Jonathan Cahill
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Wine’s Apparent Neglect of Marketing

27th February, 2017 by Jonathan Cahill

Marketing is a pervasive theme in modern business. This is understandable when it is recognised what a magical effect it can have on the fortunes of a product. Unfortunately this contribution is often obscured by it being seen by some as a sort of voodoo art whose use is akin to selling snake oil. This is often due to a perception that marketing is complicated and expensive. Much of this prejudice stems from confusion as to its actual nature.

When using any term there needs to be a clear, commonly agreed, understanding of its meaning – that’s the purpose which dictionaries serve. With the word “marketing” this seems to be elusive. A simple test is to ask anyone involved in marketing to define it. Often this question is met with incomprehension or garbled mantras. If someone is unclear as to what a concept means then, by a simple process of deduction, they are operating from a rather shaky foundation when practicing it. This results in the many misapprehensions around marketing.

There are several supposed definitions of marketing. The American Marketing Association states that it is: “the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large”. This gobbledygook contributes little other than confusion. It is not even a definition, in the sense of expressing the essence of the concept, rather it is merely a description. There are other so-called definitions. One cliché is that it involves meeting consumer needs. But if those citing this would reflect for a moment they would realise that this is the province of new product development rather than marketing. The essence of marketing is competition, so this needs to be part of its definition. A more grounded definition is: “the achievement of competitive advantage through meaningful differentiation, in terms of product or perceptions, and the exploitation of this to the full.” At its core is the importance of being clear about how your product is different, particularly in terms of perceptions.

Contrary to beliefs, marketing does not need to be either complicated or expensive, often all that is needed is thought and curiosity. A good example was the Pilchard in the UK. This was a fish whose name was toxic, being perceived at a level similar to Spam luncheon meat. Curiosity revealed that the Pilchard is a member of the Sardine family, only a little larger than other varieties. So they were called ‘Cornish Sardines’ – an invented name, but an accurate description.

In 1997 the average price paid to fishermen for a landed kilo of ‘Pilchards’ had been £0.015 and the total annual catch was seven tons. By 2003 the average price paid for a kilo of ‘Cornish Sardines’ – the very same fish – was £1.00, a 67 times increase in value[i]. By 2008 the quantity landed was 1,596 tons. The reality had not changed, just the perception based on a simple change of name which cost virtually nothing.

A good example of a similarly toxic name in the wine industry is “Sherry”. This covers a broad spectrum of what are, in effect, different wines but they are all put under this umbrella because represents the region. Unfortunately the default perception of Sherry in the UK is of something slightly sweet and old-fashioned and this is inevitably applied to all Sherries, even to Fino and Manzanilla, the dry wines with the greatest growth and potential. The name Sherry is like an Albatross around their neck.

Moving on from the word “marketing” there is another, directly linked to it, which appears to confuse even more – “brand”. Because it is a term which is used frequently, it has come to be referred to as if it is a thing. In fact it is nothing more than subjective thoughts, being the sum of perceptions the consumer has of a particular product. Unsurprisingly, consumers’ behaviour in relation to a product is based on their thoughts, which are gathered in the concept of a brand – much like a bundle of reeds. A good distinction is that a product is something people buy for its functional benefits, whereas a brand they buy for emotional benefits. This emphasis on the emotions is particularly potent as the rational basis for choice has been proven to be shaky by many, such as the Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman. As Alexander Segart, managing director of a Swiss PR company, which had great success in political advertising, said: “we’re successful because we know how to reduce information to the lowest level, so people respond to it without thinking”.

A key basis for emotions is a relationship. Gavin Fairburn of Leeds University noted that, “storytelling is central to most of human life. It is also the most startlingly simple and direct way l know of encouraging the development of empathy”. In his book, Mindwise, Nicholas Epley gave more flesh to this when he stated that: “you define yourself not by the attributes that make you the same as everyone else – has two arms, two legs, breathes air – but rather by the attributes which make you different from everyone else – spent time in the Peace Corps, works as a physicist, loves to go fishing, and so on.[ii]

9 Responses to “Wine’s Apparent Neglect of Marketing”

  1. What an excellent article. I agree with everything that was written except for the last paragraph “The reason that this seldom seems to be recognised and fully exploited is no doubt understood by those within the industry” (unless of course if was tongue-in-cheek)”

  2. Regina M Lutz says:

    LOL — wine isn’t politics and it isn’t Legos, but marketers keep trying to make it so. It’s farming, for crying out loud….just farming.

  3. Jonathan Cahill says:

    Briliant! What a superb illustration of the blinkered attitude of the wine industry. Yes, it’s farming. But farming is not an end in itself, it needs to sell to customers as opposed to itself. The comment about marketers trying to “make it so” seems to indicate a complete lack of comprehension blinded by the sort of knee-jerk prejudice of which l wrote.

    It’s very helpful to have one’s views so clearly illustrated..

  4. Mareli says:

    Brilliant read!! Thank you!

  5. Jonathan,
    Great article. An obvious element of good marketing is simplicity. But many producers find it counter-intuitive to exclude attributes from their stated brand position; it’s more comforting to shoehorn everything in. That makes any brand differentiation difficult and consumer recall challenging.

  6. Taylor says:

    Nice article. You bring up an interesting note re:56 Sauvignon Blancs in one retailer. Pointing out all are pretty similar me too offerings with just a bit of text changed, and I would say to take it a step further, likely will have another landscape shot or boat on the label to differentiate. The other day I read a press release from a national retailer that had launched a new (me too) sauvignon blanc from a large company, and that consumers will go crazy for it because it can be “enjoyed at a variety of occasions”. Nothing else. Wow, such innovation and consumer insight!!
    The challenge for wine producers that are trying to tell a unique story with their brand with great anecdotes, packaging or a unique style of production is that those 56 Sauvignons are likely produced by less than 10 suppliers. If category buyers cant look beyond the same suppliers, or stop launching me too wines, it makes it tough for suppliers who are telling great stories but are not one of the multinationals. Look at the craft beer industry where buyers are proud to stock unique beers with interesting labels, or some crazy backstory to the producer.
    Its time for buyers to stand up in the wine industry and be a bit more brave when looking at your category offerings! p.s if you have brands with great back stories, consumers will pay for it, meaning less discounting/promos, or maybe wishful thinking 😉

  7. Jonathan Cahill says:

    Thank you for this. Nice point about the “new” Sauvignon Blanc. l don’t get the impression that producers think further than their noses when they make such vacuous statements. l hadn’t appreciated the point about the 56 Sauvignons being produced by 10 suppliers. The more variety offered, the more power is given to the retailers – it makes it easier to play one off against another.

  8. David says:

    I suspect that many wine producers don’t wish to see their wines as brands, as they consider the term demeans their precious, unique liquid created by mother nature in inimitable soils. So they don’t perhaps appreciate the importance of differentiation in successful marketing. In their eyes (and noses) their products are already highly individual, by nature.

  9. Jonathan Cahill says:

    l agree. But that’s the pity. As l mentioned, Chateau Lafite makes such enormous profits because it meets a lot of the criteria for a brand. l am sure they are jealous of their reputations but that is essentially what a brand is. It seems a case of biting off their nose to spite their face.

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