Comment - Wine Needs Mavericks to Help it be Top Gun
How can the wine industry shake-off its navel-gazing, elitist image? Embrace the unusual and the revolutionary, argues Chris Losh
For an industry that’s often, justifiably, accused of being too inward-looking and closed to new ideas, there was a commendable turnout at last month’s 'Meet the Mavericks' briefing at the London International Wine Fair.
With a panel that included everything from a former bigwig at Allied Domecq to a pony-tailed roboticist, it felt a bit like the Life of Pi, where a 16-year-old boy finds himself stranded on a lifeboat with a zebra, a hyena, an orang-utan (check) and a Bengal tiger.
But interestingly, for all the diversity of experience on offer, some consistent themes emerged throughout the morning.
There might, for instance, not seem to be a great deal that the wine world can learn from BrewDog. The enfant terrible of the brewing industry set out six years ago to do to beer what punk did to disco: shake things up, aggressively rubbish the established brands, and not care too much who they offend in the process.
Personally, I’ve grown rather tired of their cage-rattling, but there’s no question that their genius for self-promotion really resonates with younger drinkers, who love the way their stunts infuriate the establishment.
Could wine learn from this? Well, yes and no.
There are, for sure, dangers in the way BrewDog attacks its competitors, and there are no equivalents to Anheuser-Busch InBev, Heineken, Carlsberg et al in the world of wine. But having started small in a world full of huge budgets, BrewDog's chippy, underdog status is undoubtedly sincere, even though it’s now a multi-million pound operation.
One thing all of the speakers were agreed on is that there’s nothing worse than a company donning a marketing persona because focus groups tell them it will play well. And, if you’re aiming at younger drinkers, such cynicism would be brand suicide, as Tyler Balliet knows well.
Balliet has made his name setting up ‘Wine Riots’ for 20- and 30-somethings in the US: large (around 2,000 people) wine tastings where education is important, but worn lightly. He knows exactly how to talk to the ‘millennials’ (born 1980-2000), and understands that a group who have never known life without the internet and a mobile phone expect to be bombarded with information, and are quick to sniff out anything that reeks of fakery or marketing spin.
‘As a brand, if you want to reach out to [these] people you need to be a trusted source,’ he says.
Elements of contemporary culture, such as a DJ and quirky wine tattoo transfers pull them in, transparency on social media encourages open interaction – and, therefore, trust.
What both BrewDog and Wine Riot have done quite brilliantly is approach long-standing problems in a new way. Neither of their messages – ‘our beer is good’, ‘wine is interesting’ - is especially revolutionary, but their approach to communicating those messages is. Both companies have a distinctive ‘voice’ that speaks directly to its audience in a language they understand.
Until BrewDog and Wine Riot came on the scene, craft beer and wine tastings were about as fashionable as corduroy, but they have found a way of making both not just inclusive but attractive.
In the words of Professor Michael Beverland, from the University of Bath, they ‘reframed the problem’. And reframing the problem is something that wine should be thinking about.
At the seminar, Beverland told the story of an artisanal coffee shop in Bath that wanted to treat coffee as a gourmet product, majoring on brewed coffees, but found that customers tended to stick to the espressos, cappuccinos etc that they knew from the large chains.
They toyed with simply not offering these typical serves (a ‘we know better – you’ll have what we give you’ approach) but instead, in a moment of genius, decided to rethink their whole offering. Out went the usual serves, and in came fewer options, changing on a weekly basis, with each coffee’s flavours described in detail on a blackboard, rather than listed by style.
Customers still had to put themselves in the hands of the barista, but they could choose with greater knowledge. It was simultaneously empowering and stimulating; both populist and artisanal.
This ability to come up with a solution that embraces apparently opposite ideas is, for Beverland, the holy grail. And it’s a lesson that seems, to me, to be particularly appropriate for the world of wine, where products are often defined as much by what they are not as what they are: old world or new world, food wines or gluggers, branded or terroir-driven, modern or traditional.
‘We have to avoid the easy dualisation of false opposites,’ says Beverland. ‘Forget the either/or and embrace the world of ‘and’.’
This may sound like real marketese. But there’s something in it. A failure to embrace the different or accept paradoxes, and to look down on the people or products on the opposite side of the fence, is, I’d suggest, one of the reasons why so many of the public feel threatened by wine as a category. They’re scared of making a ‘wrong’ decision or saying something stupid to someone who knows more than they do.
‘You can’t just tell people who have been brought up one way that what they want is wrong – they’ll walk out,’ says Beverland. ‘Focus on the problem and provide a basis for them to buy into it.’
Accessibility, authenticity, consistency and trustworthiness are the buzz words; the challenge is delivering them with originality, sincerity and personality.
One thing’s for sure, to achieve this, the wine world will need to be more open in its acceptance of the unusual or the revolutionary.
When wine writer Tim Atkin, who was chairing the seminar, asked the audience if they could think of any maverick brands in the world of wine, you could have cut the silence with a knife.
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