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03.2007

Massachusetts Beverage Business

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Article By: David Singer

Little penguins, yellow tails, black swans, 3 blind moose and 4 emus; are we speaking about wine or Noah's boat of biblical fame? Nope, this is a shelf full of wine with the latest in catchy labels. Something has always annoyed me a little bit about this recent marketing trend and I've never been sure why, until I started exploring it more to write this article. One of the discoveries I made is that this really isn't a new marketing campaign but perhaps the revival of a very old one.

Way back a few hundred years ago, when the majority of the people were illiterate, pubs would paint animals, among other things, on their signs. Think of the Green Dragon, Black Rose and the Bell in Hand, to name a few of our own historical Bostonian bars. With these pictures on the signs, the illiterate masses would know the name of the pub they liked the other night because it had a picture of a Black Raven or some other recognizable animal on the sign. Anyone else seeing a correlation here?

How often have you had your clients come to you with the following statement: "I really cannot remember the name of the wine but it had an 'x' on it or was this 'color' on the label." Is the average wine buyer that forgetful? They can remember the name of the restaurant, what entree they ate, the level of the service, even the chef's name, but to remember the name of the bottle of wine they really liked seems to be a Final Jeopardy question that few succeed at. And really, they don't need to if what they're looking for is something slightly better than entry-level wine. As more and more consumers are graduating from "value" wines to higher price points, large-volume wine makers see an opportunity to ply their trade: advertising. Sure, they make wine, but the thing that really differentiates them, that gives them what my MBA-wife calls "competitive advantage", is marketing. And market they do, spending lots of money on clever Madison Avenue advertising consultants, on primo spots during "comedy night done right" and on clever billboards. Americans are more interested in wine than ever before, and companies all the world over are stepping up with catchy creatures, witty puns and vibrant visual hooks.

Then I realized why I was annoyed. It's really not these companies' fault that I'm so negative about this trend. It's our fault. Yes, I mean you and me, the wine professionals, reading and writing this article. We have only ourselves to blame when even otherwise sophisticated people such as Harvard-educated physicists say, "I want that wine with a guy on a bicycle on it; I think he has some bread under his arm." We have allowed ourselves to become complacent by letting the public relation companies "educate" our clients instead of taking responsibility as the people who really should be doing it.

Is it easier to send people to the wine with the cute animal on it instead of making our client a more knowledgeable consumer? Sure it is. We hand them exactly what they're looking for and take their money in two minutes flat. And it is these companies that have the most money to spend on advertising who also give the deepest deal if we floor stack their product or offer it by the glass. Easy money.

Yet to what end? How many of us are really in this for the almighty dollar alone? We have a choice. We can ring up the increasing ranks of automatons as our clients. Or we can use the draw of the advertised animals to inspire the neo wine geeks who want to learn, experience and experiment with wine from around the world at different price levels. It can be only us to catalyze this transformation and only if we've built a relationship with them, as their trusted wine professional. This takes time, persistence, and a never-ending passionate quest to pass knowledge on.

The choice is yours.
I know what mine is.

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