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An Inside Look at Wine Marketing
By Jim Clarke
Nov 29, 2016
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Wines of Argentina, Spain, South Africa, Chile, Germany, Alsace…wherever the wine is from, “Wines of…” has become the preferred first name for the various so-called “generic marketing bodies” of the wine world.  There are plenty of others, of course:  The various “Consorzii” of Italy’s myriad regions, InterRhône, and so forth.  In any case, no one likes to be called “generic,” especially when their major goal is to differentiate their region from competitors.

I’m the USA Marketing Manager of Wines of South Africa, so I know this firsthand.  My peers and I cross paths all the time, trying to spread the word and our resources to create, maintain, or massage the image of our region so that the wine trade and wine drinkers will be more inclined to sell or drink our region’s wines.  Our tools vary, limited only by our own creativity…and our budgets.

Funding comes from different sources.  One of the positive things about WOSA’s budget is that everybody contributes.  The South African government collects a small levy on each liter of wine the country exports, which is transferred over to our organization.  Contrast this to, for example, the Alto Adige Consorzio, which is optional for the region’s wineries.  Alois Lageder, an excellent producer, chooses not to participate; in this case I think one might say the Consorzio suffers, given how highly regarded the Lageder wines are.  But there’s also the possibility that a non-participating winery, especially a lesser-known one, could “draft” off the attention a regional marketing effort creates.  For example, membership in Napa Valley Vintners is voluntary.  “While the handful of non-member wineries may experience indirect benefits from our efforts,” says President and CEO Linda Reif, “we’re proud that we have more than 525 members, which represents the vast majority of Napa Valley’s vintners and grape growers.”

For European organizations, EU funding is often a major source, in addition to money coming directly from producers.  European national or even regional budgets often exceed those of the New World wine regions, in part for this reason.  In any case, these regions may have a full-time person in the U.S., work through an agency, or both.  For example, I am the Marketing Manager for the U.S., but I work with Colangelo PR for our press relations and social media activity.  Similarly, Mary Gorman-Adams is the North America Market Adviser for Bordeaux’s CIVB, and Teuwen Communications is their marketing agency.

Teuwen has been working with wine marketing and regional wine groups for twenty years.  Founder and President Stephanie Teuwen draws a contrast between working with wine brands and with a wine region: “Brands have specific sales objectives.”  Marketing fits into those plans, and the results are relatively easy to measure.  “We can see the direct impact of an article and have sometimes informed a client that they will be featured in a major national newspaper and to make sure they have wines on the shelves.”  With regions, on the other hand, the goals are broader, and aim, “To identify what makes them stand apart from the other wine regions of the world and think strategically about how they will position themselves over the course of several years.”

Setting out the right goals can have dramatic consequences.  When New Zealand saw potential for Sauvignon Blanc in the U.S., it opened up an opportunity that is still growing.  The country has a relatively high price-paid-per-bottle, and a since then a separate campaign, called “Complexity,” operated for five years working to highlight other varieties -- Pinot Noir being the most successful example -- and especially to raise awareness of the country’s premium offerings.

Complexity had some particularly innovative ideas that are good examples of the challenges these efforts face and how marketing organizations answer them.  Within the industry, retail buyers, sommeliers, and press can be so beset with tastings, dinners and other events that they can only attend a small portion of them, and often do so in only a token manner.  In addition, they’re often distracted by work obligations.  Trips are one way to get buyers away from the hubbub, but they can be expensive and require a large time commitment from attendees.  Complexity found fun ways to get their target audience away from work for just a day or two -- long enough to develop some knowledge and excitement about the wines, but not so long as to be a problem with work schedules.  For example, one event invited a number of New York sommeliers to board a vintage train car and spend a day traveling up to Canada, tasting and learning about New Zealand’s wines on the way.  Cap that with a nice meal in Montreal and a flight home the next morning, and you’ve created an intriguing, fun experience that motivates attendance a lot more than the typical walk-around tasting.

Some approaches can create long-term problems.  For a long time Australia prioritized volume in its attack on the U.S. market, and built their success at low price points where large amounts of wine could be moved.  Around 2008, two things happened:  Shiraz began to wear out its welcome, and the Australian dollar strengthened.  It seems like the lesson for American wine drinkers was “don’t spend more than $10 on an Australian wine,” and it became hard for producers to make money on their wines because the margins had disappeared and sales dried up if they raised their prices.  Their approach has since changed, but only in the past year or so have Australian wines began to recover.

Many regions or countries have looked at the Australian story and thought, “there but for the grace of God…,” especially if they rely on a signature variety or style the way Australia was so closely associated with Shiraz.  Argentina is one example; Prosecco another.  The latter’s recent campaigns have highlighted the terroir of different Prosecco subregions and high-end cuvees; the goal, presumably, is to make sure that the public doesn’t think of Prosecco as a “cheap” wine, and that fine dining establishments feel comfortable (or even get excited) about offering Prosecco, rather than feeling it might be too down-market for their clientele.  Contrast that with Bordeaux, which Teuwen began working with last year.  The focus there is to raise awareness of the range of Bordeaux, especially at lower price points; while many of the highly-sought after classified growths are doing well, Bordeaux is a huge wine region and offers many wines at more affordable price points, and the fame of the top estates has obscured American awareness of these wines.

Many of these campaigns never fall under the public eye.  For example, WOSA ran a series of Braais (South African barbecue, essentially) in 2014; these were consumer events where a few hundred wine drinkers had the chance to taste South African wines in a fun South African context.  Since then we’ve focused on trade activities almost exclusively, in part because Braai attendees regularly declared, “I love South African wines, but I have a hard time finding them.”  That told us there was work to be done educating the trade, who clearly weren’t offering enough or the right South African wines for their audience.

At the other extreme, perhaps, Napa Valley Vintners’ primary consumer event is well-known to many winedrinkers: “Our primary consumer initiative is Auction Napa Valley, the world’s most celebrated charity wine event,” Says Reif, “The majority of our other programs and activities are targeted to members of the trade.” The contrast between their two major events illustrates the difference.  “Auction Napa Valley is an event for wine consumers that was established with the goal of leveraging the worldwide reputation of Napa Valley wines to enhance the wellbeing of the Napa County community.”  In addition to its marketing value, it’s also a charity event that’s enabled them to give more than $150 million to the Napa Valley community.  Their signature trade event works differently.  “Premiere Napa Valley was started to highlight Napa Valley’s spirit of quality and innovation to members of the wine trade.  At the same time, it provides operating funds that support our mission.”

Whether addressing the trade, winedrinkers, or both, two general trends have emerged over the past ten years in the wine industry’s marketing efforts.  One is the focus on price point.  There are plenty of individual brands that try to position themselves as not just good values, but as cheap -- in this regard, the under $10 range is quite competitive -- but nowadays few regional organizations do.  The focus is instead on quality, uniqueness, and premium wines, and/or on clarifying that “good value” doesn’t mean cheap, it means a good quality-price-ratio.  With South Africa, the wines often outperform at the $15-20 range, for example, which is the fastest growing price point in the country, and Wine Spectator pointed out last year that the average price for a 90+ point South African wine was around $40 -- lower than every other country mentioned there.  Great values, but not cheap wine.

That’s a change in marketing goals, but Stephanie Teuwen says the means have taken a new turn as well.  “More and more, regions are using brand tactics such as showcasing the people behind the wines and organizing smaller, targeted events rather than large tastings.  Since there is more noise in general with promoting wine, regional organizations have learned from brands and are more personal in their approach.”  That and premium-ization go together; after all, no one wants cheap friends.