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Branding. It’s not as easy as you think


A lot of people have been asking me for advice lately. No, not advice on wines, advice on branding. As in, “How do we get consumers to understand and respect our brand?” The “brand” can be a particular winery, a type of wine or a wine region. Whatever it is, people seem to value my take on branding.

There are reasons for this. One is that I’ve been around for a while, and they think I must have figured out a thing or three in all these years. Which is correct; I have. I’m not a marketer or a P.R. expert or a salesman, but I have worked with marketers and P.R. experts and salespeople, and have some inkling about what they do, and how and why they do it. I see also how they do things wrong. So that gives me some insights into the fine art of marketing.

Critics also have their finger on the public’s pulse in a way that no one else in the industry does. The critic is in the fungible position of being the middleman between the consuming public and the industry; in fact, we’re the only middleman there is. The critic’s role is similar to the public defender’s, or the ombudsman’s at a newspaper. Someone has to represent the consumer, the average person who doesn’t have a voice, who may be getting ripped off, who needs help weeding through the conflicting and often phony messages she gets from the wine industry. That’s where we critics perform what is perhaps the most satisfactory and moral part of our job.

We critics have a feel for what people are feeling and thinking–what they’re going through, how they see things, their most fundamental sensations and thoughts. There’s a lot more to being a wine writer than merely being a wine “expert.” You need to have skills in psychology and sociology and even in politics, in order to effectively understand the marketplace.

That’s why being dialed into the news–political, economic, cultural, business, artistic, sports–helps a wine writer. Wine and its consumption don’t exist in a vacuum. They’re linked to everything else in the culture. When a giant wave moves through the culture–“Sideways,” for example–it doesn’t spring sui generis from someone’s brow (with due respect to Rex Pickett). No, it’s part of an irruption within the broader culture, the result of myriad forces, all converging at once, for complicated reasons; that Rex Pickett was the repository of these forces is almost random. The election of Barack Obama was an example of the convergence of powerful societal forces; so is the rise of the Tea Party. Steve Jobs has a genius for causing waves. Marketing people hope and pray that whatever thing they’re marketing will achieve such an irruption. Making a big wave is the wet dream of the marketing pro. But it’s very hard (no pun intended) to achieve.

The main reason people are asking for my advice is because they’re desperate. When times were flush, which they were pre-Recession, they didn’t need my advice, or anybody else’s, because their product, whatever it was, sold itself. Nowadays, nothing sells itself; everything has to be sold. That involves effort on the part of the seller, but a lot of these sellers aren’t used to selling. They don’t know how to put their shoulder to the wheel, or even where the wheel is. There’s a sense of flailing: hire a social media director, maybe that’ll do it! How about a label comb-over? Let’s cut the price and pray. Fire the old winemaker and hire a new one! Pick riper, plaster new oak-like flavors on! Bring on some pricey marketing consultant to tell us what to do! Sell the stuff off as bulk; at least that’ll make some money. And when none of that works, the ultimate Hail Mary: call Heimoff.

I don’t mean to mock these troubled people who are reaching out. I’ve always had a sense of how to market stuff. I don’t like the technical aspects of selling–I mean, actually having to go out and interact with people, some of whom you may not like, some of whom may be repellent. It’s discomfiting to try and convince someone to buy something they don’t really need. But I’m pretty good at the big picture. I like the creative part of marketing. For example, here’s what I told some sparkling wine people who came to me for advice. My idea for a T.V. commercial is based on the premise that a lot of men think sparkling wine is for sissies (you know, flutes, pinky extended), not “real men.”

We’re inside a sports bar. Big game on the overhead T.V., pounding rock and roll music from the stereo system. Place is packed with young, boistrous, laughing guys, like in those old Miller Lite and Bud commercials. Guy walks up to the bar, alone. Not bad looking, maybe a little nerdy, average “everyman.” Everybody else is chugging beer. Guy orders a glass of sparkling wine. Suddenly, total silence. Everybody looks at the guy. WTF? Who is this creep? Not one of us, that’s for sure. Then, out of nowhere, a beautiful woman, the most gorgeous, sexy lady you’ve ever seen, joins the guy. Guy says to the bartender, “Another sparkling wine for the lady.”

Message: the guy with the sparkling wine gets the date. The beer chuggers are total losers who go home alone.

To effectively brand something, you can’t just come up with a message that you like. It’s not about your opinion; what you think is bupkes. You have to get inside other people’s heads and understand where they’re coming from. The successful brands of the future will do exactly that.

  1. To effectively brand something…. One must work the market and that means help sell directly to the consumer. Instead of going into a market and feeding sales reps at lunch and dinner, Instead of pouring at wine tastings for consumers (they have no idea what they just tasted), instead of skiing with with the Sales Mgr of the Distributor, Instead of Playing Golf…. Get your product to the Retailer and SPEND TIME IN THAT STORE and OTHERS and Sell your damn product …. It is Called BRANDING!!!!

    Oh and winery’s (or whomever), stop spending your money on some one who says they are going to do this for you and they have “no background” in the retail side of things. Remember the stories of the Vacuum Cleaner sales guy and gal… That is you now… Branding!!!!

    Keep Smiling!!!

  2. While it seems like a no brainer, the most often missed issue is correctly identifying the customer and then designing the product and marketing to fit that customer’s needs.

    If for example you see your customer as the beer drinker consumer and you think you can change that consumer’s drinking habits and bring them over to your product… and you believe that a television ad is the best way to reach them then maybe you bring in the hot lady and the champagne flute. But you better have an inexpensive product that can compete with beer, wide distribution, and lots of money and faith to buy into a big TV ad program.

    But often the customer is not really the end consumer. There are many consumers who buy what is promoted by the retailer or sommelier, a product that is displayed prominately, maybe case stacked in the store, advertised and pushed by the management. In that case the customer might be the retailer or restaurateur. Here using your ad program, you would have to convince the retailer that they should buy and promote your sparkling wine in conjuction with your ad program because it will make them money.

    But how do you reach all those retailers? Often what the retailer is discounting and/or promoting is something they were convinced to buy and promote by a wholesaler. It that case the wholesaler might be the customer to which your marketing efforts should directed. You may only need to motivate the wholesaler to communicate with and sell all those retailers on the opportunities presented by your ad program. Whether or not your ad actually motivates the end consumer is immaterial, since wide distribution and promotion of your product may be enough to satisfy everyone’s expectations.

    For a lot of wines that we make in the luxury wine business the real customer is often the critic and the wine media. To some producers it is only Parker or Laube. Getting the big score from either is all they need to motivate the wholesaler, retailer and the end consumer. In this case knowing your customer, you can easily see that the hot lady sparkling wine ad, is not appropriate to these customers, rather you should be sending the hot lady to deliver the wine sample.

  3. Whew!!

    Good topic.

    I have been in sales for 23 years and sold to both on and off premise.

    There are a few things that are the basis of brand building.
    Here are some of those things.

    Reputation. Selection. Integrity. Availabilty. Work. And Yes Quality, and Vision. (not in this order)

    I include Price as part of Integrity.

    Aside…For sparkling wine. From my experience, it is truly a sad thing that more consumers are mystified by this category. There seems to be little understanding of the products and the pricing. If some one asked me, GDFO how can I get people to drink more sparklers? I would tell them simply to use the media, and think outside the proverbial box. (if you watch or have ever watched 2 and 1/2 men, both male characters are seen to drink beer or liquor when they are with each other and wine when they are “entertaining”. So here is a free one. Have the brothers ‘POP’ one for each other and with thier other masculine friends and the ‘entertainees’. (LOL) They could even mention ‘hey, this REAL champagne!’ to a prospective sleepover.

    If any of you sparkling wine makers want more advice get with me. Change the Image.

  4. Laguna Somm says:

    Branding for a wine is a slow, gradual process that takes place over time. Bogle and La Crema. These lower, and lower-mid priced brands produced quality wines for years in a row. They built from a base of one or two consistently good varietals, and only released new ones when they were good enough to take a strong incremental and permanent place in the range of products, and were reasonably true to the grape type. Commonly in California, you find some vintages are not very good at all, and yet rather than release the varietal under a second brand name, still the wine is released under the first… only to damage the future of the brand. Most wine consumers find a good wine and go on buying it for a long time, but quickly go off in search of others, rarely re-buying after a bad vintage is carelessly let out. Orin Swifts wines are quite exceptional, and so are now one of many clear exceptions to the above rule. They have quickly established both a quality, humorous (Saldo), and prestigious aspect to their name brand.
    I totally agree with Keith Miller above. Very few distributors except Henry Wines, ever enter the store on a weekly basis with a sample bottle for the sommeliers or wine specialists to taste, but nearly all of them send in their people (empty-handed) regularly to move large deliveries of stock onto the sales floor and check up on the retailers prices. A wasted opportunity with all of the same basic costs that borders on unbusinesslike stupidity. If you want to establish a brand, its going to get done in many areas, but if it does not start with a recommendation or confirmation of quality from the people on the sales floor… your wine will get substituted for one that has done the work.

  5. This is a great and engaging conversation and one that really needs to take place more in the wine/branding/sales environment. In my experience, the only person you can really trust to get the story of your wines or wines you are selling is face to face with the end consumer. And this goes for anyone in any part of the sales cycle from winemaker to rep on the street. Every piece of marketing that you work on is essentially to support a real and compelling story about your wines, of course this only works with a quality wine that is priced correctly.
    If you’ve got wine to sell/a brand to build get in front or the people actually interested in the wine, tell stories, have fun, open bottles (more for consumers than buyers) and hustle. Marketing is awesome when done correctly, but humans love hear stories from other humans. Humans on the buying end also hate the terms: regional, director, manager, target, goal, distributor, wholesaler, golf trip, etc.
    Having 4 hour lunches with the supplier is a great time, but don’t expect the end consumer to benefit from that in any way.
    I’d love to hear anyone’s thoughts on this.


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