Wine marketing is all about storytelling. Or is it? A debate between Felicity Carter and myself

The  following debate appears in the December 2013 issue of
 Meininger’s Wine Business International 


Perspectives
What’s a wine story worth to a brand? Two perspectives.
 By Felicity Carter and Robert Joseph

One of the stories that the wine trade tells itself is that it needs to engage consumers by sharing its stories with them. But what does this actually mean? Can a good story help build a brand and connect consumers?


FELICITY CARTER, EDITOR, MEININGER’S WINE BUSINESS INTERNATIONAL
It seems a universal law of wine that at some point during a wine conference, at least one speaker will tell the wine trade to “tell its stories”.

Certainly storytelling is taken seriously outside the wine trade. Starbucks’ CEO Howard Schultz is often cited by business journals as the perfect example of someone who has used the power of story to build a brand. And because storytelling is recognised as powerful, a new breed of marketing company is popping up, offering services like ‘brand-building storytelling’ and ‘polyamorous marketing’, designed to build emotional relationships between consumers and brands through the medium of storytelling. To see this in action, look no further than the mini-Christmas movie that British department store John Lewis develops each year, developed around a memorable story that has almost nothing to do with the store itself. After this year’s Disney-like tug on the heartstrings began running, John Lewis immediately saw sales soar by 7.1%.

The value of stories
In a paper from Wine Economics and Policy, researchers Pierre Mora and Florine Livat looked at the question of whether storytelling as part of corporate communications added financial value to fine Bordeaux wines. They went through the annual guidebook of the Union des Grands Crus and analysed the way each chateau and region presented itself. They discovered that the wineries discuss 13 themes: family, history, appellation, grape assemblage, wine techniques, financial partners, geography and geology, description of wines, wine ageing, art and culture, organic certification, customers and technical investments.

Their conclusion was that three narrative styles are used: descriptive, immersive and technical, and – after controlling for other elements – that these did indeed have an effect on the wine’s value, though I am unsure from reading the study how they distinguished between correlation and causation. Descriptive narratives were better for French visitors, immersive for foreign visitors, and technical information for wine experts. Talking about geography seemed to have a negative effect on the wine’s final price.

While this is interesting and possibly useful, it’s unfortunate that some of what the researchers are calling ‘storytelling’ is merely corporate communications: information presented in a self-flattering way.

What’s a story?
Early in the twentieth century, a Soviet scholar called Vladimir Propp analysed Russian folk tales, seeking to understand how stories work. Others followed, and an agreement emerged that human narratives, across cultures, are created from a limited number of building blocks and organised in fairly typical ways. (George Lucas used this information when he wrote Star Wars.)

At its simplest, a ‘story’ has a beginning, a middle and an end, and a central conflict. (In this sense, ‘conflict’ just 

means the main character has to overcome something.) ‘Man against the elements’ – a winemaker racing against a hailstorm – is a classic conflict. The point being, without these elements, there is no story. So any discussion on whether storytelling can play a role in the wine industry has to start by recognising that a lot of what the trade calls ‘storytelling’ isn’t storytelling at all. It’s listing information that the trade thinks consumers should know, such as when the winery was founded, and how passionate the winemakers are about their craft.

Yet almost all of the great successes in wine have great stories attached to them: those Californian wineries who participated in the Judgement of Paris tasting have made that story part of their identity. The tale of how Max Schubert developed Grange in secret is an integral part of that wine’s appeal. The ubiquitous tale of Dom Perignon is proudly passed on by people who otherwise know nothing about Champagne. Good stories stick in the mind. Good stories connect people emotionally to one another. And stories don’t have to be big and dramatic. A good storyteller, given the elements of beginning, middle, end and conflict, can make even the smallest drama memorable and entertaining.

So yes, stories are important. The issue in wine is when and how to tell those stories, and this is the sticking point. Inert objects – like wine – tend not to generate good stories. A bottle of wine can’t generally take action, or overcome odds. So wine storytelling, with rare exceptions, has to focus on the people behind the wine, and the battles they fight to produce it, for a story to exist at all. But serious wine lovers don’t want this – they want technical information. Consumers just want to know if they will like the taste.

Having said that, there is one instance where a good story can work in a producer’s favour. Speaking as an editor, I’d love to get more genuine stories through my email, rather than boring press releases announcing the latest haul of medals. A story about a last-minute triumph over disaster would certainly get my attention – and the attention of other editors. If you’ve got a good story, don’t be afraid to tell it. A good, strong story can generate general interest, which is the first step in the consumer relationship.

But it must have a beginning, middle and end, and a central conflict to be overcome. Otherwise it’s not a story.

======================================
ROBERT JOSEPH, EDITOR-AT-LARGE, MEININGER’S WINE BUSINESS INTERNATIONAL

It is a widely touted truism that “all marketing is storytelling”, and nowhere is that more true than in the wine industry.  Producers and distributors alike lament the prevalence of ‘shopping list’ journalism in which readers are simply offered lists of wines worth buying, along with descriptions and scores. Consumers don’t want this kind of thing, the

would-be vinous storytellers say. They want to learn about the people who made the wine and the place where it was produced.

As the weekly columnist for London’s Sunday Telegraph, I used to share this view, especially when I got to collect the occasional award for the way in which I described my experiences with vineyards and winemakers. The problem I had was with my editor who repeatedly said that while he liked the pictures I painted, what he and the readers really wanted from a wine column was advice on what to buy. When I disagreed, he showed me the evidence in the shape of the reader surveys the publishers regularly conducted. The majority of people really interested in knowing that an Australian winemaker used to be a doctor or a banker tended to be the wine enthusiasts who might also be found engrossed in a specialist consumer wine magazine.

What does a brand need?
When I began to think about the reality of this wine-needs-story mantra, I increasingly began to see my editor’s point. There are plenty of products on sale in the supermarket where I buy my wine that seem to do rather well, thank you, without any kind of story at all. How many of the people who splash out on a tub of Häagen-Daz have any knowledge of its background? How many wonder how the ice cream came by its odd Scandinavian-sounding name?

Most wine is bought like beer – as a drink. Shoppers fill their trolley with Carlsberg or Heineken, depending on this week’s promotional offer, before reaching for the Pinot Grigio or Merlot. According to Wine Intelligence research, many UK drinkers of Gallo wines had no idea that they were from California. Other research found that UK beer-drinkers still often think of Kronenbourg as German – despite the efforts of the brand owner to establish its French origins.

At the other end of the scale – though not necessarily much higher in cost terms, there are the bottles that are bought as luxuries, either by consumers who want to treat themselves or to give pleasure to others. Some of these wines do rely on stories. Dom Perignon most obviously relies on the story of the abbot who supposedly “invented” Champagne, but do the people who buy Dom Ruinart know and care that it was named after another similarly illustrious Champagne cleric?

The trouble with this argument is that we do like being told stories, and many of us relish recounting them. Especially when they are about ourselves and what we do. In this, we are aided and abetted by journalists whose income is paid by the word. The lengthier the description, the easier their financial circumstances.

An overrated ideal
Of course I’m not saying that stories are completely worthless; merely that they are often overrated and, more dangerously, that relying on them can provide far too easy an excuse for lazy brand-building. Let’s just pause for a moment to compare the still wine market

with the market for spirits. Despite the efforts of countless wine producers across the globe to tell all sorts of stories, it is hard to name even a dozen really strong international wine brands. (By strong, I mean brands that loyal consumers go out of their way to find). Spirits, however, are overtly all about brands. Throughout the world, people in bars are asking for Hendrick’s rather than a Bombay Sapphire or a Gordon’s. Just as they might prefer Absolut to Russian Standard or Smirnoff – or vice versa. But how many of these customers could tell you anything about the background to any of these drinks? How many buyers of $10,000 Louis Vuitton or Hermés handbags can answer simple questions about those brands.

Greece, Turkey and Georgia all have – and try to exploit – apparently invaluable stories in the shape of their ancient wine histories. But have these helped to drive sales? To my mind, there are many and various reasons for buying anything, but quality, style, price and the impression one might make on one’s friends all come higher on most people’s lists than any kind of story. And, I’d go further to say that when there is a story it is usually most effective when it clearly relates to the stuff in the bottle and the character of the brand. Good examples of how this can work are Mondavi’s use of Robert Mondavi and Krug’s clever recent exploitation of the founder’s cellar book. But Krug flourished before the discovery of that book and the Mondavi story was not sufficient to protect that company from losing its independence.

Get all the other aspects of your brand right, and support it with a story, certainly. But never forget that the story is the cart, not the horse.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s