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How wine brands have evolved in their communication – and how they could do it better

Earlier this month, veteran wine writer and editor Guy Woodward launched Grand Cru Creative, a creative agency for the wine industry. Here, he tells us how the ways in which brands communicate are changing, and what businesses can still learn.

When I first came into the wine world, 20 years ago, it was with editorial know-how rather than wine expertise. The bosses at Decanter were looking for someone who could make the in-house knowledge of the Spurriers, Broadbents and Johnsons of this world more accessible, particularly to a younger audience. It wasn’t easy to persuade such luminaries of the merits of this approach, which they saw as dumbing down. Fortunately, I was able to draw on increased sales figures as ammunition in my battle with the old guard, and I like to think the magazine became a little more punchy under my editorship.

The biggest challenge in those days was retaining editorial independence, and avoiding undue influence from the magazine’s commercial paymasters. It was a constant battle, but one worth fighting – whenever we surveyed readers, what they appreciated most was feeling that the magazine was on their side, presenting things from the perspective of the paying customer, rather than the industry.

Back when I started, there were a handful of wine magazines, the odd wine column in weekend supplements and lifestyle titles, and a few fairly amateurish blogs, all of them resolutely independent. Today, while the number of column inches might have shrunk, wine writers have their own individual websites, while there are countless wine communicators with their own social media channels (though, with regards to the latter, the lines between commercial and editorial are more blurred than ever).

Branded content

The biggest change, however, has been the growth of branded content, giving producers and retailers their own voice. It used to be the case that a producer would have a basic website with a simple overview of its offering, while retailers would send out a quarterly printed list to those customers for whom it had an address, maybe with an introduction from the MD and a few tasting notes. Now, brands enjoy a direct route to consumers everywhere, across a wealth of digital channels, 24/7. This provides them with the ability to communicate in a more creative way, in a distinct tone of voice. And sure enough, many are turning out a huge amount of content, some of it pretty sophisticated.

Yet crucially, much of is still told from an industry rather than consumer perspective.

It’s all rather safe and conservative. Evocative, personal stories are passed over in favour of dull, technical detail and in-house tasting notes – neither of which are going to excite consumers. And in such a crowded field, it all rather blends into one.

That’s the danger for brands producing such content today – there’s so much of it, it’s hard to make yours stand out. Consider for a moment your own inbox. And I’m not talking about your work emails. The emails you get from brands whose mailing list you’re on – be they purveyors of news, shoes or booze. I don’t know about you, but I find these very easy to delete. In fact, I find it positively liberating.

Never gets read

So much of this content never gets read, listened to or watched (though content is much more likely to be seen if it includes some form of visual element). Such wastage represents a huge missed opportunity for brands, for whom content has become a necessity – but also a huge danger. Every piece of content contributes to creating the image that consumers form of a brand, before they even look at its list or engage with its staff. Yet often, a company’s social media feed is given to the youngest, least experienced member of the team, content is created to cater for the lowest common denominator, and the resultant tone is all rather over-excited and lacking in specialist knowledge or authoritative insight.

For a specialist wine business seeking to engage committed wine lovers, it’s imperative to consider what image you’re trying to portray. It’s sad but true that consumers’ attention spans have shortened, while there are also far more outlets competing for consumers’ attention. Social media is a large part of the reason for this, of course, though there’s no doubt such channels serve a purpose in engaging the public, particularly at the massmarket end, where consumers need to be made to feel more excited and less intimidated by the wine aisle. Here, there is an argument for style over substance – so slick, fun, short videos that grab attention quickly, rather than anything that asks consumers to do too much work.

In-depth

For the specialist and fine-wine end of the market, by contrast, more authoritative, in-depth content is required. The brands which do this best do so by easing off the hard sell, and providing more stand-alone, editorial content (remember, it is serving its marketing purpose simply by being on a brand’s own channel). And if a brand develops its own clear tone of voice, it can convey real personality – and impact.

One way to do so is to use your own people. Wine buyers are the ones who know the products best, and are perfectly placed to provide the inside track, and show customers that they live and breathe that world, thereby winning their trust. But I’ve edited enough content from buyers and MWs to know that they’re not always born communicators. And all too often in companies, the marketing manager plays second fiddled to the wine buyer, and doesn’t dare challenge them. Trust me, everyone needs an editor. Of course, having recently set up my own business producing such content, I would say that. But flip things around for a moment. Would you give responsibility for the wine buying to your marketing manager?

To learn more about Grand Cru Creative, see here.

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