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.
RANDY AGNESS said:
I have looked at branding in another way. Put in the bottle what is on the label. So much wine is cut, blended, or topped with lesser quality wines. There are many TTB rules for wine labels allowing 85% of varietal and 85% from the AVA and lower percentages for other non-vinifera grapes.
Also, I don’t believe that wine should be able to be sold below the cost of manufacturing … that is called dumping. So all the Yellow Tails, Barefoot and Monkey Bay wines should be treated to government tariffs for such practices. It was not surprising me to that when brought into the storage warehouses of larger wine distributors that pallets of cases remain stretch wrapped waiting to be discounted to a price below the cost of the bottle, cork, capsule, label and contents.
Hi Randy, thanks for reading my post and commenting. I can’t disagree with you, but I was really talking about a variation on actual branding, where someone new to the wine business – more along the lines of importing, distributing or some form of retail – might be able to visualize an identity for their new enterprise in a way that fits their personal style.
Barry Gilbert said:
Deborah, maybe (probably) my understanding of permitting is shaky, but why do you say if they are importers they can’t be retailers. Can’t they have both a 9 & a 20? I thought tied house didn’t apply to wine-only.
Barry, you are referring to California ABC, whereas the case study I used as an example was in a different state and I was trying to be general in the post, since this is presumably read by people in various states. Even in California, the 20 cannot be paired only with a 9, since the 9 needs a master license. It gets so very confusing! But thanks for commenting. It’s always nice to know when people are reading.
Jan O'Hara (Tartitude) said:
This makes so much sense to me, because even if one were to latch onto a successful business concept, the reality of its execution might differ drastically from the dream. This is one reason why I’ve fought for my kids to job shadow in their future careers wherever possible.
I’m certain your clients benefit from your holistic approach.
Thanks so much, Jan, for your insight. I know it’s quite different from the type of branding you were struggling with, but it provided the catalyst for me to write about something that means a lot to me as I advise my clients. Just as you want your kids to understand the true nature of a field that appears intriguing to them, I feel that my duty to my clients is to encourage them to view their options in, as you say, a holistic way.
Cal Young said:
Deborah, I apologize for how tangential to this discussion this is, but what brand of wine is featured in the picture with this post? My wife asked me to look for the “Red Wine” varietal from this winery but I can’t determine what the name of the winery is from the picture of the front of the label she sent me. Any help would be appreciated.
No worries. I had to look it up too. It’s Force of Nature. Great labels and very good wine, from what I recall.
Cal Young said:
Thanks, Deborah. That’s the one.