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 ”

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 conclusion.

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.



15 thoughts on “Black Tower, Riesling and bananas

  1. Another good, thoughtful piece Mike. The only addition I’d make is to say that one of the biggest problems for wine is when the producer doesn’t know what kind of brand he’s trying to sell – or when there is confusion among and between producers, distributors and consumers. Lindemans and Rosemount have both – to my mind – suffered from confused and confusing messaging. The great brand-owners (the P+Gs of this world) know precisely where and how their brands are supposed to fit in consumers’ lives. And if they can’t achieve that objective, they’ll sometimes ruthlessly dispose of the brand and focus on the ones that work.

    • Thanks Robert…your comment on my post must have crossed with mine on your KISS post, which I enjoyed. I agree with your comment. When I said that the problem with the wine category is that we are not, as a generalisation, very good at branding I could have added that not only do we listen to the trade too much ( relative to the consumer ) but we are also guilty of inconsistency in a way that P&G never would be…amongst other cardinal sins Lindemans is a classic example…and one of course I know well. It may well be that it is ‘happiest’ with its new multinational identity. Certainly in the 90’s whilst in many ways it was very successful its identity was never clear…it was trying to be several things at once with different elements of the range. However if the current approach doesn’t work then Im not sure there is any way back.

  2. A stimulating piece for the new year! Often the best brand building is around a pertinent story that doesn’t actually mention the wine or wine-making. Most back labels are eminently forgettable but ‘get the job done’, nothing more. Most engaging can often be stories about the great characters of the wine trade (ie…Greg Trott at Wirra Wirra)

    • Thanks Martin…and good to hear from you. I agree with this as long of course as the story is based on a sound brand proposition to start with. Stories to me breathe life and personality into brands and there are a number of good Australian examples as you imply…the secret as you say is not to assume that the ‘wine ‘ has to be the hero of the story. On that note, I attended a presentation on the branding of the Barossa and we were shown two video clips, one of winemakers presenting their wines in the standard way ( sniffing, swilling and spitting ) and the other with them chatting more broadly while cooking sausages on a barbecue. The consumer feedback on which video was the most engaging\memorable was pretty clear. Have a look at Robert Joseph’s recent piece on this on his blog. Certainly though if I read another back label ( or website ) saying the wine comes from the sun drenched slopes of the blah di blah mountains, some guff about the winemaking process and finally that it goes well with fish….without taking me deeper into the brand, I shall scream!

  3. Good brands go well beyond the grape otherwise they die when the grape becomes out of fashion, they may are born with a grape but develop. Brand is a way of doing not a product and consumers can understand it or not, they can make their own interpretation, but is the producer that define it.. if not, will never be a successful brand.

    • Thanks Andrea…I’m assuming your ‘grape’ and my ‘varietal’ are the same in this context. I think we are agreeing. If people are primarily buying your brand because it is a Chardonnay or a Sauvignon Blanc rather than because it is from you then your brand proposition is pretty weak….and that is the case I would say quite often ( just look at Pinot Grigio, Argentine Malbec amongst others ). And that was the main point of my piece. Putting varietals in big letters on one’s brand is great for consumer recognition but unless there is a lot more to your brand than that it is not great for building a real franchise

  4. A good piece.
    However, I feel you need to elaborate on the distinction between (the positioning of) the corporate brand (the winery or the producer) and the brand that is the wine (or the range of wines marketed under one and the same brand name).
    In the case of wine there seems to be a special dynamic and at best positive synergy between the two – from a branding point of view from the consumer’s perspective.
    That is less so in the case of (other) FMCG producers (such as Nestle, for example) that produce not just products in one category but in several at the same time (snacks as well as health food, to pet food or cosmetics).

    • Thank you Georges…and you make a fair point. My piece was only about brands which are wines as opposed to corporate brands and I should have made that clear. In the wine industry as you imply the producer’s name may be largely synonymous with the wine Torres or Antinori. and this can work well. It does of course lead to ongoing debate within the company on how broad\deep the range can be without watering down the overall image In other cases the corporate name may well be unknown to the consumer ( eg in my own experience Southcorp or Western Wines )and this approach also has pros\cons.

      • And, then of course one could also make a point that in some instances the appellation is (perceived by consumers, sometimes mistaken by uninitiated drinkers or used by producers as) the brand… I think it’s fair to say that ‘brand wine’ is complicated.

      • We (as DoILikeIt?) did consumer research at the Wine Show a few years ago – among people committed enough to attend a consumer wine event – and discovered HUGE confusion between grape varieties, brands and regions.

      • Absolutely Robert and with new regions or sub regions being ‘launched’ every year ( not to mention varietals ) the chances are that the consumer is increasingly confused.

      • “The chances are” – Are we taking it in turns to offer our best understatements? My favourite is Grignon Lès Adhémar, the unmemorable, unpronouncable name chosen in 2010 to replace Côteaux de Tricastin which was suffering from an image problem because of the apparently unreliable Tricastin nuclear power station. A name change may have been wise, but maybe not this one…

      • That’s an understatement! My next piece will in fact be on appellations or regions as brands. I look forward to any comments you might have.

  5. Hello Mike,
    Happy 2014! Nice to be in touch again! Thanks to a R. Joseph’s tweet I discovered your Blog. Very good material, clear and going to right to the point that makes me think deeply about Wine Marketing issues.
    Thank you very much,
    Jorge Grosse

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