Tuesday, June 24, 2014

What top opinion pollsters don't know about social media

According to a press release I have just received from Gallup "Americans say Social Media Have Little Sway on Purchases". A 'Web and mail study of 18,525 U.S. adults, aged 18 and older,' apparently discovered that "A clear majority of Americans say social media have no effect at all on their purchasing decisions. Although many companies run aggressive marketing campaigns on social media, 62% in the U.S. say Facebook and Twitter, among other sites, do not have any influence on their decisions to purchase products."


The number of respondents to the survey is impressive, and Gallup is a highly experience and reputable organisation, but before you rethink all your marketing strategies, it is worth pausing to consider the methodology of the research. The question Gallup asked was "How much do social media typically influence your purchasing decisions?". To which 5% replied "A great deal of influence" and 30% said "Some influence".

Now I'd like you to do a bit of research - on yourself. How would you have answered that question? What do you think of when you see the words 'social media'? Actually, unless you are involved in marketing or media, how often do you ever use the expression 'social media' anyway. When you last checked your Facebook account or sent a tweet did you say to yourself "I'm doing some social media"? Gallup might, just as usefully have asked ""How much do public relations or advertising typically influence your purchasing decisions?". How sensibly - and accurately can anybody really judge the influence a clever campaign can have; after all, the whole point of some of the best campaigns is not to be noticed. It was no accident that, as long ago as 1957, Vance Packard called his (great) book on advertising 'The Hidden Persuaders"

Social media - as Gallup should know - encompasses a bewildering array of places and ways in which human beings now communicate with each other. Tripadvisor is part of social media; so are the reviews on Amazon and almost every other retail website; and so is Mumsnet and the professional photographer's forum my partner sometimes dips into (and certainly takes note of when wondering about which new lens to buy); and so are Jancis Robinson's and Robert Parker's and Jamie Goode's websites, especially if you take account of the responses they feature from readers.

When you start to include all of these, I'd reckon that the answers might be a little different, What if, Gallup had, for example, asked "If you were looking at purchasing a washing machine on a website where 100 people had given it an average mark of 2 stars and, in many cases made detailed negative remarks about its reliability, might this, just, possibly, make you reconsider your choice?

And what if the pollsters had said "Are you really 100% sure that those gorgeous pictures your friend posted of their holiday in Corfu, and the comments they made about the amazing cheapness of everything there, didn't even slightly make you think of going there?".

Most surveys concur that the biggest reason the majority of people choose to do anything is the recommendation of friends and family - the very people Gallup's respondents say they connect with on 'social networking websites such as Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin'. Is it just conceivable that, in some of the communication between all these friends and family members, there might not be some mention of products and services they have used and liked?

Yes, social media is sometimes overhyped - like lots of other things. But today it is part of most people's daily lives; taken for granted in much the same way that we take cars, trains, planes and buses. 

To be fair to Gallup, whose headline strikes me as nonsense, its release does include some sensible commentary: "Companies that engage their customers -- by providing exceptional service and a pleasurable in-store experience -- will, in turn, drive those customers to interact with them on social media. Simply promoting products and services on Facebook or Twitter is unlikely to lead to sales... However, companies can use social media to engage and boost their customer base."

In other words, don't simply rely on social media to build your sales. You also need to offer a decent product and service. Thank goodness Gallup pointed that out.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Why is en primeur subject to different rules?

Last week, a new Consumer Rights Directive became law across the EU. Apart from limiting the supplement retailers can charge for paying with a credit card and the amount they can make from making unhappy customers wait on premium phone lines while desperately waiting for someone to answer their questions, the directive has doubled the statutory period during which consumers may return goods bought in-store or online from seven to 14 days. In other words, If I buy five dozen bottles of Champagne from Majestic, I can legally return two unopened six-packs a week or so later and expect to get a full refund.

The same applies to investments. There is a similar 14-day 'cooling off' period that allows me to change my mind about the wisdom of putting my kids' inheritance into a new fund focusing on selling wine in Saudi Arabia.

So far, so clear. But according to a news piece on decanter.com, the Wine & Spirit Trade Association has, after a 10-year campaign, won an exemption for en primeur sales. Apparently, my order for 10 cases of 2013 Chateau Coûte-Trop-Cher is 'exempt from the right of cancellation'. In other words, en primeur wines are treated totally differently to wine bought in bottle, or any other kind of investment.

Now, I entirely understand that it would be crazy to allow buyers to ask for a refund once the wine lands on their doorstep possibly two years after the purchase. After all, since the 2009 vintage, merchants would regularly have been handing back more money than the post-delivery wine was actually 'worth'. And some people might actually have wondered about the wisdom of buying en primeur in the first place - and considered the alternative appeal of that Saudi investment fund.

But why, I'd like to know, shouldn't en primeur simply be subject to the same 14-day rule as everything else? Apparently, the wine establishment prefers to set its own rules, with Corney & Barrow honorably giving customers a month's cooling off period, Berry Bros allowing just seven days and others presumably applying the letter of the (new) law and refusing any cancellation at all.

Could somebody please enlighten me on what makes en primeur - an odd concept in any case - deserving of such special dispensation?

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Excellent, Perfect or Fit for purpose?

Image stolen from Two Friars & A Fool,

 a blog by a US Presbyterian minister 
with whom I reckon - as a confirmed agnostic - 
I could enjoy a good conversation. 

“The pursuit of excellence…”, “giving it your upmost”, “striving for perfection”…
All unarguably admirable idealistic mission statements, but how often are they really relevant in the real world? Even the most cursory thought would reveal that there are all sorts of products and services we encounter every day which patently don’t – and can’t – live up to these ideals. The experience you get in the back of an airplane must, by definition, be less ‘excellent’ than the one in Business Class. Otherwise there would be no point in paying the supplement to sit in those more hallowed seats. And the same – in spades – obviously should apply to First Class where 'perfection' is still tempered by a need to maintain profitability..

Do you really imagine that Apple gives us everything it possibly can when it releases the top model of its latest iPhone? Of course not. Back in the company labs in Cupertino, there are engineers who already know what the model after next will be able to do; what they are offering us now is something that is good enough to dazzle potential consumers and cast a shadow over the competition.

Winemakers may strive for excellence but all too often they fall short and end up producing something that’s ‘remarkably good for the vintage’ – the best they can manage after a season beset with untimely drought or flood. Even when they are blessed by more ideal conditions, who’s to provide the definition of ‘excellence’. I have a friend in Southern France who was happy to have produced a Parker 90+ wine which, unsurprisingly, sold more easily and at a higher price than her other cuvée which the US critic had only thought worth 87, but she rated more highly.  Was she expected to choose which of these two quite different ‘excellences’ she should make in the following vintages? Or was she to go on making both? And if excellence is debatable, perfection is, by its very nature, well-nigh unattainable

There are plenty of authors whose quest for (their notion of) perfection leads to writer's block and/or an unwillingness to expose their words to the world. And inventors who miss the boat. It was Voltaire who coined the phrase "Perfect is the enemy of good": better to give your guests something - anything - to eat than to leave them starving while you struggle with an intractable recipe. (This Forbes piece by Victor Lipman is worth reading about overcoming excessive perfectionism in business)

The words ‘fit for purpose’ have a much less inspiring ring than references to excellence and perfection, but I admire their honesty. The purpose of the brown paper bag familiar to food shoppers in New York is very different to the purpose of a $10,000 Hermes handbag, but both have to live up to the expectations of the person carrying them. I find the expression helpful when considering wines like White Zinfandel, Pinot Grigio and Moscato that regularly attract the disdain of opinion formers. Critics approach these styles – at professional tastings - with the same set of analytical tools as they would apply to a premier cru Burgundy. And not surprisingly they find them wanting. It’s as though a Michelin inspector had been let loose on a sandwich. Saying that a commercial Pinot Grigio does not taste of very much is like complaining about the unsophisticated humour in a comedy movie aimed at teenagers. And if high volume Pinot Grigio producers gave their wine the flavour the critics call for, there's a very high chance that many of the millions of PG drinkers in bars across the globe would simply switch to a more neutral alternative - because that's the kind of stuff they're looking for to quaff mindlessly while focusing on the far more important business of gossip.

But just as it applies to Hermes handbags, ‘fit for purpose’ also applies to wines at the highest levels. Am I really alone in thinking that wines like the extravagantly-priced 2013 Bordeaux whose cellaring potential is acknowledged to be limited, actually fail the test that a cheap Pinot Grigio passes with flying colours? They don’t do what their most likely customers reasonably expect of them. 

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Bulk wine, the Appellation system - and how China is changing the game

Aldi Sancerre

Can you remember who made the last Chablis, Sancerre, Côtes du Rhône or Chianti you drank outside your home? As a reader of this post - and thus someone with at least a passing interest in wine - maybe you can, but I'll bet most ordinary consumers would have a hard time naming any producers of these wines. If one were to ask the same question about Rioja, they might recall Campo Viejo, Faustino and possibly Murrieta or Riscal, but that would be all. And how many Pinot Grigio or Prosecco brands does anyone know?

If, after a fairly lengthy acquaintanceship with Europe's appellations, we sophisticated westerners have little or no loyalty or relationship with the people who make the regionally-designated wines we drink, what of the Chinese? I'm just back from a trip to see current and prospective consultancy clients in China and was struck by the pride they took in their brand books. Retail chains with hundreds of stores have registered long lists of Chinese names for western wines. "Look here" one Chinese company owner said, "we have Michelangelo, Napoleon, Prado..." (Actually, these weren't the brands he'd registered - I'm not at liberty to reveal those - but you get the idea.) As the owner of the Michelangelo brand, he can go out to buy Chianti, Barolo or Montepulciano d'Abruzzo on the bulk market and sell it under that name. Prado will do for Rioja or any other Spanish wine style, while Napoleon can cover France.

Shoppers in a Beijing wine shop - from Daily Mail

This isn't a Chinese phenomenon, of course. In the US, big retailers like Trader Joe's and Total Wines & More are well known for their "private label" wines; indeed the former chain's Charles Shaw, aka "Two Buck Chuck" is one of the most famous wine brands in the US, if not the world. Aldi and Lidl, the two fastest-growing major retailers on planet earth boast shelves packed with attractively packaged 'brands' you'll never find outside their stores. And then of course there are Tesco efforts like Ogio and Dino, two of the only Pinot Grigios any British wine drinker is likely to know. All of these have one thing in common: they don't look like retailer-brands such as Tesco's Finest (currently Britain's biggest brand in its own right), they look like 'real' brands.

So why does global retailers' embracing of their own brands matter? Well, for many people, of course, it won't. Lots of consumers will happily get lots more reliable wine that they'll be perfectly happy with, and lots of big commercial wineries will be increasingly able to find homes for the contents of their tanks. For the romantic chatterati who like to imagine a utopian future where small is beautiful and everyone does all their shopping at farmer's markets, and for smaller producers looking for routes to market it's a disaster, of course. Every inch of shelf space that's occupied by MadeUpName Chianti or Rioja is an inch that's unavailable to a bottle from a real, identifiable winery.

But the trend is also bad news for the bigger brands, whose only chance of getting into the major stores is on the back of ever-increasing marketing "contributions". (A usage previously more usually associated with Mafia thugs requesting payment for 'protection' against their colleagues). And it's bad news for the appellations. After all, once the retailer has persuaded its customers to trust Michelangelo or Ogio, it is not difficult to change the regional origin of the contents of the bottles. This, after all is a path that is already well worn by 'proper' brands like the proudly 'Californian' Mark West whose Pinot Noir has unashamedly - and almost indistinguishably - been sourced from both the west coast state - and Languedoc Roussillon.

What fascinates me is the way that, over half a century after British, Dutch and Belgian claret drinkers became used to getting chateau-bottled rather than locally-bottled Bordeaux, bulk wine sales and shipment are doing better than ever. Over half of all New World wine is now shipped in bulk and there is a busy trade in bulk sales of such popular and premium-priced French wines as Chateauneuf du Pape. While most wine professionals compare the merits of Prowein, Vinexpo and the London Wine Fair, the trade show that's quietly gaining the most traction is arguably Amsterdam's annual Bulk Wine Fair in November.

Wine on wheels - from Decanter

The essential trouble with the bulk market is of course its absolute lack of long-term fidelity. The bottle of Ogio Pinot Grigio or Aldi Chablis you buy today might contain wine that was produced by quite different people from the one you picked up a few months ago. All that's required is for the liquid to fit the criteria set by the retailer, be available in the right volumes and at the right prices.

The lesson for wine producers everywhere is simple: you're no longer competing with the winery down the road; you're up against any business that can fill a retailer's bottles. If you don't make your brand a lot stronger than the region or category, you may be riding for a very big fall.

Monday, June 09, 2014

London gets its mojo back

Way back in March 2012, I wrote a post called "Last Chance to Save the London International Wine Fair". It was one of the most widely read and discussed pieces I penned at the time and elicited a wide range of mostly positive responses. Among these, incidentally, was one from Catherine Monahan that questioned why there were not more events at the show, and led directly to the launch of the first WineStars at that year's LIWF. But that's beside the point of this post.

The 2012 show was not a vibrant success, and the following year's event - the last to bear the word 'International' in its name - was a sorry affair, but by that time there was already talk of a move back to Olympia, the event's spiritual home, and a new show director, Ross Carter, who was going to breathe fresh life into it. Looking back, that 2013 LIWF felt rather like an end-of-season match performance by a team that knows it's on a losing streak and just wants to get through the 90 minutes and back into the changing room.

And so to 2014 at Olympia. Like many others, I flew in from the previous week's Vinexpo Asia Pacific in Hong Kong - a hugely successful event - and had reasonably fresh memories of a record-breaking Prowein in Dusseldorf. So, the London event had even more ground to make up than one might have imagined at the beginning of the year. And, I'd have to say that Ross Carter and his team did an absolutely brilliant job. Throughout the show, it was clear that Brintex, the LWF owners had been persuaded to do something they had patently avoided doing in the previous years: invest in their product. Money had been spent on eye-catching, quirky signage, on a number of 'zones' where well attended presentations were given throughout the three days, and on the creation of Esoterica, a new low-budget area on the balcony overlooking the Grand Hall where exhibitors who would once have had to shell out for a stand showed their wares on trestle tables for which they paid a fraction of the cost.

From the outset, LWF 2014 wore a smile and had a buzz. I've never attended a wedding where a couple remarried after a period of estrangement, but that was how it felt. Variations on the line "it's so good to be back" were uttered so often that I lost count, with one person fairly spitting as she added "and not having to go to that horrible place".

"That horrible place" is evidently a lot more offensive to wine people than to other mortals. Every year, the purpose-built Excel halls the wine trade were so eager to vacate welcome a mass of international attendees to the World Travel Market, dentists, auditors and brides-to-be looking for wedding dresses.

The world's biggest travel show - at Excel every year

Professional fashionistas have to travel even further for their annual event: they all trek up to that hub of global glamour, the purpose built shed of the NEC exhibition centre in Birmingham. For the Londoncentric wine fraternity, the very idea of going to Birmingham would be unthinkable, of course. But they're still happy enough to fly off to Dusseldorf for Prowein.

All of which is to say that, despite all those comments at Olympia, I still don't believe that the venue was the problem. If lots of business had been done at Excel, I doubt anyone would have dreamed of moving back into the city. But the human brain is a strange muscle. I have a friend who buys a new set of pricy clothes every time she goes job hunting. It makes her feel optimistic and good about herself. And it shows prospective employers that she's made an effort. The LWF did better than simply buy new clothes: it bought an outfit that happily reminded everybody of one they'd known and loved.

Will the 2014 event mark the beginning of a sustainable return to the Good Old Days of the London Wine Trade? Frankly, I doubt that the remarriage will ever have the passionate excitement of the first one because the world has moved on. We no longer have masses of Australians, Kiwis and Californians desperate to get a foot in this market; they're all increasingly focusing their attention on places that barely bought a bottle 20 years ago. As one producer said to me, "We're selling in all the 'stans' except Pakistan".

Back in the old days, London attracted buyers from across the globe; removing the word "International" from the name was like changing one's Facebook status from "single" to "in a relationship". It said that the LWF was all about selling wine to Brits. And there's nothing wrong with that, but it will tend to restrict the investment larger companies will put into the event. After all, the selling they do to Brits tends to happen in the offices of the bigger retailers.

As for the people who want to sell to the sommeliers and independents, they delightedly set out their stalls in Esoterica, the part of the show that was busiest and most popular with the opinion formers I met. And, if I hadn't had WinestarsWorld and a packed programme of meetings, Esoterica is where I'd have been too, glass in hand eager to sample a really impressive and eclectic array of wines.

Esoterica was financially attractive to everybody involved. Exhibitors spent little more to talk to the trade for three days than they do to present to the consumers who attend one-day events like Three Wine Men. And Brintex got a nice chunk of income from balcony space that would never appeal to big exhibitors. I reckon we could see Esoterica spin off as an event in its own right - like Three Wine Men - but I'm not sure that it will ever be as big a pillar of the revived LWF as the opinion formers imagine. Take it away from the show and there's a lot of Olympia to fill...

LWF 2014 was a tremendous achievement and Ross Carter and his team deserve a huge round of applause. The real test will come with the first and second anniversaries of the remarriage. Will Liberty and Pernod Ricard return to the fray. Will there be a revival of Australian interest in the event? Will the Lebanese, Croatians et all continue to exhibit when they count the numbers of bottles they are selling? We'll see. But optimists noted that this year's show coincided with the announcement that Oddbins was expanding and looking to climb back to the numbers of stores it had in the 1990s. For the moment at least, the London wine scene really did seem to have got some of its mojo back.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Of Coke, Hendricks Gin, Wine and Happiness

You may like Coke or hate it. You may believe its's a sugary confection concocted by the devil expressly for the corruption (and obesity and tooth decay) of young souls - or a brilliantly balanced, refreshing beverage that does not actually owe its global ubiquity to luck, memorable packaging and a big marketing budget. I actually drink and enjoy Coke on occasion, though not the diet versions because I really can't stand the metallic character of aspartame.

But personal opinions of the drink aside, there's no denying the brilliance of the way Coke is marketed. The message is clear: this is a fun drink that will make you and - and this is crucially important - the people around you happier. Just look at these two clips:

If neither of them make you smile and force you to offer a nod of respect to the cleverness of the Atlanta pop-maker, we're on different pages.

But then - yes, this still is a place to find thinking about wine - ask yourself when was the last time you saw any marketing that was about wine being about fun and friendship. Which is a little strange really, when you think about the way most normal people drink it. Barefoot Wines in the US does this brilliantly, but it's an exception to the rule. 

Now take a peak at the Hendrick's gin website.

I'm giving a lot of thought about this at the moment because we are planning the overhaul of the le Grand Noir website which is currently downright dull. Our challenge: to give people who care about where the wine came from and how it was made, the (boring-to-most-normal-mortals) information they want, while conveying that the real reason to buy our delicious $10 wine is actually simply to have a better time with the people around you. 


You may like wine or hate it. You may believe it's an alcoholic confection concocted by the devil expressly for the corruption (and liver disease and dependency and car crashes) of souls of all ages - or a brilliantly balanced, refreshing beverage that does not actually owe its global ubiquity to luck, hard-to-open packaging and tradition. I actually drink and enjoy wine rather frequently, though not the more extreme "natural" versions because I really can't stand the metallic character of brettanomyces..