Montana is set to become Brancott Estate around the world

Montana is set to become Brancott Estate around the world

Last month, Pernod Ricard announced that it will change the name of its New Zealand wine brand Montana to Brancott Estate. What does the move say about today's wine consumer, and what chances does Pernod have of getting the change through smoothly? Chris Losh considers.

It’s not often that I’m reminded of 1980s B-movies when interviewing people from the wine world, but talking to the guys at Pernod Ricard about their decision to rebrand Montana as Brancott Estate brought to mind that, ahem, fine film Highlander, especially its catch-phrase: “There can be only one...”

Well, the guys at Montana are planning to wield their “we got to Marlborough first” heritage like a giant claymore.

“There can only be one originator, and we are that originator,” said head of wine marketing at Pernod's UK unit, Matt Bird (possibly while holding a gigantic sword to the heavens).

The branding will, necessarily, be gradual - replacing ‘Montana’ with ‘Brancott Estate’ on the labels, but retaining the same design, and keeping the word ‘Montana’ on the bottle somewhere for a while to reassure the more febrile consumers. In the US and Canada, where the wine has been known as Brancott Estate for over a decade, the same process will occur.

The company is not planning to hang about. Inside 18 months, Montana will exist only in old magazines and dusty bottles in your cellar.

“We don’t anticipate that we’re going to take a very long time over this,” says Bird. “The high-level support is designed to bring consumers with us.”

Ah yes, the “high-level support”. As you would expect, Pernod is throwing a fair bit of money at this. Marketing support all over the world is up for the next 12 months and doubled in the crucial UK market – the biggest destination to see the full shift from Montana to Brancott Estate. As well as print advertising, POS info and PR activity, there’s a big TV campaign planned for the autumn, and a pricey sponsorship of the rugby world cup in 12 months' time.

If consumers miss the new wine name, then they will, frankly, not have been concentrating.

But still, this is a tough message to get over. The company has - as you would expect - got market research coming out of its ears, all of which apparently proves that your average Montana drinker loves the idea of a name that reinforces provenance and gets a warm, fuzzy glow from 'Brancott Estate'.

Leaving aside the issue of just how ethical it is to use a name that suggests single vineyard status for wines that come from grapes grown all over the country, there is still a recognised inconsistency in the way consumers respond to market research, and the way they act in the supermarket aisles.

Being "The Originator" of Sauvignon Blanc might play well when punters talk to a man with a clipboard, but I would suggest it counts for significantly less in the bear-pit of the multiples than would a nice, juicy promotional offer.

Montana has what just about every other mass-market wine brand would kill to own: a high level of consumer recognition, a good reputation and fantastic brand equity. So why risk all of that? Certainly, I can’t think of any other successful big-name wine brand that’s done such a thing.

It’s tempting to think that maybe such a shift will help the winery to sell more of its upper-end wines. But these are a tiny percentage of overall volumes. This is a business built on the standard varietal wines, and as Bird puts it: “First and foremost, we have to know that [the rebranding] can unlock growth for us at the classic level.”

Frankly, it’s hard to see how a change to a name that, whatever its historical connotations, is a good deal less memorable than ‘Montana’ will help to sell bog-standard Sauvignon Blanc. There are, after all, hundreds of Blahblah Estates in New Zealand. But Montana? “There can be only one...”

Pernod maintains that typical Montana customers are “explorers” who place kudos and a sense of discovery ahead of pure price. And, for sure, this will be a key element in the Brancott Estate brand ‘sticking’. With so much upwards price pressure recently from exchange rates, duty rises and so on, maybe it’s true that ‘Montana’ is a brand name that works better around the GBP6 (US$9.10) level than nearer to GBP10, where the brand is currently operating; that, at this level, it needs authenticity more than it needs ease of 'rememberance'.

However, it seems far more likely that this is a corporate decision taken by a company that simply didn’t like the idea of having a powerful product in its portfolio with two different brand names: one for Canada and the US and another for the rest of the world.

Since there was no possible way of using the ‘Montana’ brand in the US for obvious reasons, it meant the rest of the world had to go down the Brancott Estate route. Whatever the official line might be about this being a fantastic opportunity to unlock growth, I can’t imagine that brand managers outside North America are overly delighted at having to implement a strategy that looks to have more obvious risks than benefits.

Having said that, arguably the most interesting element here will be watching how it all pans out, and extrapolating from that what it tells us about the current state of the relationship between consumer and wine brand.

If the consistency of packaging and a few tasty promotions means that wine drinkers don’t really notice, then what does that tell us about their overall sensitivity to the category? Maybe a big marketing and promotional budget really is all you need. Either that, or (more positively) the ‘explorer’ consumers really do care about provenance.

Likewise, if drinkers reject the ‘new’ brand it means that people a) don’t like change and b) aren’t really interested in touchy-feely soil-related stories, whatever they might say. It’s like the last 20 years never happened.

The decision to re-brand one of the world’s best-known wines is a huge one, and if anyone can do it, I’d say Pernod can.

Nonetheless, with the reasoning behind it less than compelling, I can’t help feeling that it’s an unnecessary gamble to take.