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Branding: what can the wine trade learn

Published:  23 July, 2008

There may be nothing brand-new about brands, but brand news is still news. Harpers asked five leading figures in the industry for their views on what it could learn from other sectors. And with extensive experience in the beer, spirits and fast food sectors, they were all well qualified to say. The seminar was chaired by Tim Atkin, editorial director of Harpers, and featured (in the order in which they spoke) Allan Westray, managing director, International Wine Services; James Ryland, export director, Calvet; James Herrick, chairman, Wineprophet; Mario Micheli, president, Southcorp Europe; and David Williams, CEO, First Quench. The seminar was held as part of the London International Wine & Spirits Fair at Olympia on 23 May, in front of a full audience of 300 people.

A summary of the speeches follows:

Allan Westray

Addressing (as all the speakers were asked to do) the question of how brands should be defined, Allan Westray said that they are "different things to different people". To the industry, a brand can be a grape variety, country, region, chteau, domaine or vineyard, as well as a "true brand". Westray believes that "we shouldn't become totally obsessed with brands, but we can learn from the beer and spirits, fashion and toiletries industries". These sectors suggest that there are four prerequisites for success. First, the need to research and understand constantly changing markets, as Waverley has done with its comprehensive study of "Wine Consumers - Today and Tomorrow. Second, the ability to offer what consumers need rather than what the industry wants to offer: "For consumers seeking the comfort of a brand, let's make it easier and more enjoyable," he said. Third, the need to appeal to consumers' emotions. Brands are as much images as products, though "enjoyment can also come from product difference, so quality is still very important". And finally, the necessity for long-term commitment and investment, as a result of which it is essential to focus on a few key brands and specific target markets. Westray's conclusion was optimistic: "We'll go on learning, and we'll succeed if we simplify choice. Brands are needed today, and will help grow the wine category as the success of the New World has shown."

James Ryland

James Ryland adopted what he believed to be the classic definition of a brand: "a device, name or logo which can be recognised". Referring specifically to branding in Bordeaux, he said: "Brands do take some of the pain away, it's true." Ryland accepts that there is still much in the AOC system which is meaningful to consumers, but believes that the terms of reference are too broad. Good communication is crucial, and needs to be consistent, but it is equally important to maintain quality. Price promotions on brands will work only where the wine is worth the full price to begin with. As long as the quality is right, Ryland is convinced that, as in other sectors, consumers will pay for premium brands.

James Herrick

"To consumers," James Herrick asserted, "all wines are brands - they've all got labels, they all say something". Adopting a different stance from the other speakers, his answer to the central question of what the wine industry could learn from other sectors was "not much". And certainly not from sectors such as dog food, of which supermarkets might carry a few brands only. Herrick insisted that the wine industry "leads the world in international marketing", saying that no other industry offers such a diverse range of products at such a range of prices. Rather than borrow brand concepts from other sectors, Herrick believes that the industry needs to invent or re-invent other ways to sell wine. Just as Australians are now embracing more readily the concept of terroir, so those in the UK need to be more imaginative - opening shops which do not sell any wine over 5 per bottle or which sell only German Riesling. The most urgent need, however, is to expand "the shrinking world vocabulary of wine", which is all too often reduced to scores out of a hundred.

Mario Micheli

Brands, Mario Micheli suggested, offer "a guarantee, enhancement, identity, community, simplification and purpose". The closest parallel with brand development in wine is afforded, he believes, by the bottled water sector in the 1980s. Hagen-Dazs advertisements showed the way in which imaginative marketing could revive the fortunes not only of an individual brand, but of the category to which it belongs. Strong brands clearly make for a strong sector, and command a premium too. They have a heritage - a past, present and future - and account for more than half the value of many of the world's largest and most successful companies. Micheli's conclusion regarding brands in wine was that "it's now or never". Now is the time to invest in both brands and brand teams, to win the hearts as well as the minds of consumers.

David Williams

Avoiding the business school definitions with which he (as an MBA) is familiar, David Williams defined a brand as "something you recognise because you know what it is". His experience of the drinks and fast-food industries has made him a believer in simplifying things, which is the approach he brings to First Quench. He suggested that there are six aspects which "bring retail brands alive" - people, operations, property, offers, communication and investment. The single most important thing is to motivate people, but applying FMCG packaging and changing the product range can also radically transform fortunes. Following the rebranding of one branch of Victoria Wine as a Thresher, sales rose 60%. He said that consumers would decide the name for the specialist shops currently branded as Bottoms Up and Wine Rack, as he shares the view of other speakers that listening to consumers is crucial to the development of successful brands.