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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The Beautiful South: thoughts on the way forward for generic tastings.

Note : This piece first appeared as my column in Harpers.co.uk though I have added a postscript.

I have always been a firm supporter of generic marketing. I’ve chaired importer committees and worked on developing regional strategies. I know how difficult it is to secure an appropriate level of agreement, across the producer and distributor base, to plans with real cut through, and I know how powerful a well coordinated generic effort can be. I also appreciate that coming up with innovative plans is particularly difficult currently when budgets are severely constrained. Given all this and given that generic marketers have no direct control over the producers and wines they represent, I tend to believe that they have one of the most difficult roles in our industry. All this  makes me loth to criticise any generic activity.

However, I have to say that increasingly I have a problem with generic tastings, not in principle  but in terms of how they tend to be executed.

My problem was perfectly demonstrated at the Beautiful South tasting last week. I had applauded the lateral thinking at the root of this event, the idea of bringing together three competing southern hemisphere producing countries and I applauded the quality of the pre- publicity. It deserved every success.

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Trouble brewing for the wine business?

Beer has come a long way in the last decade. Now it’s brimming with premium artisanal products, and wine marketers should take note

Back in 2007 I was asked to speak at a couple of UK brewers’ conferences and to discuss what the beer category might learn from wine. It sounded an interesting topic so I readily accepted but without, I admit, giving the subject too much thought. As the date grew closer, nothing obvious came to mind. It was very easy to list all that wine could learn from beer … but that was hardly the point.

It was only when I pondered why someone in the beer category might think it worth asking a wine person for advice that I got close to having anything useful to say. Anyone who had been in brewing for the last forty years, I realised, would have witnessed the metamorphosis of wine from a rather arcane and elitist category into one that had a larger “share of throat” (and of the retailer shelf) than beer. Crucially, it remained significantly more aspirational. Wine had gone mainstream but remained relatively upmarket, and had a price spectrum that most other categories would die for.

Yet at the same time they would also have seen no great evidence of consumer-oriented marketing, and certainly little evidence of branding as beer professionals would understand it. It would all appear, as a generalisation, extraordinarily haphazard, whimsical and no doubt rather perplexing.

Perhaps they assumed I might be able to let them into a secret: the reality behind this perception. Surely such great success must be the result of some extraordinarily cunning plan, or collection of plans, which I might be prepared to share?

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