Seriously, Who is Your Customer?

So, who’s your customer?

It’s complicated. Wine drinkers, sure. They’re the end-end customers, the people who love wine—and just might love your wine.

IMG_2611But a wine marketer’s customers are also distributors, wholesalers, retailers, on-premise buyers—the myriad players in the epic drama of the three-tier system.

That’s why consumer targeting isn’t enough. Wine brands also need business-to-business strategies to build reach and loyalty—techniques gleaned from experts both inside and outside of the wine industry.

At its tenth Exchange forum, held earlier last month at Bardessono in Yountville, Calif., Nomacorc gathered marketing and branding experts and a roomful of wine marketers. The agenda: a daylong discussion of tactics to identify, delight, and build loyalty—whether your customer is a single twenty-something or a twenty-restaurant chain. 

The lessons?

First Up: Chase the Accounts that Matter

Peter Isaacson is chief marketing officer for Demandbase, a technology company offering B2B tools for lead identification and targeting.

“One of the cool things about my job is that I get to go all over the country talking to really smart marketing peers,” he said. But everywhere he goes he hears the same lament: “My advertising doesn’t work. My website sucks. And the sales guys don’t follow up on my leads.”

Meanwhile, salespeople think marketers don’t do enough to support them. Cooperation is nil.

Still, marketing is expected to closely serve lead generation and sales cycles, and that pressure starts long before a salesperson gets involved. Some estimates put 60 to 80 percent of the buying process on the marketer’s shoulders. “You’ve got to participate in the buying cycle well past what we have traditionally done,” said Isaacson.

But marketing can’t simply pile scores of leads into the top of a sales funnel and expect salespeople to magically identify the good ones. And B2C tactics like “spray and pray” don’t work, nor does persona marketing, because there’s not enough information and detail to make an accurate target. What to do?

Enter the charms of account-based marketing (ABM), a suite of techniques that tie marketing and sales teams together. It rests on the notion that at any given moment, only a handful of companies will be good prospects. “There’s a limited set of accounts that’s going to drive the vast majority of your business,” said Isaacson. Ergo: Companies can gain efficiencies and accelerate conversion by marketing primarily to companies who are ready to buy.

The approach has been around for nearly twenty years, but “It’s in the midst of a ‘crossing the chasm’ type of moment,” Isaacson said, gaining traction with companies that want to move beyond mass-marketing and apply more targeted approaches. Technology has finally caught up, too, allowing easier personalization of digital content and advertising.

ABM is a sales-driven marketing strategy, which lets teams:

  • Identify and organize likely audiences for the product;
  • Attract with targeted advertising;
  • Engage those who are most attracted; and
  • Convert with personalized marketing content.


Which basically translates to: Fish where the fish are—and where the fish are hungry.

“Once you align your sales and marketing teams around specific accounts—and actually collaborate in going after those accounts—you’re more likely to have a good conversations. Then you can actually close them and keep them as ongoing customers,” Isaacson said.

On the tech side, Demandbase’s product supports ABM by linking together disparate data from a company’s CRM, web analytics, social services, and advertising networks, then identifies users at corporations that have been anointed top leads. The system serves those users targeted messages.

But, how do you translate that to wine, especially for small labels?

Even without special technology, you can monitor traffic to your website from on- or off-premise accounts, including distributors and import and export firms. Chances are some of those folks are visiting your site right now.

“If an account that matters comes to your website, you want to follow up with them,” said Isaacson. Maybe it’s BevMo! or Spec’s, Darden, or RNDC. “You make sure you know in real time so you can contact that account that day—that hour. You’re not chasing everyone on your website. You’re only chasing the accounts that matter.”

Wine brands can also monitor social analytics to understand which companies and consumers are engaged on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Wine marketers should also be sure to partner with their sales teams to target accounts and channel partners most ready to buy, collaborating to ensure the messaging online and in email, tech sheets, shelf talkers, brochures, and other collateral is consistent and reflects what sales people know works well in the field.

Plus, it’s critical to review your marketing success metrics to focus on outcomes over inputs—not how many emails you sent, but how many emails reached a prospect that later bought wine.

You can do all of this analog. It’s just slower—and maybe more human scale.


Lesson Two: Copy Hallmark

IMG_2618Brad VanAuken and Derrick Daye were up next at The Exchange, shifting the conversation to branding.

The men are partners in The Blake Project, a brand consultancy with clients like Coca-Cola, Wyndham Worldwide, the International Culinary Center, and other consumer and corporate brands.

Daye, who launched The Blake Project in 2003, is an alumnus of Saachi & Saachi and other top-tier ad agencies. VanAuken, formerly of Hallmark and the e-learning company Element K, is author of Brand Aid: An Easy Reference Guide To Solving Your Toughest Branding Problems and Strengthening Your Market Position, now in its second edition.

VanAuken launched the talk. At Hallmark, he told us, his first assignment was to increase brand equity—although none of his fellow executives could tell him what that really meant.

So VanAuken and a team of researchers did a deep dive, reviewing a sheaf of brand models and ultimately determining that all of them relied on essentially five core attributes:

  1. Awareness: Are customers aware of your product? It is top of mind?
  1. Relevant Differentiation: Is your product unique in ways customers care about?
  1. Value: Does your product deliver good value—functional and emotional—for its price?
  1. Accessibility: Do customers believe they can easily get their hands on your product? Is it available?
  1. Emotional Connectedness: Does your product trigger good feelings? Do your customers identify with it?

Building persistent brands requires marketers to think about value delivery. “I think people in this room need to stop thinking about themselves as wine marketers,” said Daye. “You should be thinking of yourselves as value creators. That’s because we live in an over-communicated society. There’s way too much noise… so all of this is really about differentiation—because if you don’t have a relevant difference, you just don’t matter. You don’t rise above the noise.”

VanAuken chimed in: “Sometimes all you have to do is make your brand likeable.”

Sure, but how?

VanAuken leaned on sensory triggers as key to brand affinity. The sensory attributes of a brand can powerfully activate emotional responses in a customer’s mind. “Triggers can be images, colors, shapes, textures, sounds, flavors, attitudes, personalities—all associated with a brand,” he said. “When you notice them, your brain pulls up the brand.”

Coca-Cola has mastered this, he says. Think of the shape of the Coke bottle, the color of the product, the distinctive typography, the droplets of condensation on the outside—all of these cues are designed to trigger not just brand recognition but visceral response: thirst.

Plus—in a special lesson for food brands: “Scent,” said VanAuken said, “is the most powerful emotional trigger.” But Marcom often relies solely on visual and text, “The key thing is to figure out what your triggers are, and be consistent.”

Wine seems uniquely positioned. (Do you show your white wine bottles with droplets on the glass?)

An audience member raised her hand. Are there any lessons wine marketers can learn from Hallmark, your former employer? VanAuken hedged: “Hallmark never created a holiday,” he said. It simply capitalized on holidays that were already there. Still, perhaps wine brands can take a leaf from that book. “Maybe create a new culture, a new ritual, around a usage occasion,” he offered—for example, by promoting wine as the beverage you pour while preparing dinner.

“Create a new need segment, so that when you do that particular activity, it has to be wine. It can’t be a martini. It can’t be beer. It has to be wine.”

Then sell them that wine.

Finally: Real Stuff. Real Message

The day wrapped with a panel moderated by Cynthia Lohr, trade and brand advocate at J. Lohr Vineyards and Wines, and three experts from the wine industry.

Lohr asked again: So, who’s the customer?

 Bear Dalton answered first. He’s the fine wine buyer at Spec’s, a major wine, liquor, and fine foods chain in Texas. When Dalton gets pitched—whether by a commodity broker or fine wine company—he needs to keep his end-end customer in mind.

“I’d better have a pretty good idea who the customer is,” he said. “Even if I’m thinking, ‘Wow, this is a pretty good wine.’ But if I have no idea who’s going to buy it—that probably means I’m not going to take the wine.”

Amelia Ceja, owner of Ceja Vineyards, had no trouble with this question. In 2001, when Ceja expanded from grape growing to bottled wine, they did their homework.

“We looked at the marketplace and saw that the wine industry wasn’t actually inviting everyone to enjoy wine,” she said. “It was not very democratic. People who love cuisines from the Mediterranean were not really addressed. So, we realized there was room to launch a brand from our estate-grown grapes, making wines that are not just delicious by themselves, but really great with food.”

What did that mean, for production? Lower-alcohol wines, wines with good acidity, yes. But also education.

Ceja, a chef, has since produced over 140 videos on preparing Mexican cuisine to serve with her wines. The most popular video, a recipe for posole, has garnered nearly 170,000 views. The approach seems to be working. Ceja Vineyards has grown from 750 cases at launch to about 10,000, and are now adding capacity to meet additional demand.

But in other industry segments? What about on the trade side?

“Our customers really start with the supply market,” said DC Flynt, MW, an importer-exporter. “If they’re a small producer like a Burgundian vigneron,” he said, “Even though we’re buying from them, in a way they’re our customer.” A customer that has to be convinced that Flynt’s company will keep their market promises.

This holds throughout the supply chain, he continued, from big partners to small package shops to on-premise accounts. Flynt and his team are frequent flyers, working the market to watch how people buy. “You’ll learn a lot by visiting the shops and restaurants where consumers are making purchase decisions,” he said. “To find out who your customer is, you have to have that connection. You have to spend a lot of time in the market.”

What all of these industry professionals find—no surprise!—is that customers value authenticity. Up and down the chain, brands that telegraph authenticity, quality, and a good QPR earn trust.

Dalton summed it up. “The skepticism we see now from the customer who’s 30 to 55 years old is unprecedented. We’re looking for a valid story to tell the customer that they can believe and verify,” he said, adding, “we’ve never seen such skepticism before—because they’ve been lied to so much by brands.” As an example, he cited a French wine brand whose story was part reality, part fiction, but ultimately not propped up by truth. It failed. Horribly.

The takeaway? The marketing and sales team needs real stuff, a real message, something solid to build on. “And the wine has to be really good,” adds Dalton.

Amelia Ceja takes an expansive view of the marketing challenge. “We just want to increase the number of consumers—period—for everybody,” she said. “There is really no competition in the wine industry, because we all have our own story.” Clearly her own success story connects emotionally. It’s all-American. It’s authentic.

“We make the style of wines that we love, because we can sell what we love,” she said. So: “Who is our customer? It’s you. It’s you, it’s you, it’s you.”

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.

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