A friend of mine was recently struggling with the concept of “branding” herself as a writer, which caused me to reflect on what it can mean in the wine industry, in an entirely different way than we normally explore the subject, even in an entirely different way than I have explored it before in my wine writing. Of course we’re all familiar with branding when it comes to actual wine brands like Yellow Tail, Château Lafite, Robert Mondavi, Jacob’s Creek and so on. Whether it is value, consistent quality, elite status, rare, pricey, pedigree or fun, each name is attached to an identifiable and carefully cultivated image.
And we’re familiar with the idea of branding from the start of a wine venture, so that a unique concept for a new wine label offers a consistent image poised to be identified with a vision. The vision carries the hope of branding into the future.
But when thinking about branding your fledgling enterprise or yourself, what should you explore to enable you to stand out from the crowd, and do it in a way that plays to your strengths, rather than struggle against your weaknesses?
I most often first encounter a client when they are very new to the wine business and often before they have any notion of how to begin. They may have various ideas of what they want to do – and they’re usually all doable within the framework of a wine business. But even when they conform to U.S. wine regulations, not all of them will work for that individual’s personality and temperament.
I had one client who, without any prior experience in the wine business, told me he and his wife decided to open a retail store, because they wanted to introduce many exceptional, but previously unknown wines from a particular country to the American consumer. It would include a wine bar so customers could taste through the featured wines and they would be located in a trendy neighborhood of their home city. They were so enthusiastic about wanting to bring these new wines in that they hadn’t stopped to consider many aspects of the business they were describing.
First and foremost, who was actually going to bring in the new wines? If they were the importers, they couldn’t be the retailers. If they were determined to bring this retail store to fruition, who would they find to bring in small quantities of unfamiliar, untested wines just so that they could sell them in their one fine wine store? It would be a logistical nightmare, unless there was a larger plan to distribute elsewhere, which was getting away from the retail store idea…
Secondly, what about their personalities? How did that figure into it? As we talked, I learned that both of these individuals were accustomed to high power jobs that took them all over the world in sales and marketing positions. They were burned out on their respective careers and had sufficient seed capital to start a new business, but had not thought further than their first bright idea. When I dug deeper, explaining that the reality of owning a retail store meant not only staying in one place, but actually being anchored to the store as the source of all their sales, marketing, customer service and relationships, they realized that this would drive them crazy; they needed to be playing in a much larger arena. As it turned out, they decided to become importers and distributors so that they could travel in a manageable way at their discretion, and each be responsible for discrete roles. They could still bring in the wines they loved and introduce their discoveries to a broader market, utilizing the sales and marketing skills they had honed in their previous careers. It was a far cry from their original idea, but suited their styles far better. As a result, they could “brand” themselves, in a sense, as the go-to for this particular region, enjoying applying the knowledge and experience in a way that was fun, and potentially profitable.
Many times, clients will have clear ideas of what they want to accomplish and it is on that basis that we approach the consulting. Sometimes though, clients will come to the initial call telling me about all the myriad things they want to take on in the wine business, without recognizing what each of these encompass and entails. At times like this I ask them to write out a hybrid mission statement/business plan. It doesn’t have to be a professional document, but it should be something that allows their thoughts to coalesce and reveal what they are looking for from the wine business and what matters to them most – such as level of income, domestic or international travel, types of relationships, work schedules, diversification of tasks, wine education, stability – and how they want to get there. And what sort of budget they had to make it all work. Small budgets don’t necessarily mean sticking to small dreams, but they should be predicated on realistic and more quickly realized goals. Those with large budgets still need to take into consideration how they see their future unfolding in the wine world, a first glimpse perhaps at branding themselves and their business.
So when the new wine entrepreneur carefully considers how they want to shape their wine career, if they look at traditional branding concepts such as identity, consistency, differentiation, quality, uniqueness and a story within the framework of their personality and preferred style, the potential for a successful career begins on more solid footing.