The Losh Cause - South Africa's wine marketing misses a beat?
A fortnight ago, Wines of South Africa held its biennial tasting event for the country's wine producers in London. At the show, the trade body unveiled its latest marketing tool: 'DNA SA - a Brand Blueprint for South African Wine'. Will this approach help the nation steal greater share from its competitors? Chris Losh looks for holes.
I've not been out to The Cape for a few years, so it was good to be able to take stock of how South Africa is coming along at its big 'Mega Tasting' in London earlier this month.
For the most part it's looking reasonably good. The wines are broadly moving in the right direction, and if there were more than a few that should have been strangled at birth, there were also plenty that genuinely over-delivered.
A sommelier friend of mine was heartened by the style, too - the 'ripeness plus restraint' combination (at least for the wineries that aren't chasing Parker scores) is a powerful one for restaurants, and can help to differentiate the country from some of its New World competitors.
Creating an image for 'brand South Africa', however, is where the country has struggled. Considering it was welcomed back into the international fold 15 years ago, surfing in on a tide of global affection (and vast pots of EU cash) the Saffers' inability to come up with a coherent and 'stickable' marketing message has to be seen as ten years of failure.
A few years back they came up with the 'Variety is in our Nature' slogan - a neat turn of phrase that worked on many levels - but which hinged heavily on the Cape Floral Kingdom. "We have lots of diverse soils and plants" ran the thinking, "and our wines are diverse too".
It failed because, outside of South Africa - hell, probably outside of The Cape, even - practically no-one knows or gives a damn about the Cape Floral Kingdom. It had all the hallmarks of a campaign put together by people who live and work in the winelands, rather than who deal with the market.
Now, around four years later, comes 'DNA SA - a Brand Blueprint for South African Wine', unveiled to the press at the Mega Tasting.
It still has the 'Variety...' slogan, but it looks like there's been some pretty serious marketing work done in the meantime, with Wines of South Africa dividing their premise into four 'Cornerstones' that, taken together, sum up the country's various USPs.
The first of these is, broadly speaking, a recognition of the country's laudable efforts in the fields of sustainable farming and biodiversity, where, for instance, more than 100,000 ha of land have been set aside for conservation.
The second deals with the Cape's geography; the soils, the climate, the mountains and, yes, the Floral Kingdom once again.
The third Cornerstone looks at history - both the history of man (who originated in the Cape, apparently) and of the country's wine industry, which started 350 years ago.
The final of the four Cornerstones deals with the country's culture - the people, the cuisine, the music and so on.
Now, I think there are two problems here.
The first is that four key areas of difference might be very fair and very accurate, but it makes for a terribly unfocused message. Wine drinkers (and the trade) don't want a Wikipedia entry on South Africa; they want something simple, memorable and, preferably, sexy. Something that can be summed up on the back of a postage stamp and that makes them feel warm about the place and its wines.
Of the four Cornerstones above, two of them have visceral appeal (one far more than the other) and two of them don't.
To my mind, the 'history and geography' strands belong in text books and trade press releases; the 'green stuff' can give consumers a warm, fuzzy glow but retains an air of corduroy-wearing worthiness rather than aspirational sexiness.
But the 'culture' element. . . now that's another story. Can you imagine a campaign focused on the myriad faces and races within the country? On everything from tribal dances to chi-chi Jo-burg restaurants? On Cape Dutch architecture and modern art? On Zulu choirs, jazz and rap? On wildlife and street-life?
It's such a rich cultural pot to pull from - vibrant, thought-provoking and modern - that I find it incomprehensible that anyone should think that stories about soil or miracle plants that can process their own weight in carbon dioxide are really the message that's best going to resonate with the punters.
The second problem is the assumption that, as the DNA blueprint book puts it, "South Africa is recognised worldwide as producing premium quality, interesting and distinctive wines".
This simply isn't true. The wine producers in the Cape might like to believe it, but it's not the case either in the trade or among the consumers pretty much anywhere else in the world. The country's (few) big brands are unremarkable at best, and there is a dearth of trade-up wines. The on-trade, meanwhile, is a dead zone.
This is not, incidentally, a criticism of the wines. There are plenty of good bottles out there - and it would be nice to see more of them available (though WoSA's assertion that "each wine is a discovery - there are no boring stereotypes" is hilariously optimistic).
But while the guys at Wines of South Africa seem to be inching towards an acceptance that when people buy wine, they're buying more than the bottle itself, there are two truths they simply have to accept.
Firstly, that the public (both inside and outside the trade) really don't know much (or even care much) about South African wine - and guess what, not all the wines are great. This is the starting point.
And secondly, that a campaign based on diversity still needs to have a clear point of focus, and that focus needs to be visceral, aspirational and sexy.
So ditch the tedious but worthy stuff, guys, and give people a campaign that really resonates. After all, it's not like you haven't got some great raw material to work with...
A fortnight ago, Wines of South Africa held its biennial tasting event for the country's wine producers in London. At the show, the trade body unveiled its latest marketing tool: ‘DNA SA – a Brand Blu...
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