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Successful storytelling
“Wine doesn’t sell wine. Stories do.”

Every year, spring and its raft of trade shows is the ideal time for companies to take stock of their marketing strategies. Why do some stands attract a constant flow of visitors while others are virtually empty? Preparation work is obviously key but a company’s ability to tell a story and connect with its clients and consumers could be the real cause. Michael Wangbickler, associate director of Balzac Communications & Marketing in the Napa Valley, shares his views on the art of storytelling.
By Sharon Nagel April 05, 2017
“Wine doesn’t sell wine. Stories do.”
hat would you say are the main components of a good story?

A key tenet of the wine business, is that wine doesn’t sell wine. Stories do. Making good wine only gets you part of the way there. What will set you apart from the crowd of other wineries? Telling a good story allows you to make a connection with the customer. Offering them something to relate to is the best path to customer interest and loyalty. The basis of a good story is choosing something that is unique to the individual winery. Why did they start the winery? What other interests do they share? Besides the wine, what might be of interest the customer? Is the owner a race car driver, a fifth-generation farmer, or a lover of dogs? Don’t tell me you are family-owned, you make small lots of premium wine, or that the wine is made in the vineyard. Why? Because there are literally thousands of other wineries telling the same story. Find what makes you unique and embrace it.


Does wine have advantages over other sectors when it comes to storytelling?

Yes and no. The rich tapestry of wine, and why people decide to make it, offer many great opportunities to craft compelling stories. The challenge is in finding what makes the winery special. Because of the fractured nature of the business, that isn’t often easy and is often the most important area of focus for us when we begin working with a client.


Could you give examples of successful storytelling?

We work with Wente Family Estates in Livermore Valley, California. Over five generations, the family-owned wine company has grown into an international success. The fact that they are family owned is only part of the story, but rather that the winery is the OLDEST, CONTINUOUSLY operated family-run winery in the country is one of the things that sets them apart. How have they gotten there? By embracing the “love of the journey.” Every day, they strive to be better than the day before. They’ve worked relentlessly to grow and produce great California wines. They don’t do it because they have to… they do it because they love to. That is a good story.


How does/should a story correlate with the packaging?

Your packaging is often the first exposure you have to the customer. First impressions matter. The image you portray on the bottle/box/etc. should align with your brand essence or story. A miss-match can cause brand confusion and lost customers.


Should back labels be used for storytelling purposes?

Within reason. You are not given a lot of real estate on a back label, but what you say should count. Some may disagree, but I suggest that you don’t waste the space on tasting notes or pairing suggestions. They can get that from anywhere. Give them a taste of the story and hopefully they will want more.


What should wine producers avoid when telling their story?

Technical jargon. Most wine drinkers don’t care about the barrel regimen or malo-lactic fermentation. Nobody buys a car because of the special brake pads used. They buy it because it drives well and aligns with their personal image. Yet, we in the wine business, insist on giving customers chemistry and botany lessons when selling wines. Sell the experience, not the manufacturing process.


Do you have to be a large, long-standing company – hence one that has had many different experiences – to be able to recount a compelling story?

Not at all. As individuals, we are all a product of our own experiences. Tell the story of the winemaker/owner and why they began this journey. What is it that drives them to make wine? While it’s not always easy, every winery should be able to find something about them that will help craft a compelling story.


Is storytelling the right tack for every winery to take?

Unequivocally, yes. Even Yellow Tail has a story. They developed a“wine brand inspired by fun and a belief in making wine uncomplicated in a world of complexity.” If you are able to connect in some way with your core consumer, you win.


Should negative aspects be incorporated to enhance the happy ending/fighting spirit effect?

If it is core to the essence of the brand/winery. Everybody likes a story of people overcoming adversity, but you should only highlight it if it helps build the brand. Leave it out, if it doesn’t.


Some claim that New World producers are happy to recount ‘rags-to-riches’ stories whereas Old World producers aren’t. Would you agree with this?

Speaking from the perspective of the USA, that is probably true. That archetypal tale is buried deep in the American culture, as the country has been touted as the land of opportunity for more than 200 years. Countless tales exist of immigrants coming to America in search of a better life, and finding it. Of course, most of us realize that this is simply not true in many cases, but the promise is still there. Old World producers are generally more rooted in history and longevity, as they’ve been making wine in most of the regions for many centuries. To them, tradition may be more important. That’s okay. You can build a story from either direction.


Do you think Old World producers should change their tack and if so, what kind of aspects should they be incorporating into their stories?

It would be hard generalize for all Old World producers. I think the most important factor, is that most European producers can’t rely on their local market like the USA can. They need to be able to export their wines to compete. As such, they need to consider what will work best in each market. Building a compelling story behind the wines and the winery can help them achieve that, especially in the USA. What makes one Rioja or Bordeaux wine different from the next? Or, why should they buy them over a California Cabernet Sauvignon? Give them a reason to fall in love with you.


You work with companies in various parts of the world. If you had to choose a region that has mastered the art of storytelling, which one would it be and why?

None. They all have their challenges. Individual wineries have figured it out, but no one region has all the answers. Champagne is probably the closest. There is opportunity for everyone to improve.


How would you describe, generally speaking, French attempts to tell a story?

I can’t. There are so many different regions with so many different wineries. Bordeaux does things differently from Burgundy, and Champagne does things differently than Vouvray. That said, however, I have noticed that many tend to focus a bit too much on their vineyards and not enough on the people involved or the experience they offer.


A good website is important. What makes it successful?

Your website is your most important marketing tool. It is accessible from anywhere in the world, and is often the first place that key influencers (media and trade) go for information. As such, it needs to act as a central point of information and contact for your winery. Technology doesn’t matter (though I would avoid Adobe Flash). It’s the content that is important. The website should be able to tell your story in words, photos, and videos that communicate the brand story. Visitors shouldn’t have to dig for the most important info about your winery and wines, so make it easy for people to navigate. If you wish to conduct business in the USA, you must have an English version, and the translation should be done by a native speaker.


Social media is now uppermost in wine communicators’ minds. Can wineries afford not to have a social media presence?

Not really. It’s part of the marketing mix now. A Facebook page is the very minimum and Instagram if you have attractive photos you can share.


A recent study by Wine Intelligence showed that the actual Facebook reach of a brand is extremely marginal. What is your opinion?

Reach is a function of two elements: time and money. The more of each you spend on social channels, the more reach you will have. BUT, that overlooks the true power of social, which is not reach but engagement. An engaged user is far more influential than ten that aren’t. Quality contacts are more important to your brand than quantity. Like any marketing tool, it needs to be used effectively to show any kind of results.


How is social media moving forward and what changes should wineries be aware of in their social media efforts?

Things are moving in the direction of more visuals. Instagram, Pinterest, and Snapchat focus on photo and video. Even Facebook and Twitter now have richer visual presentations. Fortunately, most wineries have ample opportunity to share interesting visuals. Beyond that, I won’t worry too much about the newest social tools. I recommend that people focus their attention on the channels that most people use and do them well.


Finally, what additional advice would you give wineries on how to communicate effectively about their brand?

I can only reiterate what I’ve already stated. Find something that is unique to you and build your story around it. Stick with it. Don’t change it once you’ve determined what it is. Once you are sick of telling the same story over and over again, that is when people will finally start to listen.

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