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Long Read: Who do you think you are talking to?

Published:  14 October, 2021

Simon Huntington, former head of ecommerce at trade merchant and retailer Roberson Wine, looks at some of the difficulties faced by companies who have diversified into online retail and outlines how by trying to talk to everyone, they risk being heard by no one.

The last eighteen months saw an explosion in online retail via direct to consumer, as it became the only way that those stuck at home could continue to buy and enjoy their favourite wines. Established players in this market like Roberson Wine, which set up its first ecommerce website in 2008, reported unprecedented growth. At the same time, many previously trade-exclusive importers rushed to diversify their businesses, to tap into the only sales channel left standing during repeated lockdowns.

Yet as the dust settles and we return to normality, many are discovering that this diversification means that they now find themselves talking to multiple audiences, whose interests can be markedly different.

Pitched to a passionate sommelier, a wine’s appeal might be the clonal selection and soil substrates of the vineyard in which it was grown. A heavily commercial buyer might be more concerned that offering it by the glass will come with a generous retro agreement. Of course, there are consumers out there who are also enthused by the esoterica of wine production. Many more just want to buy something affordable and delicious that goes well with roast chicken.

These differences in the buying triggers of diverse customers mean that companies which impose a ‘one size fits all’ approach to the buying and marketing of their wines will find that their activity will struggle to cut through.

We experienced this at Roberson Wine with Love Europe – a multi-channel campaign aimed at both trade and consumer, which we launched in 2017 following the UK’s decision to leave the European Union. Our aim was to communicate that, whatever the UK’s future political relationship with the EU, we remained passionately committed to our European suppliers, and just as excited to import and share their amazing wines.

We allocated a significant budget to the campaign and designed a custom logo and bright, energetic branding that would reflect a new, younger generation of European winemakers making well-priced, accessible wines.

The public loved it. Tickets to our tasting sold out, dozens of orders were placed, and we received hundreds of mailing-list sign ups from a new, young, more gender-equal demographic of customer.

Yet the trade component of the campaign bombed. The message that worked so well with younger consumers failed to engage professional buyers, who already knew about inexpensive European wines, and who expected to have samples brought to them, not to have to travel to east London for the privilege of a tasting.

By trying to talk to everyone at the same time in the same way, half of our audience had tuned out.

A year later, we had learned this lesson when we started planning new campaigns to promote our US range. To trade we launched Parallels, a campaign culminating in a centrally located tasting that featured a deep and esoteric range, must-try older vintages, and many of our most sought-after winemakers themselves, who flew over from the US to attend. Professional buyers were engaged by an in-depth conversation on the parallels between boutique, premium American and European wines.

At the same time, we told an aspirational consumer-led story to our DTC channels, which featured a virtual road-trip of the US west coast, and a mix of content marketing, email campaigns, social activity and competitions tailored to appeal to different segments of our customer database.

Both campaigns significantly increased sales of US wine and won prizes at 2019’s IWC and Decanter awards. In hindsight, it is obvious that this more bespoke approach would succeed. After all, it is sales training 101 to find out what your customer wants, and then offer it to them in a way they understand and enjoy.

Yet building entirely separate and tailored marketing campaigns requires a level of resourcing that many smaller companies will find difficult to allocate, and entirely different types of skills to deliver. The wine trade has many brilliant generalists, but the technical skills needed to research and build a paid search campaign that generates strong ROI are quite different to the traditional PR ‘soft’ skills needed to network and build relationships with influential trade buyers.

At the same time, aggressive and tech-savvy start-ups are entering the market, more likely to employ people with data science degrees than wine knowledge. By offering a broader range, smarter, more personalised content, or delivery mechanisms that short-circuit price-sensitive purchasing decisions, they will significantly disrupt the online retail space.

So, what’s the solution? You could spend thousands on building platforms and training staff with digital skills yet find that your range isn’t tailored towards the wines that the public wants to buy. You could outsource much of your digital marketing to third parties yet find that their lack of detailed wine knowledge hinders their ability to generate compelling and authoritative content.

There’s no easy answer, except to be aware of the problem and very clear about where your business priorities lie. If the core of your business is about selling to trade, then you’ll need to make sure that you’re importing the kinds of wine that the trade wants to buy, and that your staff talk about them in a way that the trade finds interesting. You may have to accept that ecommerce will remain a niche, albeit high-margin, sales channel for your business.

On the other hand, if your ambition is to continue to grow your sales direct to consumer, it won’t be sufficient in the long term to stick your traditional trade range online, tell a trade-focused message, and expect to have a sustained level of success. You’ll need to take a hard look at your wine list, build and segment your database, and ensure that you have a clear, compelling message that resonates with people, many of whom aren’t that interested in wine.

It won’t be easy, but the payoff will be the strength that comes from diversity; in essence, that by operating multiple sales channels, you spread your risk. In today’s disrupted and unpredictable market, that’s a strength from which many could benefit.