Greg Sherwood MW: Branding is key to succeeding in the international wine market
By Greg Sherwood, 15 November 2023
Being involved in the UK wine trade on multiple levels allows me to encounter all number of successes and failures in decision making among wine producers, importers, distributors, retailers and fine wine merchants. I am privileged to be able to wear so many different hats all at once, but then again, few everyday fine wine merchants have had the good fortune to work internationally for investment companies, have traded commodities across multiple continents, and been able to apply the knowledge of multiple degrees from Business Management and Economics to a Master of Wine to their day-to-day work life.
I, for one, would certainly not deny that I have been given opportunities that I fear increasingly few others that follow in my footsteps will get as we move into a much more inward-looking world where volatility and insecurity rules the day, and where international travel is increasingly looked down upon, and often positively discouraged by the powers that be in the name of some kind of greater global responsibility. We seem to be entering a new era of counter-globalisation, where growing isolationism is once again viewed as a protective shield as opposed to a self-limiting vice. In this new world, just how are businesses, and I am thinking wineries in particular, supposed to build their brands internationally when encountering all these new and unexpected headwinds?
I am not sure if it’s just the current stagnant and sticky market environment we all currently find ourselves in or if it is a greater business community restlessness, but every day I am encountering more and more wineries, from all over the world, who are patently unsatisfied with the current status quo, with their current importers, agents or distributors. A couple of elements always stand out for me when I pluck up the mental willpower to drill deeper and analyse some of the reasons for producers’ dissatisfaction. First and foremost, it is surely the greatest challenge faced by all wine businesses: Routes and access to markets, and the shrinking number of viable channels into these markets for many producers’ products. The second and increasingly significant challenge is the general lack of brand building that wineries, individually or in tandem with their agents and distributors, are engaging in to build an identity for their products in a highly competitive and overtraded marketplace like the UK or EU.
While the question of diminishing routes to market is certainly a subject worthy of its own in-depth focus, for the time being I want to focus on the latter aspect of simply building a brand, a critical element in indicating how a winery not only positions itself but also establishing what elements set it apart from all the competition in a specific market. Acknowledging that essentially, a wine brand represents a liquid promise that a winery offers to their consumer, indicates why branding is such an essential and important tool for a wine business if it wants to make a name for itself and its products, forging a coherent company identity for a successful long-term consumer relationship.
With so much emphasis on the fundamentals of building a brand, I have recently attempted to go back to basics to try and identify some of the essential building blocks that some wineries might be missing or simply getting wrong in their general consumer messaging. I have hit the textbooks and tried to salvage some of the important lessons modern wine businesses of varying sizes can re-examine when considering their brand building activities in various markets around the world.
For many of the fine wine brands I deal with in the UK on a daily basis, one of the most important fundamentals is authenticity, supported by delivering on the quality promise. In the current overtraded wine marketplace, having a high-quality individual wine that really delivers, or as I prefer, over-delivers, is one of the most important foundation blocks for a strong brand, especially in a time of rising cost centres which makes it all too easy for producers to take their eye off the ball and cut corners, thus compromising on their wine’s quality and authenticity. In the Cape, businesses are all too aware of dry goods scarcity and cost inflation, loadshedding and related soaring fuel expenses. But if a winery compromises on its wine quality, they in turn compromise the whole essence of their wider brand.
Another of my favourite fundamentals of successful brand building is the question of building loyalty and commitment to one’s winery or wine brands. If a winery can build a faithful, committed following with an increasingly obligated consumer through honesty combined with quality and authenticity, loyalty should be forthcoming. Consumer trust over time transforms into loyalty and delivering on your quality promise will earn you the consumers’ trust. It all kind of starts to sound like some kind of virtuous circle, and in essence, looking at and focusing on core values helps complete the circle. For authentic wineries, branding is not simply a marketing exercise. Effective, successful wine brands are lived, embraced and incorporated into consumers’ everyday lifestyles ensuring, in most instances, repeat purchasing.
Brand building, like wine itself, is an art which starts with strong, coherent messaging to create an authentic story that can be shared consistently by the winery, but then also later by committed, loyal consumers themselves. Of course, identifying your target market audience correctly and then creating strategic cues that will appeal to them is fundamental to successful product brand building, thus making a customer-first approach so essential if a winery is going to change and evolve with modern consumer behaviour and consumption patterns. But ultimately, in an age of cutthroat competition, the only sure thing that can make a brand stay relevant is impeccable individual wine quality.
- Greg Sherwood was born in Pretoria, South Africa, and as the son of a career diplomat, spent his first 21 years traveling the globe with his parents. With a Business Management and Marketing degree from Webster University, St. Louis, Missouri, USA, Sherwood began his working career as a commodity trader. In 2000, he decided to make more of a long-held interest in wine taking a position at Handford Wines in South Kensington, London, working his way up to the position of Senior Wine Buyer. Earlier this year, he moved across to South African specialist merchant Museum Wines to become the Fine Wine Director. He qualified as a Master of Wine in 2007.
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