The importance of branding.
( The following appeared as an Opinion piece in Harpers last month and was followed up by some thoughts on the art of branding which I shall post in the next few days )
A recurring theme of most marketing orientated articles in Harpers is the need for wine producers to develop, and then promote effectively, their individuality: to communicate to the trade and the consumer, hopefully in an inspiring way, what makes them special and separates them from their competition.
This process can be summed up in one word, ‘branding’: a word that can still send shivers of irritation up the spine of too many in our industry. To them the word tends to smack of big corporations or of style over substance, concepts which seem at odds with the artisanal nature of the world of wine.
Few producers of course have the resources to communicate with consumers in the style of sophisticated brand led companies in other sectors, but that is to miss the point. Branding on one level is just about getting the basics right : to define and take note of the competition, to link a product to a target market, to develop a presentation that is likely to appeal to them and to link this to a communication approach that brings one’s wine to life in an exciting and relevant way to the proposed audience.
Why bother ?
When producers suggest to me that if they make ‘good ‘ wine people will find out about it, I respond by questioning why they would take the risk that they might not. Why go to all that trouble in the vineyard and winery to produce a wine that you are proud of and then fail to tell people it exists in a way that makes them want to try it, and then hopefully buy it for the price that you feel it should command? At a fundamental level that is all branding is.
What good branding does is to give you a better chance of securing a higher price than if you had not bothered. The correct price of anything is the price somebody is prepared to pay not what a producer thinks something is worth. Consumers ( and indeed the trade ) need to be persuaded, to be seduced, to have their emotions appealed to. Few of us make rational choices in any category and in a category such as wine, which is hardly a necessity, and where the offering is so diverse, our choices are likely to be even more whimsical.
Branding in essence implies taking control of one’s destiny and, as noted, all producers can do this at a basic level. A wine with an appealing label, with a style relative to the target market and communicated in an engaging way is clearly going to sell more successfully and at a higher price than one which has none of these attributes. There surely can be no argument about that.
Generic or regional branding
However one area no producer has any control over is the activity of their competitors. Linked to this, while individual producers can become involved in developing and protecting the reputation and quality levels of their particular region, how that region is perceived by the wine trade and consumer is inevitably largely outside their control.
The implications of this are often significant. The majority of consumers have little interest in, or real awareness of, regional characteristics but some consumers, particularly those drinking premium wine, will have biases for or against certain regional designations which will affect the fortunes of individual producers. The same is true of the trade. However much buyers may attempt to reward ‘quality’ with appropriate pricing the latter will be affected by the status of the wine’s regional provenance.
As an example, a dynamic producer of Pinot Noir in Bulgaria is unlikely to find it as easy to secure as high a price for their wine as a similar producer in Burgundy even if they come up with a good brand and the wine is judged as of exceptional quality. The reality is that ‘Brand Burgundy’ is stronger than ‘ Brand Bulgaria’
What this all implies, therefore, is that good producers in some regions are at a disadvantage because their national or regional designation is subtracting, as opposed to adding, value. It may be associated in too many minds, rationally or irrationally, with lower quality wine or wine of the ‘wrong’ style for reasons that may, as an example, be due to over-promotion of inexpensive wines at some point in the past ( eg Bulgaria, Beaujolais or even Germany ).
In such cases a producer can of course decide to do nothing and just focus on swimming strongly against the tide relying on force of personality, wine quality and great branding to achieve their objectives. One alternative, or additional option, however,is to work with a few like minded souls to develop a regional identity which if successful distances you from the problem and creates a ‘halo’ effect for your own brand building efforts. This is hardly an easy task and the more producers involved the more difficult it will be to gain a consensus that doesn’t represent too much of a compromise. This is particularly the case given the need for a regional brand to protect its quality and not simply be a guarantee of provenance.
Equally importantly, however, it is pointless going to all this trouble if you then don’t communicate to the trade and the relevant consumer why they should buy into your ‘association’. Which of course comes back to branding. The process may be more complex for regions, given effective branding by committee is never easy, but the thought process or principle is exactly the same as it is for an individual producer
Everything in fact comes back to branding. As an individual producer or as a region in an increasingly crowded and diverse market the trade and the consumer need to be constantly reminded that not only do you exist but that they should purchase your wine as opposed to somebody else’s, and at a profitable price.
Only effective branding, linked to effective production techniques and other basic business skills such as financial and selling expertise, can give a producer or a region the feeling of having at least some control of their own destiny. And its the branding skills which are too often in the wine industry the missing piece of the jigsaw . Without brands a producer is effectively a commodity trader, entirely subject to the vicissitudes of fortune and the broader marketplace in whichever categories they are involved . And in the highly fragmented, extraordinarily competitive and structurally low margin wine industry that is surely a very uncomfortable place to be.