Storytelling and other ways to sell wine

Sunday, 13. May 2018 - 11:30

“What’s the story?”

“If you want to sell anything nowadays, you have to have a story”.

 This isn’t the first time I’ve addressed the modern marketing mantra that seems to suggest that the difference between success and failure can be explained by stringing together an engaging tale that will catch the imagination of the media (most particularly the social variety thereof) and the consumers.

One of the best examples of how well storytelling can work has to be Miraval Rosé. After all, the two leading players – Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie – need no introduction, and what could be more romantic than their falling in love with each other and then with a wine estate in Provence, and the notion of producing their own romantically pink wine there? 

And when you talk about the success of Provence rosé as a category to almost anyone in the industry, the chances are that sooner or later they’ll mention Brangelina, quite possibly nowadays raising the question of whether Miraval will suffer from the fact that the two stars are no longer a couple.

Far fewer of these conversations will tend to include a reference to Sacha Lichine and the Whispering Angel rosé he produces at his Château d’Esclans. Lichine is not a Hollywood actor – though I’m sure he’s a friend of several – and his ‘story’ essentially consists of selling the Bordeaux chateau he’d inherited from his Russian-American father, buying an estate in Provence and producing the world’s priciest still rosé. 

No one I spoke to, when researching a recent article on Provence Rosé for Meininger’s Wine Business International, suggested that this tale went very far to explain why Lichine’s wines outsell Miraval several times over. It was acknowledged that his Bordeaux background and the name recognition it would have afforded among professionals would have helped him get over the crucial hurdle of getting distribution. But it would not have made sales in the US rise from 800 cases in 2007 when it was first launched, to 300,000 today.

To make that happen, everybody said, Lichine relied on two too-often unsung tools: shoe leather and distribution partnerships. Guests of glitzy establishments like the Fointainebleau in Miami, Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles and SoHo House in Manhattan were obvious opinion-former targets for the brand, so Lichine and his North American team made sure that as many of them as possible were introduced to it. 

Lichine himself would have been seen in these places, just as he was on the ‘right’ beaches on the Côte d’Azur, but just as importantly, he travelled to see local distributors in almost every state of the Union. And went back to see how they were doing. Wholesalers and retailers alike were convinced that this big, ebullient character really cared about his wine – and about helping them to sell it. It was these tireless efforts – coupled, naturally, with the quality of the wine and its packaging – I was repeatedly told, that helped to make the difference for Whispering Angel.

The only problem with this strategy is that there are far too many US states and other export markets for anyone to maintain this kind of effort while running a business or making wine and leading any kind of normal life.

Until we can clone or teleport winemakers and winery owners, or create acceptable holograms of them, the solution will almost certainly lie in greater use of regional brand ambassadors who are seen as being separate to the sales force. Spirits companies have a history of understanding the value of these locally-popular representatives as, naturally, has LVMH. 

Richard Geoffroy, long-standing chef de cave at Dom Perignon is one of the most widely travelled members of the wine industry. Indeed he was quoted in the Australian Financial Review as saying that “For me, travelling is crucial. It’s way beyond the professional. It’s a way of regenerating; it’s about absorbing energy from the outside.” Even so, he can’t be everywhere, so, instead of seeing Geoffroy, opinion formers in places as diverse as Nairobi and Hong Kong get to meet and talk to Pierre-Louis Araud, who effectively channels enough of his colleague’s enthusiasm and knowledge to generate media coverage and trade interest in projects like its ultra-premium Plénitude. 

Meanwhile, recognising its own rather different requirements, Veuve Clicquot, signs up online influencers like Bonnie Rakhit, former Fashion Editor of Elle Magazine and author of what has apparently been named one of the UK’s top five luxury fashion blogs. 

Obviously, few wine producers have the means to go nearly as far as LVMH, but I’ve seen several smaller family-owned estates benefit hugely from sending sons, daughters or cousins on relatively low budget extended trips to overseas markets. As long ago as the 1980s, Michael Hill-Smith helped to open the UK for his family’s Yalumba wine business while studying for his Master of Wine exams. And I’ve also seen producers sign up sommeliers affordably to host tastings in distant cities.

Of course all of these ambassadors will almost certainly have plenty of good stories to tell – quite possibly that have nothing to do with the wine – but they won’t be relying on them to sell their bottles.
Robert Joseph

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