More insipid winery ads

Just received the May issue of Food & Wine and this time there are 18 full-page ads devoted to wine. Eighteen. Must be an all-time high.

Six of the advertisers who appeared in the last issue I reviewed (November) are here again, three of them with new creative. And while the overall quality is low, there is more to like beyond the mouth-watering La Crema ad we saw earlier.

I am deeply intrigued by Chateau Ste Michelle’s concept. 2nd row, 3rd from right In it, we get a bird’s-eye view of large, well-appointed and well-used kitchen with the headline “This is my chateau.” The line is a clever play on the brand name. But it’s also much more. The line is meant to be a quote from one of the winery’s (actual?) Club members, who extends this warm invitation:
“In my house, your hands are always needed in the kitchen. And your glass can always use topping off.”
It’s a terrific sentiment, expressed without any of the off-putting faux lifestyle cues. The photo walks the talk. In fact, the whole ad is extremely well art directed. The obligatory bottle shot does double-duty as the ad’s logo. And the headline is boxed with cut corners to match the label. So many nice design touches. Best of all, this concept is eminently campaign-able. You could have any number of Club members in any number of settings expressing a side of themselves that reflects the brand. Bravo. While this is a superior effort for the wine category, it is a technique we’ve seen before. So if I were the agency, I wouldn’t be holding my breath for a One Show pencil.

Now let’s pause to make fun of, er, consider some of the others. Yeah, I’m talking to you, Beringer. You’ve been running the “paper sculpture” campaign for quite some time, always with the same lame line: “How to get to Napa Valley.” Well guess what? Apparently you don’t need directions because Napa Cellars tell us we’re already there: “Welcome to Napa.” So now we have two wineries with the same (non)message. Brilliant.

Rodney Strong, which last time gave us a lecture on the virtues of character, now shares this pearl: “Place Matters.” Gee, thanks Rodney. But we already heard that from Frei Brothers (“Because Terroir Matters”).

Another long-running turd is Ravenswood’s ad, which admonishes us to “Forget last night’s wine. You probably already did.” You can chalk this line up to the winery’s “tireless campaign against priggish elitism” (their words). They’re trying to be all populist and edgy but it falls flat. It’s a shame, really, because there are so many ways to take their positioning -- “No Wimpy Wines” -- and really SAY something. A forgettable ad for a wine that wants people to know how expressive and memorable it is. D’oh!

All right, let’s take a look at the only other interesting ad in this issue: Sterling’s $1.00 off promotion. I love offers. Everyone loves offers. Why producers don’t make them more often, I do not know. Especially in the wine business, which is all about trial. Anyway, that’s what this add attempts to do: get you to try the wine. Right above the offer it says, “Taste for yourself.” Simple enough. But, oh, it could have been so much more. There is no reason a winery (or any client) has to separate a direct response offer from a brand message. Unfortunately, Sterling’s brand message is the indefensible self-serving drivel, “Impeccable Taste.” Sterling is clearly at a loss for words. In fact, if you go to their blog, you’ll find just one entry, a welcome note from last November. Excellent job, guys. Or should I say, sterling job?


The sorry state of wine advertising

By my count, there are 13 full-page ads in the Thanksgiving issue of Food & Wine. Nearly all are for labels owned by the big conglomerates (Beringer~Fosters; Ravenswood~Franciscan; La Crema~Jackson Family; Mondavi~Constellation; Frei~Gallo; Columbia Crest~Ste. Michelle; Hogue~Vincor; etc.) Given that a page in Food & Wine costs $75,000 for a single insertion, they’re probably the only ones who can afford it.

For that kind of dough, you’d think they’d put a little more thought into the communication. Nope. With one exception, all of these ads are a bust creatively.

This is doubly strange, given that the Thanksgiving issue of F&W is arguably their most important. It’s a fair bet that pretty much everyone who subscribes will be cooking on that day. For a foodie, it’s a lot of pressure getting everything just so. You’d think wine producers might address this. Turns out they’d rather just talk to themselves.

I could dish all the bad ads here. But maybe the better course is to point out what makes the one good ad so much better than the rest.

I’m talking about the La Crema ad, of course (it’s just beneath the magazine cover). The headline says, “Everything the name implies.” A line that drives you back to the label and simultaneously underscores the brand name – with its connotation of sweet cream – and the varietal – the ripe-cherry quality of pinot noir.

This ad has appetite appeal equal to or better than the editorial in the magazine. The ad practically drips off the page. Credit understated art direction, gimmick-free photography and hands-off food styling.

But ultimately, the credit belongs to the client (and the agency) who committed to a single-minded message and avoided the temptation to say more than is necessary. How easy would it have been to add a line about Price or Availability? Or worse, about the producer’s heritage, vineyard holdings, or winemaker?

Do I even need to mention that this is the only ad (beside the KJ “issue” ad) that DOESN’T have a bottle shot??

The value in examining all of these ads at once is seeing how frighteningly similar they are. Realizing that the very purpose of advertising -- nay, all branding – is differentiation, the level of incompetence is astounding.


A word about numbers

In nearly all of the criticisms of wine scores that I’ve encountered over the years, I find that people try to read more meaning into them than perhaps they deserve.

Some wonder, Are scores adjusted for price? Generally speaking, no. Others ask if the producer’s reputation is considered. Again, no. Still others speculate why they’ve never seen a 100-point Beaujolais. Are scores varietal-biased? Nope, some varietals, enjoyable though they may be, simply don’t offer the complexity of, say, a Premier Cru Burgundy.

Underlying all these concerns is the belief that apples-to-apples comparisons can never -- and should never -- be made. As if, somehow, wines were above that. What then is the purpose of wine competitions if wines cannot be compared?

Rather than put too fine a point on the business of scores – and it is a business – a more serviceable approach may be this:

In other words, you can make all kinds of arguments for what a score means/implies/accounts for, but in the end, it’s simply a number that accompanies the wine, much like the price that (supposedly) reflects it.

Let’s put scores back into context for a moment. The reason why critics put scores in their reviews is because they believe (rightly) that people need them.

While it is true that numbers without commentary are arbitrary and of little real value to consumers, it is also true that most people, when presented with a paragraph of tasting notes AND a score, are going to look at the score first and then decide if the review is worth reading. Would you bother reading a review of a wine with a dreadful score? Didn’t think so.

Conversely, a high score on an unfamiliar label/varietal/appellation might intrigue a reader enough to spend time with the actual review. In this instance, (high) scores have the effect of broadening a drinker’s horizons, instead of narrowing them as the naysayers fear.

In the end, we need scores, we need critics, we need to make comparisons between wines because there is an overwhelming amount of choice. And with almost no meaningful advertising coming from producers as to what distinguishes their wines (other than scores), there is simply nowhere else to turn. (Please, don’t get me started on the recommendations of retailers. Their interests are as conflicted as the publisher who reviews the wines of its advertisers.)

As for wine producers taking control of their message and having their brand stand for something, well, that’s what I do for a living. Operators are standing by . . .


Tag, you're it

In the most recent Dining In/Out section of the NY Times was an ad for Dominus, the Napa Valley winery owned by Christian Moueix of Pétrus-fame. What struck me -- besides the fact that they were even advertising -- was the tagline: "Napa terroir, Bordeaux spirit."

It seemed, mmm, a bit too familiar. In fact, it seemed to be almost a parody of another American outpost of a French brand, Domain Drouhin. Their slogan is: "Oregon soil, French soul." I filed this away in my memory-bank because it's an excellent poisitioning line, one that articulates the winery's focus, approach and authenticity, all in four simple words. Brilliant.

Domain Drouhin's tagline is a model of positioning that every winery should strive to emulate. I know it has served me as a benchmark for the branding work that I do.

For example, one of my clients, Renteria Wines, sources
its grapes from vineyards managed by Renteria Vineyard Management, which has some 1,350 acres of vines under its care. This is far more than all but the very largest vintners could ever dream of owning. Unlike an estate winery, the Renterias aren't limited to what grows on their property. And because they farm the grapes, they can control the quality, block by block.

Having a vineyard management company and a boutique winery under one roof offers considerable advantages. Advantages that I tried to capture with the positioning line: "The benefits of an estate winery without the boundaries of an estate."

There is more to the story though. Unlike so many who arrive in Napa with millions to spare, Salvador Renteria, the family patriarch, began as a vineyard worker. His Horatio Alger-like rise now has him retired and living in the hills above the Silverado golf course, while his son, Oscar, runs the company. Clearly, this is a family with big dreams and even bigger achievements.

Thinking about the Renteria family story, combined with the Renteria Winery positioning, lead me to the tagline: "No boundaries." Seems so simple, doesn't it? Of course, it's not, which explains why more wineries aren't able to carve out a position of their own. Did I mention that I do this for a living . . . ?


To be sold is to be liked

I came across an article in Food & Wine in which Lettie Teague follows three different distributors on their sales calls. One line in particular caught my eye, spoken as it was by the most accomplished salesperson:

"I'm in the business of selling personalities. I represent winemakers, not just their wines. If I don't like someone, I can't sell their wines."

Parsing this nugget, three things are clear to me: 1) Winemakes are expected to provide their wines with personality. That is, it's not just what's in the glass, as winemakers are fond of saying. 2) Not every winemaker has a winning personality. Hell, most don't even have a compelling story. 3)
No personality, no sale.

If what I just said is something that every winemaker already knows, then why do I always get funny looks when I tell them they need spend more time articulating their brand? Why when it's the exact same thing?

Maybe if they understood how -- without a compelling story, without a brand -- it's nearly impossible for all the other folks who sell their wine (brokers, distributors, retailers and waiters) to do their job. With no symbollic attributes -- that is, pretty much anything you can attach to a wine (literally or figuratively) -- there is
no point of differentiation, no meaning, no feeling.

Very few wines have value propositions that they can reliably sell on. A high score. A low price. A desirable provenance. A celebrated winemaker. Since most wine marketers can't think beyond these attributes, they cling to them, saying things that are either untrue or unimportant. And in either case, saying things that are undifferientiated.

This is no way to sell.

Mass customization the M&Ms way

Okay, maybe I've been living under a rock but since when did Mars start offering custom printed M&Ms? I discovered this news in a very smart (if ugly) ad that also had an offer for a free bag along with a special promotional code for tracking purposes. Brilliant. Textbook. I'm crazy-jealous. And of course I'm looking for any opportunity to buy some.

That was Tuesday. On Wednesday I received an email from Room & Board with the subject line: Furniture Designed By You, Built By Us. Basically, you get to mix-and-match fabrics and finishes and whatnot to get the features and look you want. Chairs, tables, cabinets -- whatever -- they can customize it.

This, of course, just feeds my frustration with wineries, all of which are inflexible and hidebound when it comes to custom(er) service. Just think about how rigid their wine clubs are. You want the good stuff? You going to have to take some of the not-so-good stuff. Your want three whites and one red? Sorry, this quarter's shipment is all red. You know how it goes. Can you imagine a winery ever attempting something as customer-centric as Mars or R&B??

I can.

Hey, did I mention that, in addition to the message, you also get to choose what color M&Ms you want?!


QPR wine club

The other day I was reacquainted with the California Wine Club, a cataloger of artisan California wines. While most of their inventory is, um, underwhelming, they do fill an important niche in wine marketing, one that I would like to emulate.

For my catalog I'd put together an evolving list of affordable wines from . . . wherever . . . and market them to adventurous, value-minded consumers without all the tired cliches and filler one typically sees in direct-to-consumer efforts.

Turns out, the concept for this venture has been right under my nose for years: QPRwines.

My friend Neil Monnens publishes a wine buying guide that groups wines by their rating, lists them by price, and then ranks them by value. The ranking is effectively the wine's "quality-to-price ratio." Hence QPR.

We've seen "bang for the buck" wines before but, until Neil wrapped his spreadsheet around it, nobody had ever pursued such a rigorous and wide-ranging analysis. Each issue (he puts out 18 a year) profiles a different varital, with all the recent vintages included.

So, for example, you might see an issue devoted to West Coast Pinot Noirs with all the 90-point wines grouped together, each one listed in ascending order of price. (The point score is an average of at least three major critic's -- you know who they are -- and the price is the lowest retail price he finds at wine-searcher.) From this list of 90-point Pinots, Neil find the average price, homing in on those that cost less than half.

These are the Value wines. The very same wines I would want in my catalog. Hell, the same wines I would want in my cellar.

The catalog would let people choose whatever varietals interest them for quarterly or bi-monthly shipments of high QPR wines. If each shipment had two wines, ideally one would be under $20, the other under, say $50. Naturally, a free subscritpion would be included.

I can't wait to see what Neil thinks . . .


The job of the critic

The other day in The New York Times I came across this article by A.O. Scott. Noting that "Pirates of the Caribbean" grossed $130-odd million its first weekend, despite negative reviews, he limns the discrepancy between what critics think and how the public behaves, as well as some basic questions about taste, economics and the nature of popular entertainment.

I couldn't help but want to relate it to wine. Here's what hooked me:
"The modern blockbuster ... can be seen as the fulfillment of the democratic ideal the movies were born to fulfill. To stand outside that happy communal experience and, worse, to regard it with skepticism or with scorn, is to be a crank, a malcontent, a snob. So we [critics] are damned if we don’t. And sometimes, also, if we do. When our breathless praise garlands advertisements for movies the public greets with a shrug, we look like suckers or shills. But these accusations would stick only if the job of the critic were to reflect, predict or influence the public taste."
You mean, it isn't?? Not according to O.A.
"[It's] the job of the Hollywood studios, in particular of their marketing and publicity departments, and it is the professional duty of critics to be out of touch with — to be independent of — their concerns. These companies spend tens of millions of dollars to persuade you that the opening of a movie is a public event, a cultural experience you will want to be part of. The campaign of persuasion starts weeks or months — or, in the case of multisequel cash cows, years — before the tickets go on sale, with the goal of making their purchase a foregone conclusion by the time the first reviews appear."
Granted, wineries don't have tens of millions of dollars to spend on "persuasion" -- not even tens of thousands -- but shouldn't they share the same goal of making your purchase decision one that is independent of reviews, scores and medals?

Of course they should. But how . . . ?


Too many labels, too few brands

One of the things that never fails to get my goat is when I hear people in the wine trade use the word “brand” when really all they’re talking about is a label. The two are not interchangeable.

A brand is the invisible layer of meaning that surrounds a wine. A label is merely the most visible manifestation of it.

The distinction is worth making. But first, two important points:
  1. As of November 2006, there were some 5,970 wineries in the US. A lot of people are making wine.
  2. Of the 78,252 wines listed in the database, 36 percent have scores of 90 or above. A lot of people are making excellent wine.
If you’re a producer looking to make money and not just wine, these numbers should be all the motivation you need to actively engage in building your brand.

That’s because, no matter how much time and money you spend improving your wine, there will still be hundreds of wines better than yours. And that’s if you succeed in making better wine. If you don’t, then you’ve placed the success of your business in the hands of critics. I can’t imagine any entrepreneur would want that.

“Better” is not the point; “different” is.
"I think as the market gets more
crowded, we look for things that
are different."
-- James Laube of Wine Spectator from Wines & Vines
article on what top editors think makes for a good story

Creating differences between your wine and everyone else’s’ in the consumers’ mind is what building a brand is all about. And while this doesn’t happen independent of your product, neither is it just about what’s inside the bottle.

Marty Neumeier offers one of the best definitions of the process:
“A brand is a person’s gut feeling about a product, service, or company… Each person creates his or her own version of it. While companies can’t control this process, they can influence it by communicating the qualities that make this product different than that product. When enough individuals arrive at the same gut feeling, a company can be said to have a brand."
As consumers, we know this to be true. A moment’s reflection on any of our favorite brands proves it. My feelings about the Audi I drive are a function of a) the car itself, my experience of its design and performance, b) my values and how the car expresses them, c) what my friends think d) what “tribe” owning an Audi puts me in e) Audi marketing, f) car magazines, and so forth.

The point is, businesses that get branding discourse in differences. Business that don’t, preach platitudes. So what’s different about your brand?