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When quality isn’t enough: the “lightbulb of recognition”



The standard meme for marketing wine is: Ours is better than theirs. In just about every wine advertisement you read, this quality argument is there, whether implicit or explicit. Producers claim that their wine is rounder, smoother, more mellow, more delicious, better balanced, cleaner, more fulfilling, more [fill in the adjective] than the competition. The hope is that consumers will be swayed, for, after all, when you’re spending money on a product, you want the highest quality, right?

As it turns out, the quality factor may not be the best way of promoting wine anymore. From ProWein, the big international wine trade event held last month in Germany, came mixed messages concerning the value of using quality claims to sell wine.

The reporter asked attendees from different countries (Russia, Brazil, South Africa, Italy, China, etc.) what they thought of the pushing-quality approach to selling wine. The answers were remarkably similar: “the excuse that your wine is top quality does not work anymore.” “Quality is not a competitive advantage anymore.” “Far too many wineries appear to rely on wine quality alone.”

Ouch. So if quality isn’t the message to be sending consumers, what is?

Well, let’s begin to answer this by assuming that the 50 people queried were all on the young side; they are described as “students from the Masters programme at the School of Wine & Spirits in Burgundy,” so they’re probably Millennials. The question therefore becomes, What are Millennials looking for in wine marketing?

For starters, they’re not “looking for” anything, if by the action verb “looking for” you mean a pro-active search. Marketing and its hand-maiden, advertising, are by their nature insidious: they come at you from the sidelines, entering your consciousness by osmosis at a time when your guard is down. That’s why marketing works [when it does]: it captures your imagination.

How it does so is complicated. Here are some of the things the students said wineries should be doing to market their products, instead of stressing quality:


“start telling a different story.” We know all about “the importance of the story line.” It’s easy, however, for an outsider to say this to a winery, but much harder for the winery to actually do it. What “story” should the winery tell?

“producers need to ensure that their brand’s representative is up to scratch.” This comment, by a South African student, referred to the actual employees who represented the various brands at ProWein. It was echoed by an Italian student who asked for representatives “with an easier and friendlier outlook,” by a Russian who found many representatives “simply boring,” and by a Brit who complained of “too many [representatives] sitting on stools behind their stands using wine bottles as a barrier.” An Italian was positively scathing in his critique of reps, particularly from his own country. “Everyone was thinking just for themselves—creating a sense of fragmentation and confusion.”

Clearly, what these young students were looking for was engagement. They wanted to feel like they were interacting with representatives who were fully human and alive, not a bunch of bored-stiff zombies giving off the vibe that “If it’s March, it must be ProWein.”

We all can relate to this. I was chatting with a friend the other day about how, when I take a cab ride, I like to have a little conversation with my driver. (This is why my friend recommended Lyft and Uber.) But I’ve been on the representative side of the table at wine events and know that it can be hard to always be chipper and put on a good face. You get tired, bored, cranky, especially at multi-day events when you’re expected to be “onstage” all day long and into the night.

This sort of bravura performance requires a certain type of personality—outgoing, extroverted, friendly. This may not have much mattered in decades past. But clearly, the rules have changed. Younger consumers understand that 99% of all the world’s wines are now faultless and drinkable. They also suspect that too much has been made of the famous “cult” wines their fathers and grandfathers worshipped; they feel no need to genuflect at that altar. But they are, after all, consumers; and nowadays consumers want to feel some sort of personal connection to a company whose brands they buy.

I sometimes think that wineries don’t pay enough attention to these rules of the road: When you send someone out to represent you, that person needs to have certain skills of charm and engagement. A winery’s representative, after all, is part of its “story.” If this hasn’t been immediately obvious until now to marketing managers and sales directors, it long has been to those of us on the receiving end of pitches. Just yesterday, Forbes’ food & drink columnist, Cathy Huyghe, in a piece called What Makes a Wine Sell, and What Doesn’t, wrote that “a producer’s story trumps any detail about a wine’s technical profile or even their numerical rating,” arguing that “tablestakes”—the technical details of the wine—“aren’t a point of differentiation” because “Everyone has them.” Huyghe described her interviewing approach to winemakers: after “the preliminaries—the…logistical data—are over with,” she looks for “the lightbulb of recognition…that illuminates what it is that makes that particular wine and that particular producer unique and different…”.

That “lightbulb of recognition” is something wine marketers hope to ignite in the minds of consumers. Wine itself, unidentified and without a human connection, cannot do that; the winery’s frontline representative is the spark that lights the bulb.

Winery P.R. and social media: Make the product cool, and make stars of the everyday people who drink it



The great advertising genius David Ogilvy, who founded one of Madison Avenue’s most successful firms and served as the inspiration for generations of Mad Men, in his 1963 memoir “Confessions of an Advertising Man” quoted his own father. “[He] used to say of a product that it was ‘very well spoken of in the advertisements.’”

Ogilvy’s father lived in an era when being “well spoken of in the advertisements” was convincing enough for a gentleman to buy the product. Ogilvy understood, partly through his readings in mass psychology, that it was important that the person speaking in the advertisements be credible. He was a stickler for the authoritative figure: in “Confessions” he cites Escoffier as “the definitive authority” in cooking; he recalls his own stint as an assistant chef under Monsieur Pitard, “the arch symbol of authority”; one of Ogilvy’s first clients, when he set up his advertising firm, was “an eminent authority on rare books”; in advising how to sell proprietary medicines, he notes that “A good patent-medicine advertisement conveys a feeling of authority”; and, finally summing up what it takes to be a successful ad man, suggests practitioners “become the acknowledged authority” on subjects ranging from ad budgets and media planning to getting scholarly articles published in the Harvard Business Review. An ad man who can do that “will be able to write your own ticket.”

David Ogilvy died in 1999, at the age of 88. His career spanned a period when authoritative advertising really could push products because consumers trusted the information in the ads. Ogilvy specialized in inventing “personalities.” Oldtimers will remember Colonel Whitehead, the cool white-bearded guy who told us of the benefits of Schwepps tonic water, and “the man in the Hathaway shirt,” with his eye patch (who was the spiritual father of “The Most Interesting Man in the World,” the Dos Equis guy). Believe it or not, there really was a time when advertising seemed to express the honest, objective truth, and people were credulous enough to believe it.

Today’s P.R. and advertising specialists constantly refer to “the story” as the backbone of capturing the consumer’s attention. Although the term “the story” wasn’t really part of Ogilvy’s lexicon, it’s clear that his character-driven narratives anticipated it. He refers to another advertising man’s use of the term “story appeal” in photographs: “the more of it you inject into your photographs, the more people will look at your advertisements.” (One of my favorite Ogilvy images, and one of his most famous, is this ad for Rolls Royce.



It’s almost impossible for the eye and the mind not to dwell on it. Who is that woman driver? Are those her kids? Where are they coming from–private school? What are they carrying? This is “story appeal” to the max, amplified by the photo’s caption, which captures the imagination.)

Hence, the modern goal of P.R. to “tell the story” is hardly new. Mucha did it in 1897 with this poster advertising Nestle’s:


a self-confident, classically beautiful maman mixing up the cocoa for her healthy, happy baby. When P.R. professionals take their first meeting with a new client, they prod for the story–and if they’re good at their jobs, they never stop refining and, if necessary, re-defining it.

But today we have the game changer called the Internet, and specifically social media, a paradigm shift if ever there was one. Businesses no longer need P.R. people to take them public; they can go public all by themselves, with more exposure than even David Ogilvy ever dreamed of on his most creative, three-martini day. However, as we know all too well, some companies, and particularly small wineries not well versed in social media, don’t know how to take advantage of the opportunities, thus leaving room for P.R. consultants for ply their trade, especially if they’re adept at social media. One successful example of a neat fusion of telling a story through the use of social media concerns Vans, the popular shoeware company (I own several pairs and love them). Vans has a new, online documentary series in which four filmmakers were asked to find interesting young people who embody the spirit of the brand and tell their story. For instance, here’s a short YouTube of an East L.A. guy named Anthony. He’s pretty cool: it’s interesting to get into his life, and he just happens to be wearing Vans, which gets a transfusion of Anthony’s cool via the miracle of emotional transference. We know for a fact that video is the future of social media. If a picture is worth a thousand words, an interesting video is worth its weight in gold.

The American public today is less susceptible to believing something just because it’s “very well spoken of in the advertisements.” I mean, we passed that milestone long ago. Nowadays people are more likely to skip through the commercials on T.V, and slip past the ads in newspapers and magazines. They do, however, respond to interesting and clever videos. The Vans YouTubes are wonderful to watch, and even though they don’t say a word about Vans, the shoes are part of the show. I’m not saying that traditional P.R. is dead or has no place, but the skill set for successful P.R. has changed. It now involves–not just the ability to make a good video–but proper insight, even more important, into the content of the video. Consumers will not respond if they’re hit over the head with product ads–at least, they won’t with wine. (I never fail to be amazed by the brutality and noise level of car commercials. I hate them, but maybe they work, or else the industry would have abandoned them long ago. But you can’t sell wine that way.)

So how is “Anthony,” the East L.A. guy, an “authority”? The fact of the matter is, for a younger generation the definition of “authority” has changed. It’s no longer some stentorian font of wisdom who knows more than you do, telling you what’s up. It’s someone just like you. Anthony is an authority on being a cool young kid who’s having fun who just happens to be into Vans. That’s way different from some talking head on a T.V. commercial blathering away about the quality of Vans soles or the durability of their laces. People don’t need that anymore, at least in everyday footware. Nor do they need it in wine. They want to see and hear from people they can relate to. That’s the lesson for wineries, for P.R. pros and for marketing execs in general to take home.

Some good ways for a winery to communicate with the public–and one way not to



As a wine writer, I’m often the recipient of information from wineries, or from the P.R. professionals they hire to represent them. So I’ve come to have some knowledge and understanding of the various ways that wineries reach out to people like me (and to the general public, as well).

Some of these ways work better than others, it seems to me. The primary method of reaching out is the press release. This traditionally has been in hard copy, sent through the mail, but it can also be in digital form. I find most press releases pretty boring, but I do read them, so in that sense, the press release is an effective vehicle for getting noticed.

What do I look for in a press release? Well, it has to be a lot more than manufactured excitement. I (and all journalists, I would think), want news–real news–something to capture my attention. Just an ordinary “after __ made his millions, he relocated to Napa Valley” doesn’t push my buttons.

Another way that wineries reach out to the public is through events. These can be hosted by the winery, or the winery can participate in a larger event put on by some other organization. These can be effective vehicles, too. They’re certainly more interesting than reading a press release. You get to taste wine, and sometimes you get to eat some food. The downside, of course, is that you have to travel to wherever the event is, which isn’t always feasible. I get a lot of invitations to go to tastings in places like Napa Valley and Sonoma County, but that involves hours of driving through the Bay Area’s notorious traffic. Nor am I typically going to accept a dinner invitation in wine country. No drinking and driving for this critic. I’m more likely to go to an event in San Francisco because I can take BART (the local subway system).

A third way that wineries reach out to the public is through their websites. I think every winery should have a good-looking, comprehensive, easy-to-use website. Many do, but my chief criticism is that they’re not kept up-to-date. Very often, the winery will send me a bottle of a new release, without any accompanying information regarding where the grapes are from, how the wine was made, and so on. If I want to learn more about the wine, I’ll go online, starting with the website–but, more often than not, there’s nothing there at all! Which is frustrating. It’s to the winery’s advantage to give us writers all the information we need, because that might help to “fatten” up the review, in terms of its length. (Of course, the score itself is unaffected.)  I could always call someone at the winery and ask my questions, but that’s a lot more complicated. You can’t always get the person you need; you end up playing phone tag, so there’s a limit to the amount of time I can spend in order to find out, say, the precise blend on that Cabernet Sauvignon, or where in St. Helena the vineyard is.

I’ve been talking about various ways that wineries reach out, but there also are wineries that don’t reach out, which I think is a mistake. Just late yesterday, I got a call from a pleasant young person (I won’t say who), who was the P.R. representative of a well-known Napa Valley Cabernet house that you could call “cult.” (I won’t identify it either.) The P.R. rep–I’ll give him/her the name “Pat”–wanted to know how the winery could get a major writeup in such publications as the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times. Well, it was a little off-putting to be asked that, but “Pat” sounded like a nice person, and I wanted to help. I told “Pat” she/he should call up Lettie Teague or Eric Asimov and ask them directly, because both are friendly, accessible people. But I also told “Pat” something else.

“Your winery never sends out samples. They don’t invite anyone up there. They’ve never reached out to me. The owner has to realize that a major news organization isn’t going to give him free publicity just because he wants it. This industry is about relationships.” “Pat” admitted that he/she understood this, but that ownership felt very strongly that they don’t want to play the game of communicating with the media. Instead, the owner wants to preserve the appearance of being above it all, in an ivory tower–exclusive, you might say.

I explained that there’s nothing exclusive about hiding behind your winery walls. A hundred other Napa “cult” wineries play the same game. They think that, by making themselves impossible to get, it enhances their desirability. Well, that may have been true once upon a time–but those days are ending. These days, the public wants transparency, openness, two-way communication, not a regal winery owner shut up in his castle. “Pat” understood, but said that was ownership’s policy. I replied, “It’s not working too well, is it?” “Pat” conceded that sales weren’t quite as brisk as the owner wants, which is why the winery wants more media coverage. “That’s what I mean,” I said. “The current policy of splendid isolation isn’t working.”

I wished “Pat” good luck getting that New York Times and/or Wall Street Journal article, and maybe it will all work out. But I don’t think so. This matter of reaching out and communicating–to critics like me, to the general media, to the public–is a sine qua non for success in this new era, and any “cult” winery that thinks it doesn’t have to play nice in the sandbox is fooling itself.

Talkin’ social media at UC Davis


For the fourteenth year in a row, my old friend Rusty Eddy is conducting his PR for Small Wineries seminar at the University of California, Davis. And, as he has for many years, he’s asked me to participate.

When I first started, the things I told the students about were mainly how I, as a writer/critic, feel about PR people, what I wish they’d do differently, how they can help a writer in his job, how to pitch a story, what makes for a good or a bad press release, and stuff like that.

But about 4 years ago, things started to change. Social media was in the air, on everyone’s lips. The focus of the seminar changed abruptly, reflecting the greater shift that was occurring in the world. Students no longer wanted to know the ins and outs of preparing a good press kit. Instead, they wanted to know how a winery should use Twitter. This shift eventually persuaded Rusty to change the name of the seminar. It is now called “PR and Social Media for Small Wineries.” [You can still sign up for the Nov. 3o class.]

Despite, or perhaps because of, this shift in tone and content, Rusty still invites me because, as he says, “we want to know what propelled Steve from an unknown blogger a few years ago to one of the most-read online blogs.” On his panel, I’m something of an anomaly. The others are Jo and Jose Diaz, the husband-and-wife team that run Diaz Communications, a  top winery [and other product] marketing and public relations and web development firm, and Paul Mabray, chief strategy officer at VinTank. If you ask me what Vintank is or does, I’ll answer in Rusty’s words:  “We want to know what the heck VinTank is and why we should all be using it.” Paul has been a frequent commenter on my blog; when social media requires a good defense, there’s nobody better than Paul, for he’s super-passionate on the subject.

So the reason I’m an anomaly is because Jo and Jose, on the one hand, and Paul, on the other, both have a dog in the social media race. I don’t. In a sense, the students will benefit more from Jo, Jose and Paul than from me, because I can’t really give them any advice to help guide their future careers, which presumably will be connected with winery PR. All I can do is talk to them from the perspective of a guy they’ll probably be working with.

From Rusty’s assignment email: “We’ll discuss how PR has changed in the wine business over the last 10 years, but I’ll also insist that the basics of good PR practice still remain the same. Delivery methods and strategies have certainly changed, but one still needs to know how to write a good headline (subject line) and paragraph, and more importantly, how to find a brand identity and tell the story behind a brand in a compelling manner.”

Can’t argue with that. The key, of course, is Rusty’s final point: “how to find a brand identity and tell the story.” That’s harder than ever. In California alone, we have more wineries than ever before, hence more stories, and the truth of the matter is that most of these stories are pretty much alike. “Jim and Joan made their money in [high tech, medical devices, banking, real estate development, Hollywood], then were inspired by a vision to start their winery.” Or “Tom and Tina did it the hard way: with very little money, they bought their spread, cleared the land, planted vines and…”. I don’t mean to sound cynical, it’s just a fact.

What I’ll be telling the students is the best way to get a writer to hear you out is to be able to help that writer in fundamental ways. Writers are workers. We have needs, and we can use all the help we can get: setting up tastings, keeping us informed of developments in wine areas, coming up with story ideas, even doing fundamental research, which is time-consuming. If a PR person calls me and says, “I have a winery client who offers a $25 three-course menu in the tasting room, plus a spa treatment for an additional $50,” I’ll say, “Find me four other wineries that do something similar and I can say it’s a trend.” Writers love trends. One thing doesn’t constitute a trend; five do.

Which brings us back to social media. Trend–or here to stay? Obviously social media isn’t going anywhere, and yet in some respects the vast majority of wineries still don’t quite know what to do with it–especially the little family wineries where everybody’s already wearing six hats. If you’re Kendall-Jackson, you have a large and sophisticated staff (in-house and external) to do your social media for you, as well as a budget that can afford to think outside the box and develop new applications. If your winery consists of mom, dad, and a kid or two, running everything from sales and marketing to vineyard management to winemaking, you’re lucky to get six hours of sleep a night, much less master the arcane arts of Twitter, Facebook and a frequently-updated blog.

I think this is why some people say I “hate” social media, or am at best a social media denier: because I point out the challenges. But I also think that’s why Rusty continues to invite me. Truth, or should I say reality, is complicated, and when you’re a college student, you need to know the truth in all of its multi-facted aspects.

When winery P.R. people get it wrong


I seldom name names on this blog; my readers know that. There’s very little point in antagonizing people who already have their knickers in a twist. So I won’t identify the name of the winery whose P.R. people complained about something I wrote that they claimed was incorrect. Fact is, I was right, they were wrong, end of story.

The particular issue was concerning what were the winery’s first releases, when they opened many decades ago. I had said one thing, basing my information on extensive published reporting as well as content on the winery’s own website. The P.R. people made a counter claim. Now, in the long scheme of things, it’s not the most vital thing in the world, but the P.R. people were pretty upset. They complained to my editor, who forwarded me their email for reply. So I hit the books, did my research and proved conclusively that what I had initially written was correct.

It’s not that I don’t get things wrong. Every reporter does. That’s why they invented the “corrections” section of major magazines and newspapers. There’s usually no shame in getting something wrong, although there obviously is a spectrum of mistakes. Misspelling somebody’s name is very minor. Getting somebody’s birth date wrong is minor. Misstating the name of a company that purchased the winery is a fairly major boo-boo [that’s not what I did, I’m just using it as an example]. Still, no reporter likes to get anything wrong, no matter how minor, which is why we research our facts until we’re pretty darned sure we’ve got them right. Then, and only then, do we hit the “send” button.

But the question in this case is, how could the P.R. people not have gotten it right? After all, they work at the winery. They should know what the facts are. Here’s my theory–and this most recent instance isn’t the only time this has happened. It is not infrequent.

It usually starts with a major figure in the winery [owner, GM, head of communications] who reads something he or she doesn’t like. That person then instructs the P.R. person to complain. The P.R. person, who more likely than not is young and inexperienced, dashes off a “correction” to the writer or the writer’s editor. The P.R. person doesn’t research the issue herself, or ask the owner if he or she is absolutely, positively true that the offending statement is untrue. Instead, the P.R. person does what most people do who want to protect their job and CYA: they complain to the writer or editor.

I once had a P.R. person complain to my editor that, in describing the wines of a particular region as “relatively expensive,” I had done that region a disservice–had, in fact, distorted the truth and insulted it. The letter was very angry. My editor demanded a reply. It took me hours of researching my database to determine that, on average, the region in question was expensive, just as I’d thought–not as dear as Napa Valley, but more on average than any other region in California. (The quality of the wines on average was also better.) So a whole lot of angst was raised, and time wasted, over something that never should have been an issue in the first place. (By the way, when that P.R. person eventually left his/her job, he/she confessed to me how guilty they felt [I know “they” is wrong in this case, but I’m getting tired of the “he/she” thing].)

The point is that sometimes P.R. people write and say dumb things. If it’s because they don’t know any better, then they’re in over their heads. If they do know better, but are afraid to stand up to their boss, then they’re bad hires. Part of P.R. is to speak truth to power, even when that power signs your paycheck.

Wineries, your P.R. people are your public face. It’s vital that you give them independence of thought and action. Your veracity is only as good as their public statements. And in this day and age, veracity–transparency–believability–call it what you will–counts more than ever.

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