Storytelling is the New Marketing: Five Lessons for Wine Brands Shifting Toward Narrative


“How do I tell a story that makes my $15 Cabernet different from your $15 Cabernet?”

The roomful of wine industry pros leaned forward in their seats. They’d gathered for a daylong discussion about how wine brands can use storytelling to win consumers’ hearts and minds. This session: “Telling the Story,” a panel discussion moderated by Nomacorc’s Katie Myers, communications manager for the Americas. Her question snapped everyone to attention.

“Well, it’s not easy,” replied panelist Steve Heimoff, disappointing those hoping for a quick-fix. Heimoff is a wine journalist and director of wine communications and education at Jackson Family Wines. It depends on who you are, he continued, how big or small, how well you know your consumer. “You have to think, brainstorm, analyze—

—it’s hard work.”

Michael Fox chimed in. He’s vice president of brand and innovation for Safeway, and TheExchangePanelpreviously worked as a consumer strategist at PepsiCo–Frito-Lay. “All of you here are communicating the magic of Napa. You’re showing beautiful hills and beautiful sun and great grapes, the winery dog… And it’s all beautiful, but it’s all the same.”

“One of the challenges is in not trying to be everything to everybody,” panelist Matt Sitomer added quickly. He’s a founding employee in VaynerMedia who consults with Fortune 500 companies on brand strategy and brand storytelling. “Don’t try to embrace all of that rich heritage.” You have to be yourself—uniquely yourself.

Clearly, differentiation is key. But how can brands distinguish themselves in a crowded, noisy marketplace?

The answer lies in transforming wine marketing into wine storytelling. And that demands a whole new way of working, a willingness to ditch tired tropes and trite clichés, to look beyond the features and benefits charts, the price-value equations, the “This wine got 91 points!” blah blah blah.

“Positioning statements are like Mad Libs for marketing,” said Fox. “Just fill in the blanks! It feels really forced. A much easier model for talking about product is to articulate it in the tone of a story.”

And not just any story—your story, one that’s scrupulously authentic. For wine brands, that means looking at the company’s origins, its people and mission, to find product and brand narratives that are both compelling and truthful.

Consumers are skeptical of being manipulated, and younger consumers—the Millennials now squarely in wine brands’ sights—are the most skeptical of all. The point of telling a story is not to persuade someone of something that isn’t true. It’s to persuade someone of something that is true.

So, how should wine marketers transform themselves into wine storytellers? None of the panelists professed to have all the answers, but below are five recommendations gleaned from this rich discussion.

A Path to the New Wine Marketing:

1.      First, figure out who you are.

Review your winery’s origins and ethos. Sitomer suggests asking yourself simple but essential questions: “Why does this winery exist in the first place? How did it come to be? What does it stand for?” The answers will help you define your enduring brand points, which you can use to drive content marketing across channels.TheExchangePanelSupport

So for example, if food-friendly wine is part of your brand ethos, then “Go all in on food and wine. Make it all about that,” he says. Own the idea of food and wine pairing, and tailor that idea to channels where it can really shine. Create Pinterest boards featuring your wines surrounded by recipes from around the web. And not, “Here’s a recipe for poaching salmon in our Sauvignon Blanc,” he cautions, but recipes that deliver value to anyone.

“Be true to who you are, and be honest about what the brand is all about,” he says. “Then drive storytelling from a point like that.”

2.      Decide how your enduring brand points differ from your neighbor’s, then make that difference central to your approach across all channels.

For example, at Frito-Lay, Fox led an effort to reposition Stacy’s pita chips. The existing marketing showed the chips in beautiful natural light, and “It was pretty, but it was boring.”

So his team took a tour of the plant to look for inspiration—a return to the brand’s origin—and learned that it takes 14 hours to make a single batch of chips. “The plant workers were like, ‘Yes, it’s totally inefficient, but it’s totally the right way to do it.’”

Fox’s team had found their differentiator, and this led to the new brand slogan—“the hard way, the better way, the Stacy’s way.” Testing this message with customers proved it would be a home run.

“You all have differentiating details in all of your brands,” says Fox. “Latch onto them.”

3.)     Build stories with tension points and conflict.

“There are five narratives in the world,” says Fox. “How can you connect your brand to one of them?”

Regardless of whether you believe there are five or seven or a dozen, all story archetypes hinge on three elements: protagonist, goal, obstacles. There is always a conflict or struggle, some loss, a success, perhaps a transformation.

So, if you think of your brand as a protagonist in a story, ask yourself, What is it trying to achieve? What’s in its way? That’s the stuff of true drama, with your brand as the hero at the center. “You must look for tension points and conflict,” adds Fox. Then connect your brand to the resolution.

4.)     Keep it fresh.

Let’s say you’ve successfully built a dedicated fan base around your brand. Your loyal customers always know how to find your wine on store shelves. How can you innovate without alienating these important consumers?

To get the answer, go back to fundamentals, conducting qualitative and quantitative research to understand what drives the consumers’ connection to that brand.

For example, at Safeway, Fox recently led an effort to re-fresh the Lucerne line of dairy products. He conducted consumer focus groups to understand which factors drove their feeling of emotional connectedness, then used those as the basis of the re-boot.

“You have to ask yourself both ‘What’s the timeless truth about your brand,’ and ‘What’s the timely expression of that truth?’” he says. Then modulate and refresh the look staying true to those drivers.

5.)     Continuously refine your voice.

Try a brand voice session, suggests Sitomer, gathering your team and posing questions like, “How would this brand say thank you? How would it say hello, or goodbye?” Find that voice, then figure out how to keep all communications human and conversational.

This is especially critical in the wine social channel, where the chatter’s always happening in real time. Keep it light, don’t get bogged down. “There’s a tendency to overthink it,” cautions Heimoff. “But it’s just us!”—just a lot of people talking about something they love.

Photo Credit: Wine Folly

About the Author

Meg Houston Maker, CSW, is wine and food journalist focusing on traditional foodways, artisanal food and wine production, and the intersection of nature and culture. She travels extensively to visit and taste with producers, and her freelance writing has garnered mention by The New York Times, The Daily Beast, Brain Pickings, The Kitchn, Wine Business Monthly, and other publications. She is a juried member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, a Certified Specialist of Wine, and a professional member of the French Wine Society, the Society of Wine Educators, and the Guild of Sommeliers. Meg publishes regular dispatches on her own award-winning site, Maker’s Table. Learn more at or follow her on Twitter @megmaker.


  1. Good advice I got about branding and message came from a TECHmunch panel with Andrew Wilder (Eating Rules) and Jackie Dodd (The Beeroness) a few years back. I can’t find the exact Twitter dialog, but both of them asked the audience if they could describe their brand in 5 words or less. Eating Rules was “healthy eating doesn’t suck” and The Beeroness was “I cook with beer”.

  2. Hi, Jameson. Thanks for reading and for your comments. That “five words” exercise does sound instructive for any marketing team—kudos to both Wilder and Dodd for getting the job done in only four.

  3. Meg, this piece is really clear and such a great resource! I will be sharing this with my students tonight (Professional Social Media Certification at Sonoma State University) and with my corporate clients. Thanks for writing it!

  4. I couldn’t agree more Meg. My book ‘Heart & Soul: Australia’s First Families of Wine’ is a perfect example. It tells the stories of twelve Australian wine families – mostly household names here in Australia – and all twelve still family owned. The stories are inspirational. Sometimes tragic, sometimes funny, sometimes stranger than fiction. It was translated into Chinese because Chinese consumers want the stories behind the wine.

    I am not a wine expert (although I learnt a lot writing the book), but a storyteller. Working on more books along the same lines and a documentary film.

    Thanks for writing and posting the article.

  5. One of the best articles I’ve read on giving your brand a voice. Thanks Meg. I make wine for love and run a Digital Agency for fun. I am going to give your article to all our clients particularly those with whom we work on social media. Your ideas work across many segments not just wine.

  6. Kerry, Graeme, and Jonathan, thank you so much for your kind remarks. I can confirm that these exercises do work well across industries. I recently used a few of these tactics with a higher education client, and that particular group of academics and administrators found the approaches both enlightening and valuable.

  7. What has been lost in this conversation and lost for the last 40 years in the wine industry is the profound difference between brand message and product message. If Steve Jobs had started a winery, instead of software company , do you really believe he would first speak about the soil, oak, grapes or winemakers? Would the brand experience be defined by ones visit to the winery or the web-site?
    The tips above are useful if you apply them to your brand message, which is not your product message. The story is not related to the product if you want a brand and not a commodity.

    Why would anyone change a label that was experiencing explosive growth of plus 60%? Except for self-actualization purposes.
    Best to all.

  8. I am now studing on wine branding, and what strikes me is that 95% of the articles ì read focus on the advantages and needs for producers. But what are the advantages and disadvantages for consumers?

  9. Hi Meg, nice post. I like to hear that twelve Australian wines are still family owned. I like how you told story and history behind the winery, and their philosophy. Thanks for sharing.

  10. Thanks for sharing and i am thinking to mention your blog on my next article because this is the first time i am landing on your blog
    In order to build authority wine blog build brand is really helpful thanks for sharing and keep sharing

Leave a Reply