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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