The sound of rain, and just not the sound of rain falling, but the sound of people talking about the rain at the end of what had may just have been the perfect vintage, seemed to divert attention away from the economy, at least for the time being. While the rain, and all the wine country conversations that the rain started, provided a welcome relief from the constant drone that it’s hard out there. It’s really not the time to take your eye off the ball and to forget the market challenges inherent since the onset of the ‘Great Recession.’ For each winery and each winegrower or vineyard owner there’s an unique story. The folks on the flats in mid-Napa Valley likely had a different take on this year’s growing season weather than the folks in Calistoga, Carneros, the Vaca or Mayacamas ranges, or in Western Sonoma County, Mendocino, the Willamette Valley, Walla Walla or in Santa Barbara. While each unique story suggest a similar outcome, this is a vintage that will unfold over the next several years. Perhaps the critics will pronounce estimates of Vintage of the Century or speculate that the rain has dashed all hopes for a positive result. Perhaps I lack the prescience or the hubris to judge the future of an entire vintage during harvest and crush, but I do have an understanding that a vintage is the sum of the individual experiences of each participant. And, I have an understanding that it’s in the telling of your story that will connect you to your customers.
In this brave new world of permission marketing, and in this time of growing consumer detachment and cynicism driven by the perceived systemic failure of our financial and governmental institutions, a review of your traditional marketing message methods has been necessitated, even as the mixed message on the state of the economy is being delivered by traditional mass media. A mention of the names Paulson, Geithner, and AIG tend to initiate a gag reflex in even the most jaded observer. However, today the Dow Jones Market Index reached a 12 month high and once again climbed above 10,000, in part driven by reports that Goldman Sachs made record profits in Q3. Also noted as a sign that the climb from the bottom is underway are stories in Ad Age Talent Works that Google is Hiring again; and The New York Times reporting that Apple profits are up 47% on Strong Mac Sales. The story on the state of the wine business is even more mixed. Like the citizens of the Naked City, each wine business has its own story, some up by 10%, some flat, and some down 30%. Many wineries are going through an extended period of stress. Vic Motto, Co-Founder, Chaiman and CEO of Global Wine Partners, a St Helena, CA wine industry iBank recognizes the industry wide stress; but, doesn’t see a significant long term dislocation in wine consumer’s buying behavior. Having heard the sea change story before, most recently with the prediction that Two Buck Chuck would drive consumers permanently away from luxury wines. Didn’t happen. It’s Mr Motto analysis that the American wine consumer is ‘aspirational’ and that wine is and will be viewed as an ‘affordable luxury.’ I’m also in the camp that believes wineries that survive this very tough period will likely, at some point, see a return to the pre-recessionary trends in buying patterns. In an October 15th Associated Press interview, Safeway CEO, Steve Burd sees signs of the turnaround in an uptick in the coffee sales mix and a move back to growth in the premium wines segment.
Technology has provisioned wine industry CMOs with a whole new marketing tool kit. Technology is a tool to be used and appreciated, but not one to be viewed as the long hoped for silver bullet. How we now communicate with our customers has dramatically changed with the development of the web, email, texting, blogs, video, Facebook and Twitter. And in this new paradigm there are three words that have become the mantra of this new technological world in which we all now communicate our stories: transparency, authenticity, credibility. I’d like to add one word, human. This commonsense point was first made in ‘The Cluetrain Manifesto,’ by Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls and David Wineberger, first online in 1999 then in print in 2001, Copyright © by Basic Books. BTW: a 10th Anniversary edition of this must read biz book is now available. While the 10 year timeframe has dated some of the jargon, the core concepts of the treatise remain, especially those listed in the seminal 95 THESES:
- Markets are conversations
- Markets consist of human beings, not demographic sectors
- Conversations among human beings sound human. They are conducted in a human voice.
- Whether delivering information, opinions, perspectives, dissenting arguments or humorous asides, the human voice is typically open, natural, uncontrived
- People recognize each other as such from the sound of this voice
The first five points in the “Cluetrain’ 95 THESES are a construct that is now an unavoidable communications directive for your consumer facing business. People grow your grapes. People make your wine. People sell your wine, and people buy your wine. Your story, while sharing traits with almost all others in wine’s corner of the CPG market, is unique to your circumstances.
The Case Study
It was harvest time in the fall of 1994. Mike Benziger came out of the winery office to check on the grapes to judge when to start picking on the Family’s Estate Vineyard, located in a collapsed caldera on the Sonoma Valley side of the old dormant Sonoma Mountain volcano. Times were good. The vineyard was always busy from the days of the Glen Ellen Winery start-up through the launch of the premium value tiered Benziger Family Winery. Wines that always over delivered. Mike should have been smiling, but instead he looked troubled. He cocked his head as he stood on the edge of the vineyard, puzzled that he heard nothing. Nothing at all. Just up the hill at his home in Jack London State Park, he remembered hearing birds chirping madly as the sun broke through the morning fog. But as he looked down the neatly groomed rows of vines, he noticed that there wasn’t a wild flower, a weed or a blade of grass on the bare dirt underneath the vines. As he walked the rows, Mike noticed that there were no bugs on the vines or flying through the air, no dragonflies, no butterflies. Stopping and reflecting he knew what was bothering him, the vineyard was no longer a living space. Mike thought a moment and considered his options. He knew that this wasn’t the way things should be. At that moment in time he vowed to change the way things had been done, to change the conventional wisdom of how things had always been done. This ancient bowl had supported life for millions of years, and in just a decade of intensive modern farming that had all changed. But, it wasn’t working any longer, and the Benziger farming practices needed to revert to the old ways, to the ways defined by closed system agriculture. Benziger Vineyards needed significant cultural change to recreate a new living farm. And change they did, after 3 years of concentrated study, a sustainable, biodynamic vineyard started to take shape. The first step was to establish biodiversity. So island gardens were established within the vineyard space to help support beneficial insects; and between every 10th vine row a bed of host plants and flowers were seeded to support a vineyard population of the good guys. Sheep and cows were introduced as natural lawn mowers, with their waste the base of a closed system compost program, so that no chemical fertilizers would ever be needed or would ever be used. Land that was dead just ten years ago was, in less than a decade, now a classic biodynamic closed system living farm. Earth, nature and man came together in a special place that happens to be in my backyard, just north of the town of Sonoma.
On Saturday, October 3, 2009 I had the opportunity, along with a group of wine blogger colleagues, to hit the Benziger Biodynamic Trail at the Benziger Family Winery on Jack London Ranch Rd, just up the hill from the village of Glen Ellen. Our tour group had the opportunity to interface with Mike Benziger, Kathy Benziger Threkeld, Colby Eirman, Director of Gardens, and Winemaker, Rodrigo Sotto. The passion in the delivery, even from the well practiced folks at Benziger, was impressive, especially in close quarters over 3 hours. This was a one-on-one conversation and the telling of the story, starting with that moment of enlightenment in 1994. There wasn’t any ducking questions in the active exchange of ideas. We weren’t being sold on a story. We were being invited into an experience. This was a conversation between humans. A few points really stuck with me. The first was that ‘the wines weren’t necessarily better, but that they were different.’ That they reflected this place. The second point that hit a nerve with me was that ‘each year the wine was a time stamp of the vintage.’ Not once were scores mentioned as a descriptor of any of the Benziger grown and produced wines that we tasted that day, although the Rodrigo Sotto’s wines have gotten rave reviews and scores in the traditional wine press. My take away from the day with the Benziger Family and team members was one of transparency, authenticity, and credibility. A team that understood that their plan, in a world now dominated by pull marketing, was that by communicating in this human voice missionaries were created, replicating the message and influencing friends.
The grandchildren of the founder of Park Benziger & Company, and the children of the founder of Glen Ellen Winery, Bruno Benziger are well versed in the finer points of wine marketing. But, change must be in their DNA. First selling Glen Ellen, then converting a 200,000+ value brand to a slightly more than 110,000 case sustainable, biodynamic super-premium/luxury brand, while changing their farming practice as stewards of the land. In a time of declining circulation numbers and disappearing newspapers, an effort has been made to maintain contacts with the traditional press, in both the wine and consumer lifestyle focused print media arenas. The Benziger marketing team has fully embraced new media, including Twitter, and wine bloggers. Benziger POS is also available as an online deliverable, further enhancing the green story, while insuring the timely delivery of product sheets, neckers, sell sheets and cut case cards on an as needed by market basis. If you go to the Trade/Media section of the Benziger web site, you can download the Chris Benziger narrated video sales presentation which is a masters class in wine brand marketing. And, if you ever find yourself near Glen Ellen, stop-in and take the tour. As a small family wine marketer, you need to identify and mirror the success stories. The Benzigers have successfully differentiated their wine brands in this difficult, brand saturated market. And, by the way, their wines just aren’t different, the Benziger wines exhibit a specific point of view and IMHO are damn good.
The Benziger family and team recognized that their best path to the market was through their authentic story told in a human voice to groups of consumers, members of the trade, and to traditional and new media writers. A story that has been replicated to the point that in 2008 almost 175 million media impressions were created. Even though the Benzigers produce in their Demeter Certified Winery 1.32 million bottles of wine, the consumer impressions and strong word of mouth campaign along with a vibrant visitor center program help to create demand beyond the produced supply. Through their objective mastery of pull marketing tactics, tactics based on an authentic and credible story, the Benzigers have been able to not only create an awareness envied by any enterprise wineco, but a model for any family wine business. The question that now begs to be answered: what’s your story and what are your winery’s marketing plans to maximize brand awareness and sales in what continues, even as the turnaround starts, to be a challenging marketplace?
Note: Copyright © 2009 Think Wine Marketing® All rights reserved.