareness toward women consumers is emerging as a trend in the 21st century.” However, this was before the onslaught of silly and often patronizing names that has hit store shelves lately. The Wine Institute welcomed the trend, calling it only rational given that women “purchase 57 percent of the wine consumed in the United States.” Wine Institute also pointed out that “women are less influenced by wine ratings…Although the wine quality is important to women, so are the label design, the bottle shape and the philosophy of the winery.” That put things on a lofty intellectual plane. I particularly like “the philosophy of the winery” as being an integral part of a woman’s decision to buy a bottle of wine. That assumes that the woman in question would be able to infer that philosophy (if indeed one existed) through visual cues picked up from the label. And perhaps many women did select wines that purported to donate a portion of their profits to charity, or were eco-friendly.
Well, what would be the philosophy of a wine called “Cupcake”? Or for that matter of wines called “Girl’s Night Out,” “Middle Sister,” “MommyJuice,” “Flirt,” “Skinnygirl” or the inimitable “Bitch”?
I think we have to realize that a lot has changed in the last six years. Wines that might have targeted women buyers as smart and progressive now seem to be appealing to what the marketers see as every woman’s inner Barbie Doll. Maybe I, as a man, simply can’t understand. But I suspect there are millions more women who wouldn’t touch these wines, under any circumstances, than who would. They know when they’re being pandered to, and they don’t like it.
My favorite under-30 mover and shaker in the American wine world, Alan Kropf (who’s 29, so he’d better get busy preparing to be one of the most important 30-40 year olds) is the publisher of Mutineer Magazine. He also has this traveling roadshow he calls the Millennial Wine Marketing Circus, a sort of pop-up that features speakers on various aspects of all things marketing.
Alan’s a smart, ambitious guy who’s achieving a solid foothold in wine media. I don’t know exactly where he’ll end up, and probably neither does he, because the future of the field he’s chosen to play in–which lies at the nexus of publishing, social media, event management, public speaking and consulting–is so obscure. There’s a lot of jockeying on the part of a lot of people to succeed in this nexus, and the way I see it, Alan has as much of a chance as anyone, and maybe better.
Anyhow, according to the article, at the Circus, “speakers will discuss notions such as authenticity, affordability, rejecting elitism and ‘inspiring’ consumers.” Alan didn’t invite me to be a speaker, but if I were, here’s what I’d say on each of these topics.
authenticity What is “authenticity”? It’s awfully hard to define, but I think most people recognize it when they see it. I think authenticity is based on the person’s personality. A strong personality that registers as authentic is perceived as honest, knowledgeable, incorruptible and opinionated. It also is free of contradictions. As we see all around us, people whose positions change with the weather are widely viewed as inauthentic. For an expert in wine, authenticity is very important, because it is the basis of credibility.
affordability Of course the world is searching for affordable quality wines. It’s impossible to argue with such an assertion. But stressing “affordability” can lead down a slippery slope, as I’ll explain in the next part.
rejecting elitism Let’s jump right into this. While I am first to admit there’s plenty of snobbery in the wine world at the top, I firmly reject the notion of “elitism.” What do people really mean when they criticise “elitism”? Usually, they’re people who are younger, less exposed to the great wines of the world, who can’t afford expensive wine, and often have an ambition to succeed in their field. In order to accomplish the latter, they have to knock off those ahead of them who already have succeeded–and an increasingly common way of doing that is to accuse them of being “elitists.” Needless to say, if these people eventually succeed, they themselves will someday be accused of being elitist.
Now, if what Alan means by “rejecting elitism” is simply that you don’t have to spend a lot of money to find good wine, I’m onboard with him! That’s obviously true. I recommend Best Buys all the time. But the “slippery slope” I referred to is that this anti-elitist attitude can lead to a dumbing down of wine understanding and knowledge. I don’t think that’s a good thing.
‘inspiring‘ consumers Let’s break this down. On the surface it sounds a little silly. Religious and political leaders inspire us. Sometimes a work of art can inspire us. Can wine inspire us? Not really. So what does Alan mean? If I can crawl inside his head, I’d say he’s talking about average Joes and Janes who have an interest in wine, but are intimidated by what they perceive as its complexity. From their point of view, there’s so much rigamarole around wine that they shy away from it, even though they really want to get into it.
Enter Alan. He’s very good at public speaking. He’s a good-looking guy who pays attention to what he wears. He’s hip-cool. He’s like the old-fashioned circuit preacher who travels from prairie town to prairie town, exhorting the masses to Come to Jesus. In this he has his finger on a certain pulse of the masses. I think he means to inspire people to not be afraid of wine–to start by taking baby steps, which is where we all start all of our journeys. He tells them, “If I could do this, you can too,” which is the message all charismatic preachers deliver. So, if this is what Alan means by inspiring consumers, then he’s the perfect person to do it.
That’s what I’d say, anyway.
At dinner the other night a senior executive for a major wine company told me that labels are becoming one of the most important reasons why people make a spontaneous purchase of wine.
I’d always known that labels are important, but this executive stressed their importance even beyond what I’d thought. It’s difficult for me to put myself in the shoes of an uneducated shopper as she browses the wine aisle looking for something special to drink with the pesto pasta and fresh garden peas she’s making tonight. I would already have an idea in my head of what type of wine to drink with it–maybe a sprightly white wine, with good acidity and some sweetness; Gewurztraminer? From there, it would be a matter of selecting a trusted producer, at the right price. I might also be influenced by geographic origin. Alsace? Sure.
But our shopper doesn’t know anything about any of that. Instead, she has to rely on one of our oldest, most primitive forms of human sensibility: vision. What we see is immediate and powerful: it can do only one of three things: repel us, attract us, or leave us indifferent. Label designers know this, and design accordingly.
But this isn’t a posting about labels, it’s about buying wine based on “more visceral responses [of which] aesthetics is key.” Those are the words of a gentleman named Phil Hurst, who is board chairman of a newish company, H.D.D., which is described in this press release as “one of California’s newest and fastest growing wine companies,” with brands including Healdsburg Ranches, Stonegate, VML and Bradford Mountain. (I’ve reviewed all these wines in recent years. The results have been mixed.) What interests me about H.D.D. is their practice of what one of their angel investors, a San Franciscan named Daniel A. Carroll, calls “a truly disruptive wine business model.” Come again? “A Disruptive Business Model focuses on improving products and services in ways that the industry does not expect while designing for an evolving set of consumers in a new market environment,” explains the press release.
That’s a mouthful that I didn’t quite get, so I asked my friend, Mr. Google, about it. Here’s one definition: “The word ‘disruptive’ is bandied about when referring to surprising new entrants into an industry, new players with new technology, and sudden competition coming from unlikely sources.” Here’s another: “A disruptive innovation is an innovation that helps create a new market and value network, and eventually goes on to disrupt an existing market and value network (over a few years or decades), displacing an earlier technology.” And a third: “Disruptive business models focus on creating, disintermediating, refining, reengineering or optimizing a product/service, role/function/practice, category, market, sector, or industry. The most successful companies incorporate disruptive thinking into all of their business and management practices to gain distinctive competitive value propositions.”
Okay, I’m beginning to get it. The opposite of a disruptive business is a me-too business, one that uses stale, non-performing old models instead of revolutionary innovations.
Back to H.D.D. What are their disruptive models? One is direct to consumer. The other is that “visceral response” thing. “Decisions are made at point of purchase based on mood or occasion,” the press release says. That’s our pasta-cooking shopper. Perhaps she’ll buy H.D.D.’s Dearly Beloved Forever Red wine because the label’s so cool (especially if she’s a Deadhead).
Well, all right, this all sounds good, until you begin to think about it. What is really new about “a purchase based on mood or occasion”? Gallo understood that 60 years ago. Retailers have been trying to influence the shopper’s mood forever. So I’m not seeing what’s so disruptive about H.D.D., and it was even more surprising to see no mention at all of social media in the press release. I did an (admittedly quick) Google search to see if I could find any mention of H.D.D.’s online practices, and I couldn’t. I would think that a disruptive business hoping to upset apple carts would have social media as part of its practices. However, H.D.D.’s founding partners include Bill Hambrecht (he’s the H.) and Paul Dolan (he’s one of the D.s). Smart guys, industry vets. I’d put my money of them, if I had any.
I don’t know why it’s controversial anymore that some of the better wine blogs can be effective in driving sales. Didn’t we have that conversation in, like, 2010, and decide the answer is Yes? I thought it was over. But then somebody writes something that gets the whole issue percolating again, and we find ourselves knee-deep into another faux controversy.
That’s my considered reaction to reading this Vintank posting that purports to tell the “wine industry” that they’re “looking at wine bloggers all wrong.”
There’s something really retro when the pro-blogging community (of which I obviously count myself as one) gets all defensive about themselves. Go on, read the Vintank post. It’s entirely correct in its claims that some blogs drive sales, that wineries should reach out to them, etc. No argument there. What sets me off about these kinds of articles, though, is the underlying sense that it’s bloggers versus people like me: mainstream wine critics, as if I were in the mixed martial arts octagon with Joe Roberts, battling it out for supremecy. See the old guy get his ass whipped by the hot young blogger! See print journalism go down for the count! Oh, my word, the blogger just gave a mawashi geri to the print guy’s head, then followed it up with a driving punch to the chudan! [Sound track: riotous cheers and applause from the blog fans, boos and moans from the few print people still alive.]
No, no, no! The pro-bloggers have got to get over this bruised sense of having been hurt or disrespected by the print critics. Can’t we all get along? Yes, I’ll take the author’s word (which Alder Yarrow modestly confirms in the comments section) that a good Vinography review moves product. That’s great. I’ll accept the author’s claim that a good Joe Roberts review sells wine. That’s good, too. But so does a good Steve Heimoff review in Wine Enthusiast, and I would wager that a high score from me, printed in the magazine’s Buying Guide, and reproduced as a shelf talker at Costco, sells a heck of a lot more wine than a good 1WineDude or Vinography score.
The Vintank post argues that “WE [i.e. wineries] FAIL if we don’t use [bloggers’] tasting notes, scores, badges, or whatever, not only on our sites, through social media, and in email and other communications with our customers, but also distributed to our retail partners on our sell sheets.” I couldn’t agree more with this (although if I were a winery I wouldn’t be sure which bloggers to send samples to).
The Vintank posting makes a number of statements I don’t agree with, though, because I think they’re based on false premises:
1. It’s “unfair” to hold bloggers to the same traffic standards as “mainstream critics” like me. Why? If I reach 1,000 times as many eyeballs through the magazine than a wine blogger can, why disregard that fact? Wine sales people understand that eyeballs is the correct measurement for a wine writer, be she a blogger or a print person. And wait until Wine Enthusiast hits the China market, in June. Our little local wine bloggers will be as dust in the wind.
2. Print writers are declining in power because “the decades of stories that have already been written about wineries, regions, and varieties make it a struggle [for them] to generate new and interesting content.” Well, I don’t think there’s anyone better than me to reply to that! Let me assure you that generating “new and interesting content” is no harder (or easier) for me today than it was 20 years ago. And even if you think it is hard for me, why would it be easier for a blogger?
Before the hate mail starts coming in from the blogging crowd, let me repeat that I firmly believe blogging is an integral part of the wine writing community. At the same time, the pro-blogging people really have got to stop complaining about “the mainstream media.” Honestly, they’re starting to sound like Sarah Palin.
And with all due respect to Alder Yarrow, let me answer the question he asked in the comments section:
Q: “What are all your new customers over the next five years more likely to do when they hear about your brand or one of your wines and want to know whether it’s any good or not: a) Go to the store and buy a copy of the Wine Spectator or b) type the wine name into Google?”
A: Yes, of course they’re going to Google it. But what does that have to do with the continued popularity of Spectator, Enthusiast or other wine magazines? This is a straw-man issue: Alder poses two hypothetical behaviors, the first obviously absurd, the second having little to do with the premise that wine bloggers will “win” some kind of Google search contest over “mainstream” writers. If you Google a winery brand looking for reviews, chances are the first several hits will take you to the winery’s website and to their “Reviews” link, if they have one (which they should). And which critics will most wineries publicize first? What Vintank calls “the power critics.” Would it hurt for the winery to also link to 1WineDude? Of course not; I hope they do; I hope Joe Roberts is making a ton of money by the time he’s 50.
Meanwhile, the mainstream media isn’t going anywhere. Look, we’re all one wine writing community, whether it’s print, blogging or whatever. We all should respect that fact, and quit the subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle trashing and resentment of print.
Do you know what the greatest marketing scheme in the modern history of wine has been?
a. the French Paradox
b. Beaujolais nouveau
c. the 1976 Paris tasting
e. the cult Cabernet phenomenon
All the above were brilliant, impacting the perception and sale of wine, but the greatest of them all was (b), Beaujolais nouveau. For those of you who live in a cave and don’t know what that is, it’s the first wine of the new vintage, released worldwide on the third Thursday in November amidst great furor and publicity. I almost wrote “traditionally released” because that’s how most writers refer to it, but there’s nothing “traditional” about the November release. According to some published reports, it wasn’t until 1985 that the “commercial phenomenon” of Beaujolais nouveau was invented. By the early 1990s, it was certainly set into place in California. I remember going to Kermit Lynch’s annual Beaujolais nouveau festival, in the parking lot outside his Berkeley store, where in additional to huge quantities of frothy, purple wine they’d serve grilled sausages and baguettes from Acme Bakery, next door.
Beaujolais, the wine, was nothing special prior to Beaujolais nouveau day. In my many older wine books, dating back to pre-Prohibition times, it’s scarcely mentioned. It wasn’t until the late, great Alexis Lichine’s 1979 book, Guide to the Wines and Vineyards of France, that Beaujolais nouveau found its way into a wine book in any great detail, although Lichine preferred to call it Beaujolais primeur. He colorfully describes how, on the night of Nov. 15, “hundreds and hundreds of trucks and trailers [gathered] in the Beaujolais to pick up the wine,” likening the traffic headed into the big cities as “an army convoy.” But he did not write about the worldwide phenomenon of Beaujolais nouveau, because it did not then exist.
Wikipedia suggests that Georges Duboeuf “saw the potential for marketing Beaujolais Nouveau” and says that by the late 1970s its release in France “had become a national event,” spreading to other European countries and the U.S. in the 1980s and to Asia in the 1990s. Whatever its precise origins, Beaujolais nouveau day has elevated a rather humble wine to an excitement meriting what amounts to a holiday in the world of wine. From Beijing to Lyons and San Francisco, Beaujolais nouveau makes a lot of producers a lot of money.
Can the phenomenon be replicated with other wines? Probably not. But that should never stop clever producers and their marketing agents from trying. You never know, before-hand, what’s going to work with P.R. Nobody could have predicted Pinot Noir’s resurgence prior to Sideways, or the launch of California’s reputation before the Paris tasting. And Sixty Minutes’ episode of the French Paradox was totally unexpected, in its massive impact on consumer attitudes toward [mainly red] wine.
Anyway, this year I’m going to pick up a few bottles of Beaujolais nouveau and bring them to our family’s Thanksgiving dinner. It’s the perfect bridge wine, a little sweet, chilled like a white, fizzy and fruity. And now, I’m off to Monterey, for tomorrow’s Best of the Blue event. I’ll be taking questions on Saturday afternoon; if you want, send in yours at the Monterey Vintners’ Facebook page, and we’ll tweet back my replies!
I’ve been something of a debunker about social marketing advice companies that claim they can help wineries increase sales through the use of social media. Whenever I see such claims, I usually think that the only sales that are going to be increasing are those of the social marketing advice company!
Their claims are often hyperinflated, based on taking advantage of the ignorance and insecurity many winery personnel feel when it comes to social media. They may take a single instance of success, and use it to imply that you, too, can achieve similar results–if only you hire the company. There’s something of the late-night T.V. infomercial about it: get-rich-quick real estate schemes, lose weight instantly, tone and harden those buttocks! Call now, operators are standing by!
I’ve asked, many times on this blog, for concrete evidence that a professional approach to social media (whatever that means) can increase sales. And to tell the truth, nobody’s risen to the challenge. Oh, here and there someone will talk about some anecdote, or they’ll argue, on purely theoretical grounds, that it works. But theory and reality don’t always agree. If they did–well, I better not get into politics!
But then I was reading the N.Y. Times on Tuesday and saw this article describing how a social marketing advice company called BzzAgent is apparently succeeding in boosting sales of Black Box, the Constellation-owned 3 liter wine to which I’ve given plenty of Best Buy reccos (and even the occasional and highly valued Editor’s Choice) over the years in Wine Enthusiast. (I’ve also panned their wines. At the equivalent of $6.25 for a regular bottle, it’s not likely they’re all going to be good.)
Black Box/Constellation hired BzzAgent (clever name, with hints of “buzz” and busy bees) to jack up sales, after the company concluded that it did not want to do traditional advertising, for a number of reasons. So I guess this is a form of guerrilla marketing: the article tells how a BzzAgent representative, who seems to have been hanging out at a supermarket, accosted a stranger who was about to buy another brand of boxed wine and warned her, “Don’t do it!” Instead, the agent told the woman to buy Black Box. The Times story implies that she did.
Never mind that there are all sorts of bizarre inconsistencies to this version of events. Did the BzzAgent person (who is described as “an unemployed lawyer”) just happen to be in the supermarket wine aisle when this event transpired, or was she trolling there? If the latter, did the supermarket management know that a weirdo lady was lurking in the wine aisle, approaching innocent strangers and interfering with their shopping? If I had been the shopper, I would have told the lady to stop bothering me. When strangers stop you in public and start talking at you, the general instinct is to assume they’re crazy or panhandling, and move on.
Still, I’ll take the Times story at its word. It tells also how the BzzAgent lady hosts “blind tasting parties” for her friends at her home and serves them Black Box. When those friends see how good the wine is, they buy it, or so the article suggests.
Supermarket encounters and blind tasting parties are not, of course, social media, but they are birds of the same color: they all bypass the traditional marketing and P.R. approaches in favor of what might be called consumer-to-consumer communication. The supermarket approach is one on one; the blind tasting party approach might be one on twenty; and a Tweet might be one on a hundred thousand: but the principle is the same.
I checked out BzzAgent’s website. By this morning they already had a lead link to the N.Y. Times article, a good sign that their people have a fast reaction time. There are also a lot of interesting articles, including one on how not to waste time online (which is something I think a lot of people and companies do). Number 4 is “Mix it up. Dull content is like Spam.”
That is so true. The biggest mistake most wineries make online is to establish a website, put some stuff up, and then let it molder for months if not years. I routinely get tasting samples in the mail for which the accompanying information is inadequate. So I’ll go to the website for info, only to find that the vintage hasn’t been updated for two years! That would be a scandal in the Heimoff household. When I missed a post last month due to my hangover, I heard from some angry readers. I almost expected mobs with pitchforks to hunt me down here in Oakland. So, yes, “dull content is like Spam.” In fact, it’s worse than Spam. With Spam (I don’t mean the meat, I mean junk email), you expect nothing, which is why most of us set up spam filters to weed it out. But when you deliberately go to a website expecting something new and useful, only to find a bunch of old, boring stuff, it’s an insult. You actually feel resentment to the company for being lazy and uncaring and unprofessional. Not good.
So in the case of Black Box, I’d have to say they’re being pretty smart about it. I’m not clever enough to say whether or not traditional advertising would or wouldn’t work for them. But if they can get buzz going at house parties, in the supermarket and online, more power to them. Just keep those unemployed lawyers away from me!