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  • Richard Hemming MW
Written by
  • Richard Hemming MW
9 Jan 2019

The marketing methods available to wine producers vary greatly, Richard discovers. 

Glass of champagne, sir or madam? Saying no sounds terribly miserly, especially on a date, which is precisely why waiters routinely offer it to couples when they first arrive at a restaurant. 

More subtly, in the same way that some grocery stores pump in the smell of freshly baked bread to stimulate the appetite and sell more loaves, the sound of a cork popping in a restaurant is also believed to trigger an uptick in champagne sales. 

So much for the hospitality industry and their dastardly ways of helping us have a good time. But how do wine producers persuade us to buy their specific bottles?

The answer varies greatly. Big brands use advertising and sponsorship deals in much the same way as market leaders in other categories. Dom Pérignon is currently saturating Instagram feeds with video adverts as part of its campaign in association with Lenny Kravitz, Australian producer Hardys has sponsored the England cricket team since 2014, while Black Tower targets music fans via partnerships with the Urban Music Awards and the Isle of Wight Festival.

Such examples are made possible only thanks to significant corporate cash. Penfolds apparently spend $1 million a year with their creative agency to come up with videos such as this.

For the other 99% of winemakers, however, million-dollar marketing budgets are but a distant pipe dream. Their marketing output is accordingly rather humbler, which has given the wine industry a reputation for being unimaginative and ineffective.

The default wine advert is a picture of a bottle (an analysis of 873 ads in American magazine Wine Spectator found that 86% used a bottle image), often in front of a vineyard backdrop, either accompanied by prolix tasting notes, boasts of medals won and scores awarded, or lofty claims about terroir. This tends to be the preferred format both online and in print.

The problem is that most wine bottles look remarkably alike, and the accompanying text is frequently vague or interchangeable. Here are three slogans from some randomly selected wine ads:

A reflection of good taste
Complex, layered, sourced from the premier Sonoma Coast appellation
Red wine for red nights

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None of those quotes says anything specific or especially memorable about the wine in question, and their efficacy in persuading us to buy their brand seems dubious – although Blue Nun was hugely successful in its day, of course. It's hardly the fault of smaller wine producers that their budgets can't stretch to flashy creative agencies. And anyway advertising is only one option in the marketing mix.

Other options are usually trade-focused, where the chance of reaching the consumer is decidedly more speculative, but is at least more affordable. Submitting samples to critics or competitions can result in useful accolades and scores that might get the attention of retailers or wine lovers – although there's no way to guarantee that, not least because the volume of producers doing the exact same thing means that it isn't easy to stand out. Furthermore, the credibility of some awards out there is akin to Bart Simpson's Everybody Gets A Trophy Day trophy.

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Then there are masterclasses, trade tastings, wine dinners, listing fees, price promotions, staff training sessions and press trips to pay for. Nowadays, one of the trendiest options is to pay social media influencers, as you can see by searching Twitter for the hashtags 'wine' and 'sponsored'. Yet another route is specially appointed 'brand ambassadors', including notably various Master Sommeliers, some of whom have a captive audience in the shape of the diners within their restaurants.

All such activity is undertaken by producers for one reason alone: to get their wine listed and sold. In some cases, the activity is barely disguised bribery: back in my Majestic Wine days, certain premium champagne brands would routinely give staff as much as £5 per bottle sold as a 'sales incentive'.

Morality aside, wine producers big and small are all aiming for the same thing: creating an emotional connection with their customers. They want loyal, regular drinkers who will ideally be advocates for their brand. Nobody said it was going to be easy. With so much competition in the world of wine, and so little budget available to most producers, persuading us to buy specific wines has never been harder.