Anacondas and Sacrificial Lambs

The relationship between producer brands and retailer brands in the UK table wine market

Back in the early 90s at Southcorp we were having trouble getting UK supermarkets interested in our Penfolds and Lindemans brands. The Australian sector was in its infancy and therefore of relatively little importance to them. Jacob’s Creek was the go-to brand, and there were few Aussie own-labels.

At that time I was a classic brand marketer. My business school training and marketing education within the Courage Group had taught me that “proper” brand owners should focus on building their own brands – not supply own-label and certainly not countenance retailer exclusives. Both would represent a sign of weakness.

Own-label back then represented around 35% of all table wine sales in the off-trade, much as it does now, but becoming a supplier of, say, German own-label at the same time as building the Black Tower brand was not an option we considered. The strategy was very simple: invest in consumer advertising to build a franchise and make the brand a must- stock line. The supermarkets were simply one route to market; developing relationships with them was important but not to the extent that one offered them cross-category solutions.

My “road to Damascus” experience came at a meeting with Sainsbury’s, who were more committed to own-label than most. They were concerned that Jacob’s Creek was getting too important and wanted to develop an Australian range that brought it down to size. We came up with a cunning plan.. We would supply a number of own-label wines to sit under JC and a few Penfolds/Lindemans wines to sit on top: Jacob’s Creek would become Jacob’s Squeak. The result of  ‘Project Anaconda ‘ was interesting. We did extraordinarily well, but so did JC as Sainsbury’s developed a reputation as a retailer of Australian wine

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The Prosecco phenomenon: thoughts for aspiring regions

NB : This is a slightly extended version of a piece which appeared recently on This is linked to my previous post on regional branding.

At the recent International Sparkling Wine Symposium held at Denbighs I was facilitating a session on the way forward for English fizz and made a throwaway comment that for all its  success producers should be wary of seeing Prosecco as a role model. I noted that, while it has certainly captured the imagination  of a large swathe of the wine market, I doubted that many consumers can name individual brands or are aware of the difference between DOC and DOCG Prosecco. This implies that they will tend to be drawn to the cheapest Prosecco that they find acceptable. It would be fair to say that my comment was not universally popular with  Prosecco producers in the room.

Subsequent to the conference Prosecco sales have soared to new heights with various major retailers reporting astronomic growth over Christmas. So remarkable is the success that some commentators believe that the sparkling wine sector in the UK will never be the same again: a critical mass of consumers have moved on from Champagne and won’t be looking back.

They may well be right but either way I still hold by my concern. Because the consumer is not being  given enough encouragement to trade up, returns may well be disappointingly low for too many producers and certainly not commensurate with the success of the category

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Further thoughts on wine branding: the role of generic brands.

The implications of valuing inconsistency

My previous post ( Black Tower, Riesling and bananas ) discussed the difficulties wine marketers face given that most consumers tend to view varietals as brands.

However, as some of the comments on that post emphasised, the varietal conundrum is hardly the only complication in the field of wine branding. The focus of this post is regional or appellation branding.

The regional brand conundrum

One definition of a brand I use in the WSET Diploma Marketing Course is by Professor Philip Kotler,  “A brand is a name, term, symbol or design, or a combination of these, intended to identify the goods or services of one seller, or group of sellers, and to differentiate them from those of competitors”. The italics are mine.

I use this definition to point out that, where producers in a wine-producing region get together to protect their proposition in law and then to promote their wines, they are effectively operating as a collective brand owner. This is hardly a controversial claim. We talk widely about “Brand” Australia, Chile or New Zealand et al, and over the years have lauded the success of the bodies promoting Rioja, Cotes du Rhone and others. Generic, or regional, brand promotion is right at the heart of the wine category.

Most consumers see regions and appellations as brands. They represent names that are part of the intricate (and extraordinarily confusing ) mosaic of images, status symbols and promises of performance that make up the wine category in their minds. The role of this element of the brand mix therefore appears to be relatively straightforward.

But regional branding I view as a more complex issue than varietal branding and it is equally influential I believe in our failure to persuade enough consumers to trade up

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Black Tower, Riesling and bananas

What defines a successful wine brand?

Back in the 90s I used to give an annual lecture to MW students on branding. I began each session by lining  up some 20 bottles ranging from Bordeaux chateaux through to wines such as Black Tower and Piat d’Or and asked the students which they considered to be a brand. 

It was interesting how the debate changed as the decade went on. Early on there were many who insisted that fine wines could not be brands: branding was something that was reserved for mainstream, large-volume wines that were overtly promoted or advertised. The word brand was seen by some as  inappropriate for ‘ proper’ wine. Gradually, however, the debate grew less intense and at some point I dropped the exercise because there was no longer any argument.

To me, it was always a trick question. All wines launched on to the market are brands in the sense that they have one characteristic at least which is unique and differentiates them from the competition. That is their name – and any sensible brand owner will ensure this name is legally protected. These products may subsequently succeed or fail, but they are all nominally brands.

The way brands are built will vary significantly depending on their positioning. The fact that some brands give the impression that no marketing thought has ever taken place doesn’t change their fundamental status.

Deferring to the consumer

However, unfortunately, defining a brand  gets rather more  complicated than that. In fact  the  word ‘ brand’ amongst marketing people is a  bit like the word ‘terroir’ to wine people.  Different people favour  different definitions  according to whether ( as a generalisation ) they are looking at things from the perspective of a brand owner or the consumer

Once you launch a brand, the  ‘consumerists’ argue, you effectively lose control of it. Different consumers will have different views of your brand and nobody’s view may be the same as yours. Jeremy Bullmore, a leading marketing guru, once said provocatively: “The image of a brand is subjective. No two people, however similar, hold precisely the same view of the same brand … the highest of all ambitions for many CEOs, a global brand, is therefore a contradiction in terms and an impossibility.”  Another guru, Paul Feldwick,  went even further ” A brand is simply a collection of perceptions in the mind of the consumer ”

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Taking commercial education to the next level

The following piece appeared on last week and is complementary to my last post

A recurring theme at the recent Wine Vision Conference was that the Wine Industry needed to improve its marketing. We are too production oriented: we don’t really understand the consumer. If we have heard it once we have heard it a thousand times and I’d be surprised if anyone in the room in fact disagreed with the message.

The issue audiences usually have with such presentations is that they encapsulate the problem but offer no practical suggestions as to what to do about it.

For once, however, I’m pleased to say at least one speaker addressed this issue. Stephen Woodford, the Chairman of Lexus, emphasised the point that effective marketing was now within the reach of companies with smaller budgets to a greater extent than in the past because of the increased importance and cut through of on line media. He used the example of You Tube through which it is possible to reach large audiences for minimal cost if the campaign is both relevant to the target audience and creative.

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Stop selling and start marketing

Why we need a cultural revolution in the UK wine trade

The management guru Peter Drucker once wrote, “The aim of marketing is to make selling superfluous.” This was, I remember, translated at a company conference I once attended into “the aim of the marketing department is to make the sales force redundant”. I recall this was seen to be taking sales and marketing rivalry just a little too far.

Less open to misinterpretation, Drucker also wrote “the aim of marketing is to know and understand the customer so well that the product or service sells itself”. I’m not sure anyone would argue with that. Some might feel that this represents an unattainable ideal, but actually there are many examples of where it has been achieved – some right here in our own industry.

From personal experience I know that the Percy Fox sales team did not have to work very hard to sell Domaine de la Romanée-Conti or Dow’s Vintage Port in the late 80s, and the Southcorp sales team didn’t exactly struggle to sell Penfolds premium reds a decade later. As I write, in fact, producers of English sparkling wine are allocating rather than selling.

Some might argue that these wines sell easily not because they’ve been marketed but because of their “quality”. Ah, that wonderful word! Drucker had something to say about that too. “Quality in a product or service is not what the supplier puts in. It is what the customer gets out and is willing to pay for. A product is not quality because it is hard to make and costs a lot of money … customers pay only for what is of use to them and gives them value.”

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Vision 2034: Long term thinking and unknown unknowns

Forecasting the future may be a useful exercise, but let’s not pretend any of us really knows what lies ahead for the wine industry in the very long term.

Donald Rumsfeld famously said in 2002: “There are known knowns; these are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns – these are things we do not know we don’t know.”

I always thought the criticism he received for this was more than a little unfair and that it represented a pretty concise summary of not only one of the major risks of going to war but also, more generally, of longer term planning. Nassim Taleb, in his book The Black Swan, noted subsequently that unknown unknowns are responsible for the greatest changes in our society.

This came to mind as I read the recent report from Prowein, The International Wine Industry: Global Experts’ Vision 2034. Carried out by Wine Intelligence, the UK-based research company, this report was based on the views of wine professionals around the world as to the likely state of play in the category in twenty years’ time.

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Thoughts from the Wine Vision conference

Climate change, health, social media and – that old chestnut – the nature of marketing

The three days I spent at the Wine Vision conference organised by William Reed in London recently were very rewarding. One can always find fault with such events and some of the panel sessions were disappointing in terms of lack of depth, but overall there was plenty of food for thought.

Here are six of the numerous thoughts I highlighted. They cover a fairly broad spectrum and are presented in no particular order. In some cases they served to reinforce views I already held – but usually that in itself can be invaluable.

Climate change is happening

For the benefit of anyone who still doubts this, that was the theme of Miguel Torres’ presentation, a message he backed up with plenty of substance.

The effects of climate change are inevitably going to be more obvious to anyone in a category with an agricultural ethos. Interestingly, Torres was not unduly pessimistic about the process: on one level it will simply require producers to think hard about the consequences, and then laterally about the solutions. However, there is no doubt that dealing with climate change will require significant investment and resource; resource that is much needed elsewhere in such a competitive market.

In terms of lateral thinking, Torres touched on a key issue. In regions where there are very strict regulations on what can or can’t be planted, there will need to be an openness to fundamental change, and in good time. That could well be an  interesting challenge.

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Basking in the success of Sauvignon Blanc ?

The next twelve months will be a critical period for New Zealand’s producers.

(  This piece first appeared last month as my column in )

A recent report by Bibendum noted that New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is losing ground to Sauvignon from Chile and South Africa in the UK, due to significant price increases . At around the same time Jamie Goode suggested that now is a good time for Touraine producers to promote their own Sauvignon, given the gap that has opened up by these increases.

If Philip Gregan ( the CEO of NZ Winegrowers) is correct then producers in New Zealand are not unduly concerned about the situation. He noted that “ We have returned to where we were in 2008”, in other words before soaring supply led to heavy discounting in the UK.  New Zealand, he went on to say,” never has been and never will be  a low cost wine producing country ”.

Producers will certainly be less concerned if the current generic strategy pays off. They are  in the process of broadening their distribution base for Sauvignon with the objective of becoming far less dependent on the UK. They are also broadening their varietal base and become less dependent on Sauvignon itself, and its this latter strategy that particularly interests me.

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The ethics of marketing wine

Are we on the horns of a dilemma?

During his travels through space, Arthur Dent, the central character in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, comes across a planet that had just managed to get rid of those elements of the population considered useless. A story had been invented that the planet was about to be destroyed by a comet, and two very large spaceships had been built. The population was then divided into two. Those deemed surplus to requirements – which, as I recall, included hairdressers and marketing people – were fired off to an uninhabited planet some light years away.

A while later the hitchhiker happened upon this planet where he found some marketing people having their hair cut. They appeared to be thriving (and had great hair) but after a while he realised that he could see no evidence of the wheel. It was pointed out to him that they had developed the capability to build the wheel soon after landing, but the marketing people couldn’t decide what colour it should be.

Now Douglas Adams, the author of the HHGTTG, is hardly alone in believing that marketing can too often represent a triumph of style over substance. Indeed its not too difficult to think of examples in our own industry where this is the case.

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