Exactly where does wine sit in the economy - and should producers care? Robert Joseph shares his thoughts.
How to build a hot brand
Thursday, 29. September 2016 - 11:15
Richard Evans is a co-founder and co-director of Dedicated Wines Ltd, a UK-based wine agency. He began his career as a winemaker in the UK, after training in Germany. In the mid 1980s he moved into sales, working for Hatch Mansfield and then BRL Hardy, for whom he developed brands such as Banrock Station, Stamp of Australia and Nottage Hill. In 2005 he founded Dedicated Wines Ltd with Ed Squires. The company focuses on French wines, including brand building and selling into the off-trade. In 2010 he worked with Amphora Design to create a new brand – Les Dauphins – for French wine cooperative Union des Vignerons des Côtes du Rhône, or Cellier des Dauphins, the largest cooperative in the Rhône region, comprising 18,000 ha and 13 individual cooperatives. The Les Dauphins brand was an instant hit in the UK market, with 1m bottles sold, and is now exported to 25 markets. Its success has allowed the brand developers to create wines that promote specific villages from the region.
MEININGER’S: How did you get into wine branding as a business?
EVANS: My background is in winemaking: English wine is where I learned about the fundamental processes, but I realised there wasn’t huge career progression in winemaking in England. At the time the whole thing was German-focused: all the varieties came from Germany, the technology and the even the bottle shapes. The only French variety was Pinot Noir, which cropped consistently year in year out. At that time the industry allied itself with Germany in both image and style. When German wines fell out of favour, and as a result were reduced in price, consumers couldn’t understand why you’d pay £10.00 ($14.25) for a bottle of wine that looked so similar to German wine.
One of the keys to success for brands is to have a pricing tier in the market. For example, take English wine. You’ve got sparkling wine from Prosecco to Champagne and it’s accepted that Champagne is expensive, so anything between those two is an acceptable position for a consumer. They understand it, so it’s OK to charge £30.00 for a bottle of English sparkling wine, because it’s associated with Champagne.
MEININGER’S: How does the Rhône fit that model?
EVANS: There’s an element of ‘everybody knows the Rhône’. If you drink wine, you may not know much about the region, but you still know the name. It’s also got a pricing structure, from supermarket entry point wines to Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
MEININGER’S: Given that the Rhône is so well known, why does it need brands?
EVANS: For me, BRL Hardy was the proving ground. I came to understand how important brands are for all of us. If you look at it from a technical point of view, why buy Nike trainers for £100.00 when you can buy something else for a fraction of the price? Why do we buy iPhones? Partially it’s because people need reassurance that it’s good and partially because it says something about them. We choose things that say something about us. Wine fits into that category.
MEININGER’S: So how do you go about creating and building a brand?
EVANS: The first thing I ask is – who’s buying it? I see someone in front of the shelf, I can see what they’re wearing and I get the image of the person. I try to think of what that person would like to see. In any brand development, I try to appeal a lot to a few people, not a little to a lot. The amount of money you spend to promote a brand is inverse in proportion to its appeal. If you get it right you don’t have to spend a lot of money.
MEININGER’S: What made you think the time was ripe for a new Rhône brand?
EVANS: We were the agents for Cellier des Dauphins and there was a lot of trust. In 2010, I said we wanted to start branding to add value to the whole process. It’s not cheap to do it, there’s quite a lot of investment intellectually and in terms of design. We developed it in the UK, but Cellier own the brand and we get a licensing fee. It worked because everyone was on the same side, willing to take the risk.
MEININGER’S: The packaging is very striking. How did you go about developing it?
EVANS: As I mentioned, it was about appealing a lot to a few people. So first base is: Who are those people? In this case, there are two types. The first are the Francophiles who like all things French, and the others were people who had been drinking New World for a while and were confident about wine, but were happy to look at the Old World again. That group demands a high level of design. Design is critical. It’s the first thing they see. If you say to people, “I work in the wine industry,” they often say, “Oh, I had a really good bottle of wine the other night. I really enjoyed it.” And when you say: “What was it?” they go, “Er, I can’t remember.” So, even when we get the wine right, people can’t remember it. It’s because wine is just too complicated. So I knew we had to create something that was memorable. It has to be visual, which is why the colours are what they are.
MEININGER’S: How did the cooperative react when they saw the design?
EVANS: They hated it! But then I asked them what image they would use if they were going to launch an English beer in France, and they said “Buckingham Palace or Big Ben”. That’s not England, but the image of England that the French have. You have to go with the images that your target audience has. Les Dauphins is a pastiche. It’s “What does France mean to you?” It’s lifestyle, good food, the epoch of the Moulin Rouge. And so that imagery had to be there on the label. Our design just happened to coincide with the trend in fashionable retro, but that was purely coincidence.
MEININGER’S: How much of the brand’s success is simply about the design, versus the wine?
EVANS: The first job when the consumer is standing in front of the shelf is to convince them to buy this wine, not that one. To help them think, “That French wine looks nice. I’ll have it.” But then you have to deliver the expectations in terms of quality. It’d better be good, because if it isn’t they won’t ever buy it again. The brief to the winemakers was that it had to be Rhône style, with a little softness around and more fruit than the French would normally give it. Then I left it to them. They’re the professionals.
MEININGER’S: My colleague Robert Joseph often remarks that the Rhône Valley has some of the best value for money wines in France today. Why do you think it has such strong appeal?
EVANS: In the Rhône, even the most basic wine is good. It’s soft and generous and really, really good value. Look at the 2015 vintage, which is brilliant. My instinct is that everybody is going for these more approachable styles, rather than the rustic styles. Our feedback is that the market needs more fruit-driven styles. That traditional terroir, quite earthy style which the French like is not an export style.
MEININGER’S: Many wines have nice branding and nice wine inside the bottle, but they never make it onto the shelf. How did you convince the supermarkets to take the wine?
EVANS: The thing to remember is that buyers are buyers and sellers are sellers! All buyers like to buy and sellers like to sell – it’s why we do what we do. It’s a waste of time me saying subjective things to buyers. They’ve heard it all before. All I did was put the bottle on the table. The buyers – who are trained to hide their reactions – physically picked up the bottle said “That looks nice!” and I knew in that moment that we’d got it right. It really was that simple. Waitrose were the first to take it. Now it’s listed in Tesco and ASDA and does over a million bottles just in those three. That’s a lot of wine. I’ve never come across a brand that’s been so universally accepted.
MEININGER’S: A problem with brands that achieve immediate success is that they attract a horde of imitators. Did that happen to you?
EVANS: When we started and it was successful straight away, I knew the first thing that would happen is that people would see it and copy it. Those people don’t have their own visions – they just copy others. If you look now, there are quite a few retro labels on the shelves, but we were the first. We knew we were going to get plagiarised. The trick is just because you may have got it right, don’t get complacent. Keep evolving.
MEININGER’S: How do you overcome the problem of overexposing the brand?
EVANS: The problem you always have with branding is that you reach a point where other retailers don’t want to take it, because their competitors have got it. You just have to keep saying “You’re missing a trick, you’re missing a trick”, but there is always natural resistance. Retailers want it exclusively and you can’t give it. So we came up with a range of second wines. These are our named Villages. The idea was two-fold: the first, to offer exclusives to any retailer who was having problems with the core brand. The other, is that it’s the second rung on the retail ladder. Once people are comfortable with the brand, if you give them a retail ladder, it helps them trade up.
MEININGER’S: This idea that the ideal place to build a brand is in an area where there is a price floor and a price ceiling. Would that mean somewhere like Chianti would be a good place for a brand?
EVANS: Definitely. I couldn’t do New World brands, because those have been done, but Italy and Spain, yes. I’d love to do a German Riesling. I’d design the label with something modern and mechanical, to reflect their engineering culture. The Germans themselves would hate it, but what matters is how other people see Germany.
MEININGER’S: You’ve worked on some of the biggest brands in the world. One big problem that can happen is that major success devalues the brand, and they can fall out of favour. Can that be prevented?
EVANS: Yes. When I was in Australia, the push was always for more, more and more, and as a result there was too much promotional activity. Maybe it’s inevitable, but people start off with a good idea and then comes the volume expectations and they start over-promoting. When the price of things keeps going up – housing, wine, whatever – you reach a price point where you will lose volume. But the owners want it to keep growing, so they start promoting. Price points are critical in wine but they’re like a dam. You can avoid price increases up to a point, by cutting costs, etc but sooner or later the dam bursts. People try and find ways of avoiding retail price increases, so they cut back on marketing and cut back on quality, but sooner or later they end up with nothing but sugar water and then they’ve killed the brand. In my opinion, good brands should let the price go up. The answer is to create a new brand and slot it underneath, and let the whole thing go up. That’s what I do, I try to create new stuff, not cut back on the old.
MEININGER’S: Is that going to be the cycle for Les Dauphins?
EVANS: No. It doesn’t need to be over-discounted because it appeals to the consumer and sells. The growth is going to come. The average lifecycle of a brand, they say, is five years, but this brand will be indefinite, because the category is already familiar. Wine from the Rhône Valley already has millennia of history! It has a naturally long lifecycle.
MEININGER’S: When did you first start working with Cellier des Dauphins?
EVANS: Ed Squires, my co-director, started with them 15 years ago, initially doing own-label brands. Then when we got together 11 years ago, we started building brands. We did quite a few – Prestige Côtes du Rhône, Selection Dual varietals and a few others. The big advantage of the Cellier des Dauphins cooperative is that their member growers own the grapes and they make the wine. So they’re not like negociants who have to go into the market and buy bulk wine. They have control of the raw materials. They’re a sophisticated cooperative with a technical team that goes into the vineyards and gives technical advice to the growers.
MEININGER’S: How closely do you work with them?
EVANS: Very. We go out there every couple of months, either with customers, or when we want to have a chat about what we see in the UK or in France. If you look at our relationship it’s not a classic supplier/agent role. We’re effectively an extension of their sales and marketing arm in the UK. We’re not owned by them; we are an independent company. We’re close. In practice, we help them with styles of wine, with label design and brand development. The major UK retailers have their own quality control procedures and we help get Celliers registered for those. We do things like do their forecasting for them, to make sure the production planning fits the forecasting from the UK.
MEININGER’S: European cooperatives are notoriously political. Has this been your experience?
EVANS: Yes, but I’ve always believed in the cooperative model because it’s socially responsible and everyone has a share in it. Ultimately, the most important thing to create new brands is to have the right mentality and shared vision between creativity, production, sales and marketing – a perfect example is right here. Cellier des Dauphins own the number-one bestselling AOC brand in France, Prestige Côtes du Rhône.
This article first appeared in Issue 3, 2016 of Meininger's Wine Business International magazine.