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French But Not Fancy

d=”standfirst”>Strong branding is helping to demystify French wines for puzzled consumers. Oh, and putting the grape variety on the label doesn’t hurt either, says Penny Boothman

Ask someone to name five Australian wine brands and they will quickly rattle off a list of hills, creeks and bouncing marsupials. Ask them to name five French wine brands and they generally get stuck on about two. The French wine sector has not traditionally been a home to the brand. You might, therefore, be surprised by how many brands there now are from across the Channel. You might not even have realised that some of them are French.

The leader of the pack is the classic Piat D’or with sales topping an impressive 867,000 cases last year (ACNielsen MAT to w/e 25.12.04). This figure is down 4% on the previous year, in line with the French category overall in the off-trade, but other brands are showing more positive growth. 

The brand in second place, JP Chenet, recorded a massive leap of 467% in sales volume last year, reaching almost 563,000 cases. Stowells’ French offering was also up 4% and Bottle Green’s French Connection brand was up by 17%, proving that even if French brands are not at the front of consumers’ minds, they’re still finding their way into their shopping baskets. In a slowly declining category, brands are fighting back.

Guy Anderson of Guy Anderson Wines, whose Calvet and La Chasse de Pape brands are number one brands in their respective Bordeaux and Rhône sectors, says: “Wine is a confusing subject for most people. The aspects of French wines that excite the enthusiast – regional specialities, quality hierarchies and vintage variations – generally have the opposite effect on lowinvolvement consumers. The challenge is to create brands which limit this complexity while keeping enough ‘French-ness’, because for most people France still equals wine.”

However, in the recent political climate French is not always the best thing to be, and a brand sometimes has to stand alone without relying on its origins. Anderson says: “Occasionally it pays for brands to keep French imagery to an absolute minimum. During the Iraq conflict, attitudes towards France were less than favourable in the US. Our Fat Bastard brand is massive over there and while patriots were shunning French wines, it carried on growing strongly as people didn’t realise where it came from!”

So in a country that produced 58 million hectolitres of wine last year, why are there not more strong French brands? The vignerons of France have been dealt a difficult hand to play in the context of the global wine industry. With regulations for everything, from which varieties they are allowed to plant where and how much fruit they are allowed to take off them, it is not a climate conducive to creating brands.

But France has a lot going for it. Steve Barton of Brand Phoenix says: “France is actually in a very strong position compared to Australia. The research is fascinating, ask people about New World places and they talk about holidays, but ask about France and the first thing people say is great wine and great food!” Brand Phoenix launched the Renaissance range, a joint venture with Maison Sichel in Bordeaux, in July last year and has sold over 73,000 cases to date. Further range extensions are planned for later this summer and the brand is also constantly supported by a six-pack promotion. 

Greg Wilkins, director of Brand Phoenix, says: “Renaissance competes strongly on all of the recognised branded cues – packaging, promotions, quality and consistency of wine at all price points. We believe that strong and successful brands will be vital to the success of France in international markets in the next 5 to 10 years. Our approach is that we prefer not to use VDP or AOC designations, but rather to be able to blend for quality and source from a greater area in France.”

Jerry Lockspeiser, MD of Bottle Green, says: “France has three routes to reclaiming share of throat: a) brands such as French Connection, Piat, Chenet, etc; b) quality wines from the main regions that consumers see as brands anyway, such as Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rho?ne, etc; and c) exceptional wines at £7 and above. France is still perceived as the country that makes the really premiumpriced wines and they are not very good at communicating this.” Bottle Green’s French Connection brand has taken the non-specific regional approach, and is fighting the battle on price points. Lockspeiser says: “FC is focused around the quality brand proposition – thus we are mostly building the wines around £4.99. The range does stretch from £3.99 to £5.99 rrp, and we do promote at £3.99 and below, but we are not competing directly with Chenet, who have a very aggressive lowprice strategy to build volume. We are targeting a quality, modern French wine message.” 

France’s biggest selling international wine brand, JP Chenet, sells the equivalent of 2.5 bottles every second somewhere in the world. Tim North, UK director of Grands Chais de France, says: “When we launched JP Chenet we started with some consumer research which told us that people think that the French make good wines, but they find the complexity of French wines difficult to understand. What they do understand is varietals. So JP Chenet launched a range of French varietal wines with the distinctive bottle that makes the brand stand out from the wine fixture, so it’s easy for people to find when they buy it for the first time. But it also sticks in their minds and facilitates repeat purchase.”

The one French brand that is stuck in the minds of most UK consumers is Piat d’Or. Anyone who was watching television in the 1980s will remember that “les Franc?ais adorent Le Piat d’Or”, but the brand has grown up considerably since then, and dropped the definite article. Jenny Wallace, brand manager for Piat d’Or at Percy Fox, says: “Piat d’Or enjoys really high distribution, therefore we are at an advantage due to our number one position and resulting scale, so we are able to invest in a consumer plan which aims to recruit consumers through brand-building activity and not just through price promotions. Therefore, we can create loyalty in consumers rather than just recruiting promotional junkies. The consumer campaign that we have developed this year is all around ‘dinner parties made simple’, linking up with top TV chef James Martin. As we are recruiting a younger 25 to 35 consumer, we are trying to portray the modern side of French winemaking, with packaging that emphasises varietals and is contemporary in feel while staying true to its French heritage. And, obviously, our Piat d’Or name in itself also implies an element of Frenchness!”

Mouton Cadet is another brand that revels in its Frenchness. It is, in fact, the longest running branded wine from France, having been created in 1930 by Baron Philippe de Rothschild. The brand now has international distribution in more than 150 countries, but the somewhat tenuous link to Château Mouton Rothschild is still used to generate an image of quality and prestige. 

Edouard Thouvenot, UK export manager for Mouton Cadet, says: “France, and French wines in particular, have an image of quality and knowhow. Brands must capitalise on this asset. French wine has always been a major player in the international market. However, over the past 10 years, the French category has unfortunately seen a decrease in its market share. Only strong brands can be part of this competition, which will drive up the whole French category. In addition, the creation of a brand requires a level of investment that few French producers can meet.”

It is true that French producers are facing stiff competition from New World producers and their giant marketing budgets, with brands such as Gallo and Hardys dwarfing anything French producers could turn out.

HwCg’s Blason de Bourgogne brand was launched in March 2003, with two wines listed in Tesco. Two years on, the brand has 12 wines in the UK market, from 10 appellations, spanning six major multiple grocers, and sales are now in excess of 70,000 cases a year. Henry John, marketing manager for HwCg, says: “We’ve been successful in homing in on exactly what the consumer is looking for in a niche market brand from Burgundy. It can be a confusing region so we’ve tried to demystify it a bit and have been quite innovative in putting the grape variety on the label.” 

This may sound like the simplest thing in the world, and something New World producers would not think twice about, but the lack of varietal labelling on French wines is frequently cited as one of the main factors holding the category back.

Problem solving

Another new range from HwCg, Le Charmant, is making the  best of both opportunities by using both varietal and regional labels, depending on which  the consumer finds easiest  to understand. John says: “Following on from our work with Blason we spent a huge amount of time talking and listening to consumers, trying to find out what the problem is with France. The mystery surrounding French wines can be confusing and we have to speak a language the consumers understand. If they understand Shiraz it will say Shiraz, if they understand Muscadet or Rhône then that’s what it will say. We’re not trying to patronise the consumers but rather open up France.” 

Serious frog

In response to the snappilytitled, animal-themed New World brands, some French producers are taking a quirkier approach to target a younger, or more adventurous consumer base. Stratford’s The Arrogant Frog is a tongue-in-cheek take on the New World’s perception of France’s apparent lack of marketing savvy, and was originally aimed at the US market. “The initial purchase may be made as a joke,” Paul Stratford, MD of Stratfords, admits. “But what’s inside is serious liquid and hopefully people will see that this is a really good bottle of wine that needs to be taken seriously.”

Stratfords’ Hidden Hill range was designed to have a New World slant. “We wanted to create something with New World appeal that was Australian-ish in outlook but with French elements as well,” Stratford says. “The whole concept was created to talk to the consumers, with very chatty back labels and point of sale, stripping the pretentions. We wanted to be down-to-earth and talking to them on their own level.” 

Modern packaging, screwcap closures and names like Scintillating Sauvignon and Memorable Merlot put these wines firmly in the branded arena and should certainly get them noticed.

French wine producers need a way of luring consumers back into their sector, and the branded route seems to be the way to go. Whether it is frogs or Français, brand owners have started playing the New World at their own game and building brands to raise the profile of French wines.

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