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Published:  23 July, 2008

Two years ago I visited several wineries in Romania all making wines that, in terms of quality and value, could hold their own with what is on UK wine shelves, at least up to the 10 mark. I was able to express enthusiasm about the wines, but my heart sank when, as inevitably happens when visiting a region not well established in the UK, I was asked about how they might prosper in the UK.

Romania might be an exciting destination for adventurers and armchair travellers, and its wines may be full of potential, but it is unlikely to evoke enough in the mind of the UK consumer to support more than the handful of wines already represented here, especially as it does not have a generic body looking after its interests in Britain.

London's International Wine and Spirits Fair is a reminder to the wine-enthusiast equivalents of armchair travellers (those with adventurous palates) of the realities of the UK marketplace.

What must it be like for the smaller countries or regions trying to break in? Often on the sidelines of ExCeL's halls, proffering poorly translated press packs and gaudy logos, they observe the success of countries that have established themselves with prime positions and glamorous, colourful generic presences.

On the one hand you want to make sure that they have been made aware of just how tough it is to make it in the UK without generic representation and, even if they do have a body representing their interests, how tough it is to build a prosperous generic campaign.

On the other hand there have been so many successes - Chile and New Zealand, for example - that you want to be encouraging, telling them to proceed with caution and study the examples of existing generic campaigns.

The case studies that appear on these pages highlight some of the individual issues faced by various national and regional generic bodies.

Nonetheless, there is consensus that any country embarking on its own campaign should observe some basic rules: do your research and know the hard facts of the UK market; define what you are offering; and develop an understanding of where your offer realistically fits in to the UK market.

These might seem like obvious prescriptions, but most in the UK trade know of many campaigns that have crashed and burned in the UK wine scene - often after spending a lot of money - because so much energy has been spent on internal politics and not enough on creating a promotional vehicle with true forward momentum.

UK challenge

All markets present their different challenges,' says Michael Cox, director of Wines of Chile, one of the most successful UK generic campaigns.

All have unique characteristics and market dynamics often complicated by historical traditions and consumer habits that die hard.'

But he acknowledges that the UK does present distinct challenges', namely:

it is one of the world's most competitive

wines from practically all producing nations compete for shelf space

wine is taxed at a very high rate

there is consolidation and polarisation at point of sale, especially in the retail sector but increasingly in the pub and bar sector as well

a growing culture of deep discounting has been allowed to develop, which creates false value perceptions in many consumers' minds

the UK is an increasingly brand-oriented market - both a strength and a weakness.

Of course there are the positive things about the UK which make it so enticing a market, one in which many generic campaigns choose to allocate much of their budgets.

Cox cites the doubling of wine consumption in the past 10 years to 28 litres per head per annum, and the fact that wine has replaced beer as the most popular alcoholic beverage.

He is adamant, however, that generic campaigns must do their homework. The UK is not a market for the faint-hearted,' he says. Knowledge is power, and better corporate decisions are made when field information is good.'

Number crunching

Statistical research is a good means of initially narrowing the field. Kevan Mulcahey, director of TNS AlcoVision at the UK office of international market research agency TNS, gave Harpers an idea of what TNS's consumer surveys say about consumer drinking and shopping behaviour in Great Britain in the drinks sector.

Compared to other fmcg markets, the biggest challenge to any wine-related business operating within the UK is the poor levels of consumer brand recall. Almost half of all wine drinkers don't know any details on the brand of wine they drink, and a quarter don't even know which country the wine is from,' says Mulcahey.

They are even less likely to know the country, type or brand of wine they drink in the on-trade compared to the off-trade.'

Not information for the faint-hearted, but Cox cautions not to let statistics take on too much importance.

Like the drunk and the lamppost, it is important to realise that statistics are for illumination, not for support,' he says.

Nielsen data [which Wines of Chile uses] has its uses but it never tells the whole story.' Sophie Waggett of Wines of South Africa, who also emphasises the importance of research in building a generic campaign, goes further.

AC Nielsen has been the most disappointing supplier for us due to the accuracy, or rather inaccuracy, of the data received,' she says. AC Nielsen were approached on this point but did not reply.

Surveying the scene

While statistics can provide a general map of the UK wine scene, generics wanting to prepare a campaign need a more detailed plan of attack.

A way to obtain more detailed field intelligence is to approach a specialist, and Brian Howard of Wine Intelligence is a good place to start.

The company has several generic clients of various sizes, both country and regional. It offers a service called Consumer Access, a wine industry consumer insights service' that can be tailored to a would-be generic body's exact requirements, revealing the perceptions of a representative sampling of the 23 million people whom Wine Intelligence reckons to be regular (once-a-month) wine drinkers.

Howard explains that Consumer Access is an omnibus-style' survey concentrating solely on wine. In addition to a series of standard base-pack' questions, clients can add individual questions relevant to their campaign. Questions can include, "What do I need to do to improve my country position in the UK market?",' says Howard, adding that the level of detail received can make for the need to get quite forensic'.

One particularly useful result for a generic campaign is that the survey can identify the triallists' from the loyalists' - those who are prepared to try a country's or a region's wines compared to those who are regular consumers of it. In some cases it can also reveal very pointed truths.

A recent client, a European region known for producing distinctive, often premium wines that would certainly be known to wine enthusiasts, approached Wine Intelligence to see how the wine's name registered in the UK. Only 8% of respondents recognised the name, and only 1.5% said that they had bought the wine in question.

Again, such figures are not for the faint-hearted, but with questions starting at a few hundred pounds (350 buys you Have you heard of the Sonoma wine region? Yes/No'), they can save tens of thousands in misguided promotion.

Reaping rewards

Firebird Legend, a wine made in Moldova by acclaimed winemaking team Cellarworld for HBJ (three Firebird Legend wines are listed in Waitrose: Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Grigio and Merlot Ros all priced 4.99), benefited from research by Wine Intelligence about consumer perceptions towards Moldova.

Belinda Stone, marketing manager at HBJ, said the research showed that awareness and knowledge of Moldova is non-existent or minimal at best, but there is goodwill to learning about the country and its wine culture.

Potential purchasers want to know where Moldova is, how long wine has been cultivated there, what the climate and terrain are like and how this benefits wine growing, what the vineyards are like and where the wine comes from, and information on the Vulcanesti region.'

She said it shows that several respondents assumed that Moldova must have well-established and ancient winemaking traditions and history that they simply have not been aware of'.

Stone concedes that the fact so few people can locate Moldova on a map can hinder at the point of sale'. For those interested in trying something new, the story behind Moldovan wine and its history can help,' she says.

But, for those people who are confident with wines from countries they are familiar with, then the sale is created from the strong branding that Firebird Legend has, which in turn creates brand recognition and subsequent brand loyalty.'

While there is no question that research helped HBJ work consumer perceptions towards Moldova into Firebird, the brand owes its success largely to HBJ's and Cellarworld's expert knowledge of what UK consumers want rather than to HBJ's de facto creation of a Moldovan generic campaign.

Whether would-be generics interpret the story as an example of how a country can establish a colourful generic profile overnight or of a UK success story that has a foreign theme tune depends on their confidence.

The consumer is always right

One thing is clear: complacency in generic campaigns is a killer (witness how France has suffered under the impact of New World wines). Complacency in making assumptions about the UK consumer is also dangerous.

I am always surprised - always humbled - by what I see,' says Howard. Sitting in a focus group, I learn something new every time.' He believes there is untapped information in consumers that can be teased out with the right questions.

This prompted me to some consumer research of my own, and I asked a few of the generic bodies I interviewed about who their ideal consumer was.

John McLaren, UK director of the Wine Institute of California, provided a definition that, with only the slightest substitutions, would probably more than satisfy most generic bodies.

The ideal consumer is one who is interested in, but not obsessed about, wine; is happy to experiment; is comfortable with new styles; is brand conscious but not brand loyal; allocates a reasonable budget to his or her wine buying; and finds the idea of buying wine from anywhere else but California abhorrent.'