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 ”
The complication of varietals.
In the wine business the process of branding is confused by the fact that many consumers think varietals are brands. The complexity of wine is so great in fact that the differences between varietals, regions and individual producer names are often not appreciated by probably the majority of consumers.
Add all this to the list of challenges that wine marketers already face and you might be forgiven for thinking that we might as well pack up and go home. If marketers in much less complex categories – and probably with much greater marketing resources – have no control of their brands, what chance have we got? But we should not feel helpless.
Let’s get back to basics
While I certainly have no issue with the view that ultimately consumers define brands, the problem , with definitions such as Feldwick’s is that they can give the impression ( certainly when taken out of context as I admit I have in this case ) that brands have no substance, materialise out of thin air and then sort of float around in the ether. By all means lets put pressure on brand owners to consider branding, and consumer communication more generally, from a different angle, but we need to take care as marketers that we don’t make things more complicated than they actually are . This is particularly important in categories like wine where the art of branding by and large is not so well understood.
The reality is that consumers don’t own brands or launch brands. And when producers do launch brands they can take steps to increase their chances of success. If they blend style and substance in a way which appeals to the target market and if they combine rational and emotional attributes to good effect based on an understanding of how consumers ( and not simply the trade ) actually think, they are clearly more likely to be successful than if they don’t. Let us be clear therefore: brand owners have a measure of control over their own destiny.
Perhaps even more importantly consumers don’t set the success criteria. Ultimately only brand owners know whether or not a brand is successful, as only they know the reason the brand was launched in the first place. And producers launch brands for all kinds of reasons. Some brands may in fact be successful with very few sales, perhaps because the producer is actually not that ambitious, or is more concerned with their ego or status in the wine community than volume. The fact that the majority of consumers may not view such brands as successful, or may indeed never have heard of them, may well be irrelevant to whether or not they can be termed successful by their owner.
The less you need to sell, in fact, the more you may well be able to largely ignore the branding debate. You still (as I argued in my post Great Wines from Grumpy Old Men) need to have a robust marketing plan to realise your potential, but you certainly don’t need to get scared off by some guru telling you that you have no control of your brand.
Varietals and brands
This debate is also very relevant to how we should respond as producers to the consumer’s confusion about what constitutes a brand in the wine category. If we simply take at face value the idea that consumers believe varietals are brands and start “branding” varietals, because we think the consumer must be at the centre of our thinking, then we risk taking the wrong path.
Maybe some consumers, when asked to name brands of fruit, might say “banana”. Individual fruit producers, however, are unlikely to shout “hallelujah” and believe that, by putting the word BANANA right at the core of their marketing campaign, they are branding.
So while it is certainly the case that consumers are hugely confused, putting CHARDONNAY in huge letters on your label is not necessarily the best response to the problem.
At the last WSET BACK course the attendees were asked in their groups to come up with a successful brand and an unsuccessful brand. Varietals, like Riesling and Pinot Grigio, came up in both categories. Fair enough; many consumers view them as brands.
But here’s the issue. You could make a list of all the problems that consumers identify with Riesling, along with thoughts on what might be done to improve its image and sales – but who are you presenting to? There is no one to do anything about it. There is no Riesling Inc, no group of producers in charge of Riesling’s destiny, no ownership of the brand. The information might be useful to producers of Riesling, but as individual producers they have precious little control of Riesling’s destiny.
If you are a generic marketer or an individual producer, then using varietal cues in one’s branding is often important, and quite often crucial. But either way these elements should really be subordinate to an individual proposition that sets you apart from the competition or at the very least significantly reduces your competitive set as perceived by the consumer..
The ultimate brands are those that are unique in far more than their name alone, and it helps if what really stands out to your target consumer is not something that they’ve seen hundreds of times before and possibly on less expensive wines. Successful marketing is fundamentally about developing and promoting points of difference, not points of similarity.
In my view brands are originally defined by producers, and then consumers largely take over. True brands therefore have a legal owner, someone who launches them, who puts them out into the world and, crucially, someone who can engage with consumers and respond to their feedback. So, while a brand once launched becomes to an extent something ever changing, you, as the brand owner, have the ability to mould the consumer’s perceptions of the brand on an ongoing basis to serve your own purposes. Whether you succeed in doing so of course is quite another matter.
Successful brands will be those that engage with the consumer to the degree required by the owner, as the person who sets the success criteria. If therefore they don’t engage as much as required, you will fail. If they do, you will succeed. Ultimately that surely must be the only definition of success that really matters
What it comes down to, in effect, is that launching a brand always represents a means to an end and not some end in itself : a mantra I find myself ‘chanting’ when any discussion about branding starts to get a little too ethereal.