“Whosoever desires constant success must change his conduct with the times.”
… Niccolo Machiavelli
My wife’s friend, New York based designer Joe Macal, told her that this summer in the Hamptons the wine selection on the party circuit is no longer the envy of the wine cognoscenti. The cult wines have been locked in the basement wine cellars of the McMansions, and the famous hosts just don’t think ostentatious displays of conspicuous consumption are cool in this economy. Or so opined a vintner friend over Racer 5‘s in Healdsburg last week . I’m guessing there has been a sort of a reverse Veblen good effect going on here. Well, no doubt the tide is out. Wall Street has sneezed, and it’s looking less like a cold and more like the financial flu. The question being asked in the hills and knolls of wine country is ‘are we in a luxury goods recess, or has long-term consumer, even the most affluent consumer, behavior been modified?’ The luxury category segment of the American wine business known as the cult wine market has been on an unprecedented run since 1990. While the term is new the concept isn’t. There have always been wines, as long as wines have been produced and sold, that commanded more attention and higher prices. Although we look at absolute pricing as an identifier of value, pricing is relative to the times, and through the inverted kink in the demand/pricing graph made famous by the late Dr Paul Samuelson in ‘Economics,’ and codified by John Forbes Nash in ‘Equlibrium,’ we’ve come to understand that the stratospheric pricing of cult wines infers on the host and guest the psycho-social attributes, as described by Berkeley’s Erving Goffman, of being accepted as members of the club. However, just ask Silas Lapham, membership in the club may not be long term.
Ringgggg, ringggggg, ringggggg. Sitting bolt up-right in my desk chair, looking past the glare of the iMac screen in the darkened room, I couldn’t believe that at 5 AM my iPhone was vibrating off the edge of my desk. Quickly shaking my head back-and-forth to loose the remnants of the mind numbing long night’s work of pushing out pricing structures for a client’s new label project, I answered my phone without first checking the caller-ID. At the sound of the click the sonorous voice at the other end of the connection jump started the conversation. “Hi, sorry to call you so early, but did you read today’s Wall Street Journal article on the luxury wine market? Well, it struck home. My sales, for the first time in 15 years aren’t so great, and well, I’d like to toss around a few ideas.”
“Not a problem, I’ve been up working on a project, but no, haven’t read any papers this morning. Ah, excuse me. Who is this?”
“I’m that small cult winery, ha, that you pitched last year about this time and I told you I didn’t need any help. But I just got off the phone with a management contact at my Boston asset management firm and, well, I need it now.” “I’ve replanted about half of my vineyard, changing the potential final blend, and the grapes are in 4th leaf. I could bottle the young juice in my primary brand, but the overall quality would be diminished. And if there was ever a time to push the quality envelop, it’s now.” “I’m thinking about introducing another label, in a more popular tier, something that could be sold in other environments, other channels. I’ve always been at the luxury end of the market, but I do buy other wines all the time, and think it would be great to get this new wine in more hands.” “So, how do I do this?”
Yes, it is possible for a luxury brand to execute a lower priced, more egalitarian brand strategy effectively. A clear focus is needed and a tier specific brand plan is necessary. There are key questions that need to be asked and answered.
- Theme – name, appearance, label, packaging
- Personality – place, product, pricing, promotion
- Tactical Plan – what, when, where, how, how much
- Reputation Engineering – the PR initiative
- Sales Effort – DTC, DTT, existing distributors?
A great team is in place, and to dislocate them for a new project just wouldn’t make any sense. They are part of the positive story for your existing brands and lend credence to the new project. You’re current cult and luxury portfolio is based on Napa Valley mountain grown Bordeaux proprietary reds. Protect the image of the existing luxury/cult brands by reducing production by further defining selection and maintaining real rarity. Use the traditional Bordelais classified growth second label model. Think Forts de Latour from Chateau Latour, Pavillion Rouge from Chateau Margaux, or Le Petite Cheval from Chateau Cheval Blanc. Share the story of replanting with new clones and the early quality displayed by the young vines, while refining the cult winemaking process. Increase exposure and the positive press and/or wine blog buzz opportunities by providing value and access to wines which were formerly unavailable in the broad market from your winery. In a market in which Michelin star chef Daniel Boulud has decided to focus more on value with DBGB Kitchen & Bar, the idea of a cult brand providing a more value centric model is not only timely, but most likely necessary given the reality of today’s world financial markets.
Creating any new brand in a rapidly consolidating and saturated broad market is not without risk. Manage your risk by utilizing research to target the best potential accounts. Work with key lighthouse accounts, both on and off-premises in limited geographic markets, who will provide support through newsletter, blog and/or web endorsements, while avoiding brand image diminishing discounting. Be sharp in your pricing to not only maximize profit but to achieve planned depletion velocity and consumer pick-up and repurchase. Your value proposition is leveraged on your existing reputation, built through hard work and a fidelity to your singular vision over the last 15-20 years. Don’t engage in any activity that will diminish the new brand or your existing brands. And, really only do this if you are totally committed to success, and not just as a short term liquidity fix.
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