Some of the finest marketing lessons of the past decade are from a category I love — wine. The poet John Keats described wine as “the blushful Hippocrene, with beaded bubbles winking at the brim”. Today if wine could speak it wouldnot merely be a poet but a very popular teacher of marketing. Because wine has worked new magic amongst millions of consumers, which none of us would even have dreamt of just a few years ago.
Pause for a moment; consider where wine was a few years ago, and how incredibly far it has travelled today. It was mainly a stuffy, elitist, sit-down drink, but today it is a cool new-age drink of choice. It was entirely old-world French and German, but today it is primarily new-world Californian, Australian, Chilean and Indian. It was paired exclusively with continental dishes, but today some red wines are described as natural accompaniments to Chicken Tikka Masala. It was a mild drink for women (whisky, rum and beer were the real drinks for real men), but today it is a stylish unisex drink. It was heritage, but today it is glamorous. It was never ever seen in Indian parties, but today no cocktail circuit worth its name is complete without the right wine – even wealthy Punjabi weddings now offer the Cabernet Shiraz as an alternative to Scotch. It was not written about too much; today fashion and health publications alike have regular columns and sections dedicated to wine.
What has made wine the most discussed, most celebrated, most worshipped drink of choice within a decade? Here are some marketing lessons which we can learn from wine.
Wine reinvented itself as a cool, new-age beverage, recognising “cool” and “new-age” as big consumer trends in this generation. Consumers want to be “cool” and “new-age” in everything today. This explains the incredible success of the iPod in music, Nike Air in footwear, Titan Octane in watches, Diesel in apparel. Wine became genuinely cool and new-age by moving its centre of gravity to cool and new-age geographies. It is in California, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Chile, where the great vineyards of the modern age are flourishing. The images which wine increasingly evokes are, therefore, cool images of sunny Napa valley, Kangaroo creeks, The Lord of the Rings and African veldts. If wine had remained in France or Germany, this transition would have been impossible.
Our first two lessons for the day: Catch a big consumer trend really fast. And if you want your product or brand to be truly cool or really heritage or genuinely whatever-else, root it wherever the cool or the heritage or the whatever-else is.
Wine has also successfully democratised luxury. Wine had always been considered an aristocratic drink unlike beer which has been the common man’s pub drink. To match this perception, good French wine was also priced incredibly high. For many years, wine was sold primarily through specialist wine stores, stored in cellars of great mansions and dispensed only by knowledgeable sommeliers in fancy restaurants. Suddenly, all this changed. New countries established themselves as sources of equally good wine, so supplies expanded dramatically and prices became entirely affordable. Wines became available in supermarkets which all of us visited, with Tescos, Wal-Marts and FoodWorlds providing entire racks for the drink. Good, reasonably priced wines have also become available in virtually every pub, bar and restaurant — not merely elitist restaurants in star hotels.
Even small measures have contributed to the democratisation of wine. For instance, the recent replacement of corks with screw caps have made bottles of wine far more easy to use — you no longer have to search for a corkscrew, which was a real problem for many of us. So here is our third big “wine” lesson for today: If you democratise luxury, you have a winner in today’s world. If you are marketing a lifestyle product, ensure it becomes accessible to the upper-middle class. That’s where the really large purchasing power resides.
But wine has also retained its mystique, which it uses to engage consumers constantly. Even as it has democratised itself, wine has kept this veil intact. Wine, like a woman, seduces and engages at the same time through layers of mystique, by permitting you to peer within, yet by always being just a little out of reach. The bouquet, the complex aromas, the rich yet varying colours, the soils and climates which contribute to these nuances, the Cabernet and Sauvignon grapes, the vintage, rituals such as swirling and smelling the wine: wine has cultivated for itself a rich vocabulary and many nuances which contribute to this mystique. There are so many you can’t master all of them. And every brand of wine has deliberately perpetuated this mystique by highlighting these nuances, therefore constantly teasing our senses, inviting us to think about them, even provoking us all the time. The sub-text of this conversation is: if you don’t really know me well, I don’t really belong to you. So please become more knowledgeable, please try harder.
Our fourth lesson today is, therefore, one which often slips past many marketers: As you make your brand increasingly accessible to many more people, don’t forget to keep it aspirational, provocative, a brand which constantly engages consumers yet remains a little out of reach. If you don’t do this, your brand is very likely to become rapidly commoditised and taken for granted. Wine may achieve this through its rich vocabulary and nuances, but brands in other categories could well use technology (Titan Octane watches flaunt tachymeters, chronographs and retrograde movements), imagery (Benetton with its striking controversial visuals) or even a strong point of view (Body Shop with its anti-animal testing stance) to engage or provoke their consumers.
And finally, wine has successfully removed the nagging guilt which accompanies conspicuous consumption, particularly amongst the upper-middle class of society. It is amazing that wine has accomplished this in a guilt-ridden category such as alcohol. This has partly been a stroke of luck — researchers discovered some important health benefits arising from flavonoids present in wine. But wine producers have thereafter consciously promoted this agenda strongly and consistently. Virtually every month, newspapers now highlight a new health benefit of wine — while its benefits in fighting arterial plaque and strokes have been known, the latest I read was that wine protects against pancreatic cancer. In addition, wine has made a conscious effort to move away from being an alcoholic drink to being a healthy natural beverage. Even Governments are beginning to classify it similarly. So here is a product which offers you all the benefits of cool lifestyle and mild intoxication without any of the guilt.
If you think wine has been uniquely lucky in this regard, you are quite mistaken. Virtually every category can offer important positives which help neutralise the guilt of consumption — cotton garments help your body breathe better, watches help you be punctual at all times, soap with moisturising cream is particularly healthy for your skin in winter, jewellery is good investment for an uncertain future, a luxury holiday with your family rejuvenates you and is also a priceless memory. So here is a fifth and final “wine” lesson for today: Discover and strongly leverage the unique “life” benefit which your product offers, and ensure that the world talks about it appropriately enough and often enough.
The next time you pick up a bottle of Grovers La Reserva red wine (my favourite Indian label), you may wish to reflect for a moment on what it really contains – certainly the blushful Hippocrene with its purple stains, but also a brilliant textbook on consumer insight-led marketing.
(The writer is Chief Operating Officer (Watches), Titan Industries Ltd. These are his personal views.)
6 months ago