Why the wine industry should seek absolution

Not all wine can be fine wine – so our marketing shouldn’t pretend that it is

In a recent Harpers (July18) there is an interview with Adam Boita of Pernod Ricard on the recent launch of the limited edition Absolut Unique. He notes that this is probably “the first time a drinks manufacturer has ever been able to produce 4 million uniquely numbered individually artistic bottles on a production line”. Just think about that for a minute: 4 million uniquely packaged bottles.

As a wine man, I noticed something missing in the article. Not only was no mention made of the product within the beautifully designed bottles, but even the word “vodka” made no appearance in the 1,000-word piece. Now that is what I call an icon brand. We don’t need to be reminded that Absolut is a premium vodka, or indeed a vodka at all, because that is already our perception. More generally, the assumption is that the target market for Absolut is likely to be more engaged by investment in unique bottles than anyone banging on about how it is produced or tastes.

Now let’s turn to wine, and a piece in The Drinks Business (July 25) entitled “Liquid dreams: the Lafites of the future”. A quote from Lily Dimitriou of Tsantali Vineyards sets the scene. “Luxury brands combine craftsmanship, attention to detail, pedigree and paucity, allowing the buyer to become the owner of an exclusive experience”. Fair enough: yet tucked away in this statement we can observe a crucial difference between the marketing of many premium wines and that of spirits.

Small is beautiful

In the world of wine, “exclusivity” generally implies restricting production to often very small quantities. Producers are thus constrained in terms of growth even if their provenance would facilitate larger volumes. The more you have to sell, the harder it is to retain an image of exclusivity. Some premium brands manage to do so, to an extent, by creating a perception of scarcity when the reality is rather different (eg Penfolds or Cloudy Bay) but this is rare and certainly not easy.

The main reason premium wine producers are so constrained is that the focus in their marketing is almost completely on the product and not on the other brand elements. In the Drinks Business piece, six of the eight producers mentioned (which included Le Pin) focused their comments on what made them special entirely on their terroir, which automatically of course restricts the amount for sale.

In fact Jacques Thienpont, the owner of Le Pin, goes further and notes “luxury is all about quality; it can’t be created by an advertising agency. We have no marketing plan, the taste and ageabilty are the two most important factors”.

The perception and the reality

Now let’s be clear. I am not questioning the quality or success of these particular brands. I’m actually full of admiration for how certain fine wines have differentiated themselves from the crowd. What I am saying is that if you produce small quantities of a wine that gets positive feedback in the trade, the usual rules of marketing often don’t apply. In fact like Le Pin, not only can you imply that there is no marketing plan at all but, as I argued in a previous post (Great Wines From Grumpy Old Men), such a stance can work powerfully in your favour.

However in reality, unless M. Thienpont has a very different definition of marketing to mine, even successful fine wines are marketed. Does he give no thought to the presentation? Does he give no thought to how the wine is priced or allocated? Much more importantly, his statement implies that marketing has nothing to do with producing a wine of appropriate quality. Marketing is something, he appears to be saying, which takes place after the wine has been made and is therefore automatically largely restricted to the areas of promotion or PR, which are unlikely to be that necessary where Le Pin is concerned.

And the problem I have is that this view pervades the wine industry. As a generalisation, we take his comment at face value. To my mind one of the biggest problems we face is that we spend far too much time, sub-consciously at least, attempting to market all wine as if it were fine wine. Substance and style we tend to see as somehow mutually exclusive. Marketing in effect is therefore relegated too often to the status of a necessary evil which needs to be indulged in only if the product is not considered top notch or doesn’t, for some inexplicable reason, sell itself.

Particularly for any wine with real volume aspirations we desperately need a change of mindset, otherwise we are unlikely to engage meaningfully with more than a minority of consumers. What works so well for Le Pin et al cannot possibly work for more than a minority of producers. So in principle at least Absolut might for many be a more useful role model than Le Pin.

The closest I came to working on an icon was with Black Tower in the 80s. It became clear whilst exhibiting at consumer shows that we could actually sell the empty bottles rather than discard them. Black Tower’s USP was its black crock bottle, not the wine, perfectly acceptable though it was. This was not generally appreciated in the trade. When the brand owner first approached his distributor in the UK, he was told that if he wanted the brand listed he needed to repackage it in a standard hock bottle. I’d like to believe such a comment would not be made today. But I wouldn’t put money on it.

( Note : An abridged version of this post appeared two weeks ago in my column on the Harpers.co.uk site )

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2 thoughts on “Why the wine industry should seek absolution

  1. I always replace the words “the only marketing I need to do is make great wine” with “I know nothing about sales and marketing”, and move on. Someone else is doing there marketing – indeed it may even be their consumers like the rapper Jay Z with Cristal a few years back, “Let’s sip the Cris and get pissy-pissy”.

    • I must remember that line of Jay Z Bruce. Its almost a post in itself as to the process by which some premium brands get to the stage where others market them…usually the trade but, as you say, sometimes the consumer. An analysis would surely prove that its a mixture of skill, good fortune, coincidence and timing: as in everything else you need luck on your side, quality ( a much misused word if ever there was one ) can not be relied on. How you then manage the next stage is then of course critical, avoiding complacency, not believing your own PR ( if you do any) or that of others, but even then, however skilful you are, you can just become the victim of a counter trend or a competitor.

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