Wine Industry, Consumers, and Social Media: A Brand Loyalty Conundrum

I am annoyed and conflicted sorting through the efficacy of social media deployment for wineries intending to build brand loyalty.   My visceral understanding of the raw marketing power unleashed by well deployed social media programs and a personal conviction that wine consumers ought to embrace brand/winery/vineyard/house styles and reject brand loyalty fuels my sloppy moral and intellectual combustion.   Each growing season, nature impacts wines made from the same varietal, vineyard, and grower creating great, good, average, or bad wines that wreak havoc on the fulfillment of a predictable consumer wine experience.  These kinds of wild cards are absent in the year to year delivery of consistent consumer experiences by brands like Burger King, Coke, Oreo, and their brethren mass marketers.  Is it advisable succumbing to brand loyalty for purchasing products where the consumer experience is inconsistent year to year?

I am a “style groupie”.  As just one example, I like Chateauneuf-du-Pape wines, but I don’t buy them every year.  I even try to keep verticals of certain wineries, like Beaucastel and Janasse, but am unsuccessful and don’t even buy them every year.  It’s not the brand, it’s the style I am dedicated to.  More importantly,  I crave a certain quality reward in every bottle I open and the influence of vintage looms large, never permitting brand loyalty an upper hand in purchase decisions year to year.

Here is an excerpt of a piece that appeared in SF Gate yesterday that was retweeted 90 times and shared on Facebook 66 times as of this writing:

…a few key players who have turned to social media and other viral digital tools to remain relevant and stoke interest in their brands are reaping the rewards.

Take Rutherford’s St. Supéry Vineyards & Winery. In August of last year, not long before the Wine Market Council shared mostly dismal news for wineries in its annual state-of-the industry findings, St. Supéry hired a dedicated social media marketer and dramatically increased its participation on social sites like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Ustream and Foursquare.

For St. Supéry, it seems to be working. Among other improvements, the winery reports that wine-club attrition has dropped to half its pre-August rate (the industry average is 5 to 15 percent a month) – a significant statistic, given that direct sales score the highest margins for wineries among the various sales channels available to them.

Is it wrong to buy a wine each year based on winery loyalty even though the year-over-year quality delivery is inconsistent? After all, wine is the ultimate subjective pleasure and if you like what you are drinking, is blind loyalty ill advised?  Wine clubs are the deepest measure of brand loyalty in wine marketing, and it was clear from the St. Supéry case study that social media delivered an accelerated loyalty rate.  If someone thrills at drinking wine from an over-sized bottle (no reference to St. Supéry) with deep punt and purple label adorned with a tricky gold embossed logo of a pig and half moon, should anyone tell them to stop? Personally, I am always hesitant to pop anyone’s satisfaction or loyalty bubble for a single wine brand, even when I know the wines to be completely inconsistent year to year.  If a lethal brand building tool like social media can create more “Stepford wife”-like wine drinkers, can social media marketing by wineries be labeled a benign marketing strategy where consumers are concerned?  It seems perfectly fine from the winery side of the aisle with outcomes no different than the allure created by expensive tasting rooms, pretty wineries, advertising, and other public relations tactics.  So, just what is it about social media deployment by wineries that fuels my angst?

I pick on wineries and social media with the greatest trepidation, since both are important and favorite themes that I have built large parts of my life around these days.   I spend daylight hours working in support of more than 1000 social media clients (see DigitalSherpa) I feel responsible to and devote parts of most evenings in pursuit of my life passion for wine enthusiasm.   The depth of this immersion has me convinced that social media builds brand loyalty perfectly well, and the quality of wine produced by any one winery can (almost) never be the same year to year.  While vineyard and other characteristics that contribute to style are detectable despite changeable growing conditions and blending approaches, in almost all cases quality and satisfaction rates are not as steady.

I was hoping to answer my question and resolve my conflict by writing about it here.  I am not sure I have.  I am resolutely proud to be influential in the execution of the social media programs we turnkey for hundreds of businesses and professionals, where almost all of our clients offer a consistent style and consumer experience that we inject into their content for marketing on the web and into their known communities of followers.  But I can not get my head around social media campaigns with the objective of developing wine brand loyalty. While wine marketing is nothing new, I just interpret social media as too powerful for wineries and an interference in consumers’ ability to develop independent palates and discrimination.  Possibly, if social media programs were deployed to achieve “style loyalty” and not “brand loyalty” I might feel less conflict.  I am attracted to the inconsistent effects nature has on wine, and there are plenty of paths for discovering the truth about a wine before buying it.  Brand evangelism is not one of them.

What do you think?

  • http://associated-press.net/wine/ Frank Reynolds

    A great article, I must say! You nailed it right on the head. Brand loyalty is the godsend of this industry.