Strategies for Motivating Broad Market Wine Distributor Sales Management

“It is a crowded confusing market, and, in confusion there is profit” … Thomas Watson, a former CEO of IBM whose motto was THINK

The basic idea in any marketing endeavor is to think: think intellegently, think differently, think constantly. As someone who may be charged with the dual task of being a brand visionary and a brand missionary, it will quickly became apparent , not withstanding individual state statutes, that a multi-tier distribution system is inherent to the wine broad market sales channel. Even if your primary market model is to achieve a majority of your sales through cellar door direct sales, by establishing a clicks, or, a bricks & clicks market model; i.e., wine club, private client direct mail allocations, and/or, Winery hospitality/tasting room operations – it is best to spread your risks and opportunities through the establishment of a niche,targeted broad market sales model. This requires securing, appointing, working with and selling through this multi-tiered distribution channel. The question that arises, after this sometimes difficult and time consuming process, is “How do I get my Distributor to perform?”

In order to obtain sustainable distribution in today’s rapidly consolidating, but product rich marketplace, an understanding of the concept of motivation must play a significant role in the management of any wine brand/distributor relationship.

Motivation is a nebulous social science. If one believes that measuring the metrics of ROI for social networking is difficult, then defining motivation is even a more oblique exercise. Some basic definitions exist, such as the Oxford American Dictionary’s defining motive “as that which induces a person to act in a certain way”. However, St. Augustine advises us “there are hidden depths in every man which we can never probe”. Research coming out of the Nebraska Symposium on Motivation revels that ‘the characteristic of motivated behavior is that it is goal directed…and is characterized by its organized, highly directed nature.” And, that “any goal directed activity is controlled by a conscious intention to achieve these aims by means of a specifically chosen course of action.” This may sound like a set of physic-like rules, but, we know that individuals don’t follow the laws of physics; however, a determinate of our success is the ability to motivate others, and to achieve desired end results.

Marketing/sales management’s function is the production of performance. Organizations don’t have plans, and they don’t do things. People have plans and do things. Progress isn’t made  by companies, but by people. The manager is a means to an end, and not the end itself. Management’s only product is performance. It’s not Phil Jackson out on the Staples Center floor winning games. It’s Kobe Bryant and his teammates.

The first step towards a successful wine brand/distributor interface is identifying the achievers within your distributorship(s); and, then concentrating your efforts. Achievers get things done. They have initiative, and they generate results. These are individuals who aren’t content with moderate success. By shaping performance expectations for this group, and by tying this go-getter group into the idea that success is important, your goals can be reached in the best way, in the shortest time, and at the lowest cost.

Identify the decision makers. This is where loyalty is built; and, this is the group that has the highest degree of achievement motivation. In managing your distributor relationship, be clear, consistent, competent and committed. It is necessary to the development of a long-term business relationship to create a buy-in mentality with key managers, and staff. The basic construct for doing so is to imbue the following attributes:

  • Security – the feeling that one is liked and understood
  • Recognition – appreciation/importance of contribution to effort
  • Sense of Belonging – as a team member achieving the mutually determined goals
  • Dignity – treat with respect in all interactions
  • Achievement – provide an achievable challenge
  • Opportunity – the probability of attaining goals
  • Purpose – feeling that one’s contribution is worthwhile

Prioritize! What’s Next? What’s most important? Create a priority list. As winery managers, direct and control the action, rather than trying to be the most productive participant. Don’t try to out perform a given distributor. Write a plan. Poor performers are usually poor planners, and, action takes the place of thinking, busyness takes the place of effectiveness, and hard work substitutes for achievement. In the plan, provide for reasonable, reachable goals; and, divide long-range goals into single performance phases – quarters or half-years. Provide a specific framework for expectations. Set a standard of performance, based on mutually agreed upon achievement requirements. And, most importantly, involve the distributor manager who is going to influence and deliver results that contribute to the success of the plan.

In writing the plan, involve the key distributor manager(s). Both the winery sales manager and distributor sales management team must define specific goals. Both must be convinced that they can deliver what’s wanted. Your performance measurements must be established in the plan; and, provide the ability to inspect the expectations. The plan must provide an opportunity for innovation. The plan must be responsive to change and modification; and, the plan must function as the foundation for effective performance.

The Plan

  • What should be done?
  • How much should be done?
  • When should it be done?
  • Who should do it?
  • Where should it be done?
  • Why should it be done?

Optimize Opportunities

  • Know where you want to go
  • Set targets
  • Pursue planned programs

Define Goals

  • Focus thinking of yourself and the distributor manager
  • Identify mutual needs
  • State purpose of proposed plan

Set Performance Parameters

  • Define the degree of autonomy
  • Develop feedback modalities to recognize achievement
  • Discuss the degree of involvement by each acting party

Be sure to effectively communicate the plan! An ineffectual presentation of the plan will tend to diminish goal achievement . Be responsive – give true reactions; stimulate response; be brief, be simple, be direct, be clear and human; and, above all else, be enthusiastic. An interesting reaction will take place. Individuals tend to mimic the behavior of others in social/business interactions. This phenomena is called mirroring. By enthusiasm, we generate enthusiasm.


If we accept to the idea that to motivate is to direct the activity of other towards specific goals, then we can identify the basic goals of our mission.

  • Have a plan
  • Define achievement goals and rewards
  • Involve your distributor manager
  • Develop a loyal team
  • Effectively communicate the plan
  • Be competent, be self-motivated, and be enthusiastic

Common sense and good sales-management techniques, will in the end, help the winery marketing/sales manager motivate distributor management in achieving the common-purpose goal of building a strong, sustainable brand.

Note: Copyright © 2009 Think Wine Marketing® All rights reserved.

17 thoughts on “Strategies for Motivating Broad Market Wine Distributor Sales Management

  1. Cork,
    Well done, and I enjoyed the viral piece too! The only thing needed is a touch more of your trademark Corcoran rapier wit!


  2. Thank you very much for your article! It is concise and complete. I really enjoyed reading and it remind the “simple” things that I should not forget.

    Keep on writing, you got talent.


  3. Great article, Cork! It is full of great ideas and a well thought out plan for success from someone who knows so well how to market and motivate. Keep up the good work!

  4. Thank Cork, great article. With the ever difficult time in getting product to market, I think these are relevant methods to work with a wholesaler. What I do think is more important is for a winery to develop STRONG DTC and DTT efforts in markets where they do not have distribution. The economics are far better, customer loyalty much longer, and economic stability with their brands. I also think that wineries should look to marketing agents as their next “distributor rep” and how they interact with them.

    • Paul: Agree. Jean Arnold has a great piece re this point: ‘Manage the Market, not your Distributor’. With the expense, and effort of going to market, and, the increasing importance of the National/Regional accounts – along with the key role of independent gatekeepers – it is incumbent on wineries of all sizes to interface directly with trade customers, per their individual and specific channel strategies.

  5. By the way, a genius at wholesaler management is Erle Martin (crimson wine group) and he taught me that account sold data with CRM gave the info to manage more effectively. That is something that was a key metric tool for engaging with wholesaler reps and accounts in designated markets.

    • Paul, Agree: from ACT to, CRM’s are a key tools under the heading of inspecting the expectation. Goals without feedback are largely meaningless. In this age of cloud computing. smart phones, and widely available wifi connectivity, this feed back can more timely and effective. David Mirassou, prior to Gallo’s purchase of the brand, managed his western division wholesaler partners, by mutually assigning monthly goals by sku with each sales representative, and then providing feedback via account sold reports, which were available online. A lot of work, but the effort as measured by ROI, and eventual brand value, proved to be very effective.

  6. Motivation is a two-way street. I thought that one of the comments made at the recent Napa Valley GrapeGrowers “Ahead of the Curve” conference was spot-on: do the drive-alongs with your distributors. Analysis and planning is good of course, but the personal touch is ‘way good!

    • Barbara: Good point re.. ‘ride-withs’. Forming a one-on-one relationship with your distributor sales reps can only help in the long run. This is and perhaps always will be a handshake business

  7. I strongly agree with Barbra Keck’s comment. There is nothing more important that securing close relationships with your wholesalers top on & off premise sales managers. Working with them let’s them see you tell the story of your company and see the success you have with their everyday customers. These guys are hammered every day by the large corporate wine companies and are under extreme pressure to make their numbers Small high quality value brands allow them to offer their customers a rare treat which only improves their relationship with the account
    Establishing a key account list before visiting the market is very important as well. This list can be used to insure you go the the “right” accounts and not waste the day driving around in a car taking orders for other companies wines.

    Great topic!!

    • Jeff: Couldn’t agree more. This was a lesson that I learned some time ago on one of my first work/withs as a rookie wine sales rep. Prior to Jack Cakebread coming to Orlando, I had to prepare a list of targeted on-premises accounts that we would visit during his trip, and communicate it for his approval. Cakebread Winery was in start-up mode, and Jack agreed with the Mel Dick strategy of building brands on-premise. Planning, Targeting, Executing. It worked then, and it works now. In fact it is a necessary part of any successful field brand management initiative.

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