Jonathan Cahill
The views expressed in db Reader do not represent the views of the drinks business.

Wine’s Apparent Neglect of Marketing

This is a clear illustration of how perceptions rather than reality can influence choice and further emphasises the potency of having a firm position in the consumer’s mind. These are neatly summarised in the term “brand”. This is the reality of human behaviour, yet the industry insists on believing that only focus on physical characteristics can establish differentiation. In terms of taste, a largely subjective area, descriptions appear to be a semantic challenge as to how intricately the writer can articulate their subjective feelings. There is often much discussion as to how intelligible these often ornate descriptions are to consumers. Even should they be effective, they can only be effective once, when the consumer comes new to the wine. Once it is tried then any descriptions become superfluous, for that is the only criterion which concerns the consumer – whether they like it. Consequently taste is not an enduring platform but rather a one trick pony.

In the drinks area an example of how simple stories have worked has been the success of Jack Daniel’s[vi], which has built itself into the sixth-biggest drinks brand in the world and the single biggest whisk(e)y brand by differentiating itself through a series of individual stories firmly rooted in its home town of Lynchburg and in the people who make it. The style of these was summed up by their being referred to as “postcards”. Such an approach is a good illustration of the “emotional terroir” of a brand referred to in the discussion about wines, where the positioning springs directly from the intrinsic nature of the brand’s context and the firm emotional base this provides. Unlike the default position of the wine industry, there is seldom any mention of taste nor of the product. An enduring story needs to be something which they cannot directly experience, as this then becomes redundant as a descriptor, but rather something which can become part of their personal perception of the brand. As the creative director for Jack Daniel’s said: “We’re not selling a bottle of booze. We’re selling a place.” The campaign has lasted for over 60 years.

With regards to wine there is also the fact that many wines are made from the same grape variety. Usually a particular grape has fairly similar generic taste characteristics and variations are quite subtle. Consequently it is difficult to fulfil the key requirement of marketing by differentiating one wine from another of the same variety. There are 56 Sauvignon Blancs listed on Waitrose’s website. Usually these resort to a simple rearranging of the adjectives which are appropriate for the generic properties of this wine. “Zesty”, “crisp” and “citrus” are words which regularly feature. When comparing these different descriptions the overriding impression is of verbal wallpaper with minor variations in design as opposed to the articulation of clear differences for one Sauvignon Blanc against another. As in Mindwise, referred to above, they are largely defining themselves by the attributes that make them the same as everyone else. As differentiation is the basic task when marketing a product, then the role of such writing appears to add little to this endeavour.

By contrast, an example of establishing an enduring position was provided by Lanson Champagne, making the brand personal to the consumer. It suggested that people create their own “Champagne Moment”, which reflected the special occasion aspect of Champagne, so taking a generic aspect of Champagne and making it Lanson’s. The brand outperformed the market by 32 per cent and had an increase in prices of 10 per cent above the average. Turnover exceeded projections by £10 million.

Wine provides one of the richest soils in which marketing can thrive. The reason that this seldom seems to be recognised and fully exploited is no doubt understood by those within the industry, but it is difficult for those outside to fathom.


Jonathan Cahill has many years experience in advertising, research and marketing, both in the UK and overseas. Currently he lectures in marketing. He has written two books on marketing: ‘Igniting the Brand – Strategies that have shot brands to Success’, and ‘Marketing Rethink – Reassessing the Roots, Practice and Diversions of Marketing’. A third book: ‘Making a Difference in Marketing – the Foundation of Competitive Advantage’ is published on 14 March.


[i] “Who are you calling Pilchard? It’s ‘Cornish sardine’ to you…”, The Independent on Sunday, 17 August 2003

[ii] Nichols Epley, Mindwise, Allen Lane, 2014, p.126

[iii] David Robertson and Bill Breen, Brick by Brick, Random House, 2013: p.205

[iv] The Times, 9th June, 2011

[v] Robin Goldstein and Alexis Herschkowitsch, The Wine Trials, Fearless Critic Media, 2008


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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