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P.R. can’t be lazy anymore, not in this economy


Let’s get this clear: I’m not a marketing man or a P.R. expert. But from my perspective — that of a wine writer/reporter/reviewer — I’ve watched winery marketing and P.R. for years, and have developed a sense of what works, and what doesn’t. Call it Monday morning quarterbacking; a lot of the pitching is aimed at me, and a lot of it is pretty dismal.

So when I read this interesting analytical piece, over at Meininger’s Wine Business International, it piqued my brain, because it made so many cogent points.

The writer, Felicity Carter, begins by quoting experts as saying that, in a downturn, the wineries who continue funding advertising, and even increase it, have an advantage over those who slash their budgets, which “could be the worst mistake a wine company could make in the current environment.” “[C]ompanies shouldn’t back off, just because the going is tough,” Carter writes. I think that’s true. A winery that doesn’t remain visible sinks into the darkness. As one of her experts notes, “if you hunker down and do nothing, then what’s going to happen is you’ll sever your connection to your core customers. If you let the cost cutters say ‘let’s cut back these ads’ you’ll float off the pier.”

If you’re a winery, you do not want to be adrift in a sea of nothingness in this dismal economy.

As I read Carter’s article, it reminded me that, since the major effects of the Recession began, in the fourth quarter of 2008, the quantity of wine samples I get has increased exponentially. It made me wonder why. I might have thought that, with all those wineries hurting financially, their owners would have thought, “Gee, maybe I should save some money by not sending out free bottles and paying for shipping.” But then I had a conversation with someone in the marketing business whose judgment I trust, and she told me that in this downturn, wineries who formerly had been coasting along, dependant on automatic sales, suddenly realize they have to expend more energy making themselves visible. Ergo, send bottles out to the critics.

Another point Carter makes, citing experts, concerns advertising. One professional she quotes warns wineries away from “boring…clichés,” such as “a picture of a bottle with a glass of wine, or…an obsession with heritage and how the vines have grown on the sunny side of the hill for 200 years.”

Hello! Can we talk? This is where I have something to say. P.R. is the first draft of advertising, and 90% of the P.R. pitches I get consists of just this stale, boring form of cliché. It shows how unimaginative many P.R. people have gotten. They demonstrate an inability to think outside the box, to come up with creative solutions that work, not only for their clients, but for the person/periodical to whom they’re pitching.

“[F]ocus on the personality of the wine instead, to connect directly to the consumers you want to reach,” Carter writes. I think she’s on to something. P.R. experts are taught to develop and then sell a “story.” Usually the story involves a husband and wife who migrated into the wine industry from another profession. Frequently there are plot lines involving pets, or caves, or philosophies, or children, or grandparents, or hobbies. Almost always there are platitudes about “hillsides” or “mountains” or “fog” or “terroir” that invariably are connected with the word “unique.” Frequently, there is the name-dropping of famous winemaking and/or grapegrowing consultants whose brands (for that is what they are) are meant to reassure and comfort.

These things mean little or nothing to me nor do they to the general public, I suspect. Now, Carter recommends focusing on the personality of the wine, to connect with consumers, but how exactly should that work? I think a marketer needs to understand her target audience’s demographics, and craft the message accordingly. Are you reaching out to value-conscious Millennials or to Baby Boomers who still are able to afford a pricy bottle of wine? Are you speaking to Asians, Latinos, gays, African-Americans, health-conscious Americans, foodies, techies, athletes, seniors, greens, conservatives, religiously devout? Each group needs a different message.

Sure, that’s a lot harder than just pitching the same-old same-old. But the days of lazy P.R. are over. Public relations and marketing experts have to work much harder for their money now — just like the rest of us.

  1. AMEN!

    This kind of thinking is exactly why I am creating my soon to be released label. I love this industry, but the lack of niche driven marketing is incredible. I am 26 and marketing directly to the under appreciated geek/tech demographic or anyone who grew up with a nintendo controller. Why? Because I am that demographic! There is no reason that with amount of wine on store shelves that try to appeal to everyone, that there cannot be wine brands that focus on solely on appealing to specific demos. Thanks for the article.


  2. “[F]ocus on the personality of the wine instead, to connect directly to the consumers you want to reach”

    I’d say: [F]ocus on the personality of the PERSON–charismatic Vaynerchuk-like person—at your winery and connect them to the consumers you want to reach.

    Reaching customers includes putting multimedia content online and interacting with customers through the Internet.

  3. *This* explains *a lot*!

    I’ve been wondering why the amount of samples I was receiving had shot up.

    Also, you make excellent points about the messages needing to be tailored, but it’s not just a message that needs to be focused, there also needs to be real dialog happening with those consumer groups as well. Social media and blogs can obviously help with that.

  4. Steve, thank you for the cogent and timely article, since marketing is exactly what we have been wrestling with the past 3 months. Since this is Cerro Prieto Vineyard & Cellar’s first bottling, we have no history other than as a well known producer of premium low yield, high end grapes. Since I had not read this article, all the points are in our sweet spot. It also helps in our dealing with our marketer, in that as neophytes, we could probably be induced to buy an extra grandmother, if that would “help sales”. Ms Carter’s article aside, there still is no substitute for networking, pouring, pounding the streets, wine bars, restaurants, etc, pouring, and , oh yes, more pouring. Our best sales effort, and certainly the most effective, is to get our wine into a potential consumer’s mouth. Virtually all our sales are from this, but a close second is by word of mouth from satisified customers.
    Which brings me to a bold and crass opportunity to tout the upcoming Paso Robles Wine Festival, May 15-16, in the Paso downtown park. I am told this is one of California’s largest outdoor wine events, with some 6000 tickets being sold. As you have pointedly noted previously, that is a lot of people and makes it difficult to really get a chance to try many of the local truly superb wines. However, for the trade(wine critics, writers, etc), plus for the aficionado who really wants to TASTE, and not swill, there is a slightly higher priced ticket than the $55 admission tix, which allows for 500 people to taste on Fri nite for 2 hrs, followed by allowing those serious folks to taste an hour earlier than the general admission on Saturday
    (1 p.m. vs 2 p.m.). This gives any serious wine fan a chance to truly taste most of the small boutique wineries in addition to the larger well known ones.
    Paso does not have the cachet of Napa, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t. Anyone, including you, who wants an opportunity to really see what Paso has to offer…well, the Fri nite and early Sat pourings are a great opportunity to do so without the crowds, but with close to 90 wineries represented. We hope you could put us on your list of things to do.
    Apologies for using this blog as a promotional tool, but it applies to all serious wine aficionados who “don’t like the crowds” but want to taste many wines, and certainly relates to “P.R. can’t be lazy anymore.” We hope that you plus others who may not be so familiar with Paso wines will join us…and the crowds can be avoided.

  5. Dr. H., you’re right, it never hurts to have an out-sized personality! But if you’re selling wine, it has to be good.

  6. Steve, this is a very good and timely posting. The tendency of a business to cut back in difficult economic times is not new, nor are the benefits of counter-intuitive marketing investment in a downturn and, frankly, neither is the concept of market segmentation. With many many opportunities to sample wine (a costly but necessary component of the category) how do wineries decide where the best prospects will be? That seems to be one concern. And not every brand can compete in the “cult of personality” rampant in wine marketing – personally, I think this is a shallow promise but it does work with some people. Isn’t the ideal strategy to marry quality of wine with the strongest brand asset which, in combination, present the best value to the consumer? Seems to me no matter what the segment, or the usage occasion, this consideration is always in the mix.

  7. 1WineDude has it, its’ all about the dialog.

  8. I agree with the dialog metaphor. A company could spend lots of money marketing a brand personality or a lifestyle, but I don’t think consumers are as excited about seeing one-way promotional messages anymore–they’re everywhere and everybody does this.

    Meaningful brands are created when customers are allowed to make a brand meaningful–through a dialog of some sort.

    Will Vayner Media help companies start a dialog (check out my video on my blog)?

  9. Let’s face it. Most wineries do not have the ability to reach the consumer directly. That is why wine writers get samples in the first place. It matters not whether we are talking about the Enthusiast or the Marin Independent Journal, it is the media that wineries address for the most part simply because they have a hard time doing much else. Yes, if you are Korbel, you can get your product placed on Top Chef, but the several thousand lesser wineries in this state and up north generally lack that ability.

    Sending a couple of bottles out to several dozen writers and media outlets is a very inexpensive form of marketing. How one presents those bottles is a real challenge. Most wineries look for some kind of competitive advantage or interesting story to try to differentiate thenselves. If you are organic, well, that is worth talking about. If you have steep hillside terraces, that is worth talking about. If you use all new oak, or even 200% new oak (see Nick Goldschmidt’s $150 Cabs), you are going to talk about it.

    And while so many of the accompanying PR releases can sound alike, I am not sure how 5000 wineries differentiate themselves meaningfully–except by the wine they make. Ultimately, that is why it makes so much sense for wineries to send out samples. It is the cheapest form of PR they can get.

    It is all about the wine for most of us anyhow. That is why I chuckle a bit when UPS shows up with boxes and boxes of new samples these days. I keep thinking–why didn’t these producers do this earlier. Marketing, keeping your name, your brand, your image, your vision of the world in front of the consumer is always in order.

  10. No tactic is silver bullet. Just like love at first sight, it’s rare that any one method of reaching out to someone will work on the first try. In fact, I appreciate what Larry was hitting on earlier in the comments here. It takes continuous work in building relationships through tastings, personalities, and yes, dialogue (Sorry Joe, I prefer spelling it that way, but our hearts are in the same place). From the moment we wake up everyone with market potential is competing for our attention–forget getting lost in the industry, your message can easily get lost in the course of an average day. Does love at first sight happen? Of course, from what I hear. However, it wouldn’t hurt to go a little further in the wooing process than batting a lash from across the room expecting devotion.

  11. To elaborate a bit on the article (and what 8bit touched on), very few wineries have a brand identity. When a consumer stares at a shelf, or shelves, or aisles of shelves of wine, you can see the meaninglessness of the brands in their eyes. Having your winery being about producing good/great/excellent wine is meaningless – who advertises they produce bad wine?

    Does the consumer feel any reaction when they look at the wines they see? Do they think, “Ah, that brand is good with food.”, “That one is good for relaxing with friends.”, “That brand is good to bring as a gift.”, “That brand means big, thick, alcoholic wines”, “That brand means light, subtle wines”, “That brand is what Cab is all about”. I believe few do.

    I think this is a core reason why the “general” consumer picks wine by…
    A) I’ve had this before and I like it. I buy it by the case. I don’t try anything else – I might not like it.
    B) The label is really cool.
    C) It has a 90+ point rating from somebody on the shelf talker.

    As a winery, if you can break into (A), great – but if you don’t have the firepower to put a pallet on the endcap of large retailers, it’s a hard battle to untrench the incumbent. Having (B) doesn’t stop every other winery from having it also. And (C) is hit and miss – vintage to vintage.

    Ultimately, to build long term brand stability – keeping the (A)s, impervious to the allure of other winery’s (B)s, and resistant to this month’s (C)s that your winery didn’t get, the entire winery and wine line needs to stand for something unique in the mind of consumers. And the winery needs to communicate that something unique in all aspects of its marketing.

    At 5000+ licensed wineries in the US, being a “premium wine vinted by fourth generation winemakers from old vine vineyards” is non-distinct and unsustainable.

  12. Steve,

    Another great blog! The points you’ve highlighted from Ms. Carter’s article are words to live by in times like these. If you hunker down and just ‘try to survive’ rather than ‘go on the attack’, you’re setting your company up for a rough road ahead.

    Downturns in the economy, or in your business segment, truly do provide opportunities to improve what you do and how you do it. It is at times such as these that companies of all shapes and sizes should do ‘internal audits’ (yep, gotta throw around the accounting terms every now and then!) and determine what is essential for your business in the here and now . . . and what you can and should do differently.

    I am proud to work for a winery – Fess Parker Winery and Epiphany Cellars – that think along these lines. Instead of decreasing our sales and marketing efforts in these tough times, we are increasing them . . . and actually gaining market share in certain categories!

    And for my own label, tercero, I am truly trying to ‘think outside the box’ to come up with creative ways to increase awareness for my brand . . . whether it be in pouring at more events, taking part in ‘non-traditional’ events that may not usually feature wine, or attacking the viral marketing arena . . .

    Keep up the great blogs!


  13. One of the reasons that PR folks get lazy is the way their services are priced and paid. Early in my career, I worked as Assistant Director of the PR Department of a large Boston ad agency, so I know whereof I speak. It’s all about the retainer system, and that system is old, cold and needs a major rework. In a few days I’ll post the blogpiece that I’ve been working on, which addresses this subject. As with many flawed elements of management these days, the way people are compensated must change, and this is clearly true of the PR profession.

  14. Amen Steve!

    I’ve been championing this very same thing for months. This is a great discussion and there are some very good points made.

    To my mind, speaking as a PR professional, it comes down to execution as much as creativity. If you have a great idea and/or creative way of differentiating your wine brand from others, you’ve made the first step. Putting together a PR plan is often the next. But, executing on that plan and COMMUNICATING those ideas is where wineries often fall down.

    To achieve the greatest success in your PR endeavors, you must do your research regarding your target audience, whether wine writer, blogger, trade, consumer, etc. Find out as much info as you can and when possible, establish a connection or relationship. This is where wine PR often gets lazy–when people don’t do their homework and craft one-size-fits-all messaging and marketing. Make it mean something to your contact.

    Yes, it takes time and exceptional organizational ability. If someone can’t handle that, maybe they need to look for something else that they would be better suited to.

  15. I wonder if the extra effort & dollars to send more samples to more and more reviewers has the return on investment many are looking for?

    Is there evidence consumers are seeking more information from wine critics? Are wine critics adding more reviews to their publications?

    Sending samples is really outsourcing your storytelling or dialogue to someone else.

    Here is wonderful example of what can happen when you outsource your story to others.

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