Thinking outside the (wine) box.

I’d love to hear [people’s] thoughts on… Books For Wine Communicators (That Are Not About Wine)…

The challenge was presented to Facebook group by Cathy Huyghe who had listed eight such books in one of her regular contributions to Forbes. The ‘Not About Wine’ caught my attention because I’m often frustrated at the narrowness of mind shown by wine professionals. Wine, they contend, sits on a pedestal that sets it apart from any other product. This attitude helps to explain why the innovators of the wine industry – the men and women who have learned from other sectors – are the exceptions to the rule. `And why big wine companies increasingly look outside their industry when recruiting new senior sales and marketing executives.

I tried to address the tunnel vision issue last week when I gave a little talk to a group of students taking a course at the Dijon Wine Business School. They had been told that I would discuss ‘Current Issues Confronting the Wine World’, and that was, indeed my plan. But before doing so, I asked them to do a little pre-exercise mental warm-up. Splitting the 17 students into five groups, I set them two tasks: first to spend five minutes imagining the challenges and opportunities that are likely to confront a book publisher over the next few years. After that they had to repeat the process, but with a focus on a motor manufacturer.

Perhaps inevitably, there were a few sotto voce mumbles and grumbles from students who complained that they knew nothing about either sector (I nodded and said that this was the point of the exercise), and one person wanted to know if, when I said ‘publisher’, I meant ‘wine book publisher’. I responded by saying “no”, stressing that the word ‘wine’ should not feature in any of their answers. All of the teams got into the spirit of the game with varying levels of enthusiasm and some came up with really good answers. Publishers have to consider how ebooks are going to evolve (video? audio?), how to combat piracy and the growing threat from writers publishing their own work. They also have to think about Amazon’s recent move into offering free unlimited book loans to its Prime members.

One issue that no one had thought of was the impact on book marketing of the switch from print to digital. Historically, a railway carriage or airplane was full of people unconsciously promoting awareness of the novels they were reading, simply by allowing their neighbours to see the covers. Today, no one knows whether the smile on your face was aroused by the Kindle edition of 50 Shades of Grey or of Great Expectations. More importantly, nobody addressed the thorny question of Amazon’s growing power over the entire publishing industry; power that is going to grow stronger as the online retailer moves into publishing its own books. The parallel with Australia’s retail duopoly of Coles and Woolworths which both also own their own wine brands is all too clear.

When considering opportunities, the students might also have thought about the possibility of publishers moving into other forms of media. Murdoch, of course, has Harper Collins, his newspapers, 20th Century Fox and Fox TV and Sky, but how many other publishers might move into making TV series out of books they have published. Of course, it’s never been done, but then, until Netflix commissioned House of Cards, no online movie rental platform had ever produced its own award-winning material either.

This lack of focus on distribution is something I often encounter in the wine industry: people who know all about the differences between various types of soil and abstruse vine training methods have little appreciation of precisely how bottles of wine actually get from the winery into the consumer’s glass. Or of possible alternative ways of making that happen. Such as following Sichel’s example by entrusting its UK off-trade distribution to Amazon.

Screenshot 2015-02-21 22.07.36

When the students came to think about cars, they found themselves covering some very similar ground. Instead of Amazon’s book loans, there was the growth of car sharing and renting-by-the-hour. They had thought about new kinds of electric cars, Google’s self-drive vehicles and the threat of Chinese manufacturers. What none of them talked about, though, were opportunities for car makers to apply their skills to other fields – or the threat of competition from manufacturers of products that have nothing to do with cars. Obviously none of the students had read about the Porsche Design watch that was recently sold for more than a new 991 Turbo S. Or indeed the news that Apple is reported to be planning to build a car. Screenshot 2015-02-17 06.50.05Screenshot 2015-02-15 20.48.30 Until now, it’s a rare wine company that even imagines moving out of its own geographic region, but some have branched out successfully into hotels (Riscal) and restaurants (Antinori, Torres, Coppola), while others have gone as far as to launch cosmetic lines (La Motte) under their own brand.

Screenshot 2015-02-21 22.16.45

If the Mont Blanc brand can be extended from pens to perfume and Lego can make more money from movies and theme parks than from manufacturing little plastic blocks, who’s to say what might be done with an iconic wine brand? I really hope that some of those Dijon students may some day soon bring fresh thinking to the wine industry. And in the meantime, I also hope that some wine writers will take Cathy Huyghe’s advice and learn a few basic storytelling and journalistic lessons from wordsmiths who are not in total thrall to the grape.

8 comments

  1. Great piece Robert – I have forwarded it to my MW student mentees……

  2. Adrian Atkinson · ·

    The interesting thing here is that there has to a golden thread of what makes the Mother brand resonate with the consumer for them to “allow” the brand to be stretched; be it design, quality. These brands also have the Mac or PC factor; consumers are either one or t’other and are fiercely loyal beyond reason – Lovemarks as Kevin Roberts of S&S calls them. In wine that doesn’t really exist. Those brands also have a story to tell about the person using, wearing or driving it.

    By the way you know I agree with what you are saying. The closest I got was trying to convince a previous employer branded grapes and was a good idea – thought was there though.

    I recently did some work with a sports brand who was looking at a licencing opportunity in the US. Their partners wanted to launch an energy drink. It was a really interesting project to think about. Did it add value or detract from the mother brand.

    Nike is no longer a sports clothing company it is a tech company in electronics and materials development. it is now in their culture, they are driven and allow it to take big risks, that push it to adapt before competitors force it to change. In wine some people say margins, regulation and romance of wine stop the category moving into more lucrative adjacent categories but thinking about Nike, perhaps it’s the highly unlikely chance that competitors in wine are going to force a change.

    In wine, perhaps something like Chloe or Barefoot could do it, but in these instances they start from a non-category conforming starting point which I like. I can see Barefoot swimmers, flip-flops (jandals, pluggers, go-aheads, slaps, slides, step-ins, chankla thongs for the international readers) or holidays just to name a few. Perhaps we are looking at it the wrong way round? What would a Nike wine look like? I think the industry needs a Black Swan to get its collective juices flowing.

  3. Absolutely Adrian. I did some work with Richemont and got involved in discussions over how far each of their iconic brands could go. We decided that Mont Blanc and Dunhill clothing were possible, but Cartier wasn’t.
    Barefoot could definitely be extended to cover all sorts of sectors. (Barefoot holidays anyone?), but so surely could Krug and Clicquot. But Pol Roger might be tricker.

  4. story telling, visual story telling, scrolling telling via Landing pages and microsites. It’s not difficult but looks like that very many wine producers do not understand these tools

  5. ‘very many’ is understating it!

  6. ah-ah, I am happy you like my inglish 🙂

  7. Thank you Gian Piero

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