NB : This is a slightly extended version of a piece which appeared recently on Harpers.co.uk. This is linked to my previous post on regional branding.
At the recent International Sparkling Wine Symposium held at Denbighs I was facilitating a session on the way forward for English fizz and made a throwaway comment that for all its success producers should be wary of seeing Prosecco as a role model. I noted that, while it has certainly captured the imagination of a large swathe of the wine market, I doubted that many consumers can name individual brands or are aware of the difference between DOC and DOCG Prosecco. This implies that they will tend to be drawn to the cheapest Prosecco that they find acceptable. It would be fair to say that my comment was not universally popular with Prosecco producers in the room.
Subsequent to the conference Prosecco sales have soared to new heights with various major retailers reporting astronomic growth over Christmas. So remarkable is the success that some commentators believe that the sparkling wine sector in the UK will never be the same again: a critical mass of consumers have moved on from Champagne and won’t be looking back.
They may well be right but either way I still hold by my concern. Because the consumer is not being given enough encouragement to trade up, returns may well be disappointingly low for too many producers and certainly not commensurate with the success of the category
For those producers of DOC Prosecco the lack of branding initiatives imply that the consumer will tend to buy whichever brand a retailer is promoting or perhaps an exclusive retailer brand, while for those attempting to sell DOCG Prosecco the issue is even more critical. Unless they are satisfied with very small volumes they are unlikely to be able to recoup the higher costs of production in their selling prices.
More broadly than that I would wager that research would reveal that the majority of consumers are unaware that Prosecco is a protected region and certainly unaware that the word can not be used for pink fizz. If I’m correct then this implies that Prosecco is fast becoming a generic name for Italian fizz of a certain style, whether pink or white. This confusion is likely to be compounded by the increasing promotion of look- a- like wines from both inside and outside the DOC area.
The lessons for other regions and appellations
All this implies to me that there two lessons English sparkling wine producers in particular, and other emerging wine regions in general, should learn from the Prosecco phenomenon
The first is that, in order to realise their full potential, regions and appellations need generic promotion and individual producer brand promotion to be in balance, while the majority of brands should command a clear premium over exclusive retailer labels. Champagne would therefore be a better role model in this regard. I’m a great believer in the development of generic visions and effective generic promotion but this is not nearly enough on its own.
For individual producers controlling one’s own destiny makes sense from all points of view but particularly relevant in this case is that producers who over-rely on regional promotion are inevitably at the mercy of the consumer image of their regional brand. This may in some cases not be a problem but, particularly where there is a broad spectrum of pricing or, at some stage, an excess of supply over demand,which leads to discounting, regional brands risk becoming commoditised. Individual producers need the strength therefore to increase their chances of being sucked into the quicksand.
Secondly, regions will not realise their full potential if, having gone to all the trouble of getting producers together to define and then ‘trademark’ a region, they fail to engage not only the trade but enough relevant consumers in what they are doing. Without doing so their chances of securing the price premium, or other competitive advantages, that their wines may well deserve, are slim. How many consumers understand the added value inherent in the term DOCG, or indeed any other premium acronyms around the world ? The answer is certainly; not nearly enough.
It would surely make sense therefore that when defining regions or appellations in the first place that there was some marketing input. I accept that there must be a winemaking or viticultural raison d’etre at their core : the last thing we need is appellations that come straight out of a marketing brainstorm. But it is surely a question of balance, of considering things holistically, which does not come naturally in a production oriented category such as wine.
For a start it could be useful to have marketing input into how to minimise potential confusion in the trade when an appellation is launched, because if the trade doesn’t clearly understand the proposition then the consumer has no chance. However, it is not enough just to get the trade on your side, even though that is a prerequisite of success: the target consumer must also be engaged. Will they understand the new appellation ? How is it different from anything else on the market ? What is it offering that excites them and might persuade them to pay the prices required ? Is the ‘added value’ that producers perceive relevant to the target consumer ? And, if so, how might it be communicated effectively ?
So I’m afraid I stand by my throwaway line. I applaud Prosecco producers as a collective for their vision, the extraordinary effort involved in protecting their brand and for creating a revolution in the sparkling wine sector. However I would be surprised if very many individual producers, particularly at the premium end, feel either in control of their own destiny or that, currently at least, they are getting appropriate rewards for all their collective effort. And ultimately its how producers feel and perform as individuals that really counts.
PS : As an aside, for anyone interested in working for an English Wine producer I occasionally get asked if I know of people suitable for sales or marketing positions, full or part-time. Just last week I had two such requests. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org should anyone wish to make contact ( in confidence of course).