Guest Blog Post by Marc Engel – Perspectives on Wine Marketing Research

Conducting wine marketing research in the wine industry is like hugging a porcupine. It’s hard to wrap your arms around, and you better know what you’rresearche doing or else you can get hurt.

The challenge is endemic to wine itself. With what other product do consumers get so overwhelmed by something so pleasurable, where…

  • They doubt their own taste buds and defer to the opinions of “experts” to tell them what they should and shouldn’t like, and are often made to feel inferior for liking what they like (e.g., something sweet)?
  • They struggle to describe the smells and tastes they’re experiencing?
  • They face a “Tower of Babble” (yes, homonym intended) at the retail wine shelf?

For marketing research, these factors can make it difficult to find the right consumers, ask direct questions and receive reliable answers. But if you wanted things to be easy, you wouldn’t be in the wine business, would you? That said, marketing research, even in the wine industry, is not brain surgery. It takes common sense, an ability to walk in other people’s shoes, and some elbow grease. It is as much art as it is science. Research is not intended to dictate what to do, but rather to inform your decision-making. Know your industry well enough to put consumer research in context, not rely on it blindly.

A quick review

Marketing is about attracting consumers’ attention, converting them to buyers of your brand, retaining them as customers and growing the relationship with them so that they become your advocates. The research you conduct should always serve one or more of these purposes.

Research is about gaining perspective. You should seek input from current customers, prospective customers, lapsed customers, key players in the trade and your employees, so that you have a full picture of what your products and brand mean to various constituencies.

A custom perspective

Ultimately, you need to understand what your current customers want and need, so you can nurture your relationship with them, and what your prospective customers want and need, so you can draw them into your brand.

You don’t need to hire a professional researcher for everything. There are a number of opportunities to gain perspective, some of which are already at your fingertips.

Mine your own business

You are sitting on a wealth of information about people who have (or had) an affinity for your brand. Start with your wine club, your closest customers. If you don’t already know who your most valuable customers are, figure it out. Assess their buying patterns and interactions with you, and identify patterns you can use to your advantage to deepen their connection with you. Do the same thing with lagging or even lapsed club members.

Engage in a conversation

Many of you are probably mining your club data already. But how are you applying what you learn?

  • Have you shown gratitude to your most valuable customers?
  • Are you reaching out to customers who may have drifted and trying to bring them back?

Ask them why they’ve drifted, what else they’ve been buying. Do so in a non-confrontational way that shows humility. Offer incentives to return. Empower them as teachers who can educate you about your brand. Invite them to share their stories and opinions about:

  • The foods and occasions on which they enjoy your wines.
  • What they like most about your wine and your story.
  • What other wines they drink (it’s okay to acknowledge that they’re not monogamous).
  • What they feel distinguishes your brand from the competition.
  • Suggestions for improvements.

You don’t need to follow every suggestion they make, but learn something about your brand that you can use in communications, tasting notes or conversations with the trade. Even if you don’t, the very act of asking customers for their opinions deepens the connection they feel with your brand.

As wine and business guru Gary Vaynerchuk noted in The Thank You Economy:

“Customers’ demands for authenticity, originality, creativity, honesty and good intent have made it necessary for companies and brands to revert to a level of customer service rarely seen since our great-grandparents’ day, when business owners often knew their customers personally, and gave them individual attention.”

Social Media

Technology, in particular social media, has empowered consumers to be heard and influence brands like never before. It has also enabled easy, inexpensive ways for brands to build engaging relationships.

You can easily connect with the people who are buying your wine through social media channels such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube (video is being used more and more by wineries as a way for customers to connect when they can’t be at the winery). Not only can you hear what’s being said, you can participate in the conversation. When the talk is positive, reach out and show appreciation. When it’s negative, understand the concerns and address them.

Inside perspective

Another perspective is that of your employees, especially the ones closest to your customers: sales, customer service, tasting room and club. These employees stand at the intersection of the brand and your customers, absorbing a constant stream of valuable information. Empower them to reply directly to concerns when possible, or at least take ownership to find out answers. Solicit their feedback on how to improve the business, whether about products, pricing, placement or communications.

Trade perspective

Seek the input of distributors, retailers, wine buyers, F&B directors and sommeliers when you are developing new concepts, packages, communications, etc. They have a unique perspective of your brand compared to everything else they sell. They remain vital gatekeepers, as many consumers seek their guidance. Just as connecting with consumers builds a connection with your brand, so too does reaching out to the trade. In addition to conducting research, you are encouraging them beyond just the immediate dollars to care more about your brand (talk about hugging a porcupine!).

A professional research perspective

In addition to the research you conduct on your own, hiring a professional researcher periodically is sound practice. A trained researcher adds objectivity and gravitas that may bring keen insights, as well as help convince investors, distributors and retailers of consumer interest in a new concept you’re developing. Such engagement can help increase mindshare and market share and, ultimately, the bottom line.

Professional researchers are trained in designing strategies to meet your research objectives and marketing goals, design unbiased surveys, improvise during an interview or group discussion, interpret nonverbal communications, discern differences between what people say and what they mean, evaluate multiple data points and derive insights.

There are many options for qualitative input, including focus groups and one-on-one interchanges, as well as more casual, intimate approaches such as in-home private parties (removed from the fluorescent lights and one-way mirrors associated with focus group facilities and cop shows).

Purchasing wine at a store is contextual–consumers notice items that stand out. You may want to conduct shop-alongs or in-store observations and on-the-spot interviews (called “intercepts”) for a better sense of how consumers respond to your brand when they face thousands of choices.

A cultural perspective

Our culture shapes us, and it’s important to stay attuned to cultural shifts that affect the way people buy wine. This may be generational (think baby boomer versus millennial), or it may be something more endemic to our society as a whole (the massive shift to direct to consumer sales, for example).

A final perspective

No single source of information–whether you uncover it on your own or learn from a professional–is sufficient. By walking in the shoes of different constituencies, you gain multiple perspectives that help you form a picture of how your products and brands are perceived, so that you can make better marketing decisions to attract, retain and empower your customers. You might even learn how to hug that porcupine.



About Sandra Hess

Sandra Hess, founder of DTC Wine Workshops and the DTC Consultant Network is a public speaker on the subject of direct to consumer wine sales and customer retention in the US.