Wine’s digital revolution: adaptation amidst chaos

They say necessity is the mother of invention, or in this case, adaptation. The wine industry has for one reason or another been sluggish in embracing and adopting the digital revolution of the past decade. Whether it be a large multinational or small family-run business, the way in which businesses engage with their captive and potential audience has elsewhere evolved. I don’t want to come across as gloomy, this article is one of optimism and celebration. The now global pandemic has devastated the wine industry, turning many businesses on their heads overnight. However, opposed to accepting defeat, many have shown overwhelming resolve, transforming their strategy almost instantaneously. What has changed and what does wine’s digital revolution mean for the industry going forward?

What’s been the hold up?

Whilst much of the world has bounded forward in its adoption of both new technology and methods of communication, wine (with some exception) has remained somewhat stagnant. The majority of events remain offline and unnecessarily formal, communication is dominated by long-form print (digital or paper) and retailers remain in the most part dated in their approach to consumer engagement and sales strategy. I of course do not deny that there exists a format or content of information for which traditional media remains effective. Books, magazines and long-form articles are of course still an effective and popular mode of communication, so much so that in 2018 print books saw a 2.4% sales rise. The problem here is not so much the actual information output in real terms more so a failure to embrace multi-channel marketing and modern sales strategy. Innovation in the industry has been scarce, chosen methods of communication lack variety.

digital revolution wine
67 Pall Mall at Home with Jasper Morris MW

If I were to think out loud about why the wine industry has so broadly failed to innovate, I’d postulate there to be number of characteristics specific to the industry which may well have contributed toward its communicatory stagnation.

  • The wine industry has an inherent undeniable ostentatious pomp which may have made it unattractive to those individuals most likely to drive innovation.
  • Quite unique to the wine industry is an obsession with educating the consumer. Many spend the bulk of their time cramming as much wine knowledge as possible in to their heads believing they can teach the consumer to want their product. Having a broad and robust knowledge is of course a plus, but the true value must lie in what else you know and how astute you are in evolving.
  • There exists an old guard in wine, a group which have a tendency to see change as a zero-sum game, they simply won’t engage with those who do things differently. Back in august I made a plea to these people to work more closely with what I called ‘new-age communicators’
  • Growers are growers, not marketers. Bar those large enough to afford a wider staff, its unlikely the skills exist in-house to lead a marketing revolution.

Whatever the reasons may be, this failure to adapt is a problem. Now there are those who continue to argue that the industry does not have a problem, that it is thriving and merely faces challenges similar to those of so many other industries. I am almost certain that this is not the case. The wine industry has a unique problem, one that could leave many businesses clinging on for dear life. I will develop on why I am so certain of this a little further on.

Lack of appeal

Any industry which fails to embrace a multi-channel strategy will inevitably experience a lack of cross-demographic appeal. Both millennials and generation z wine-drinkers are big spenders, they have adventurous tastes and prefer to invest in experiences. However, they are receptive to alternate marketing preferences, communicating with them requires a little more work. The upside to this is that they put out social signals like crazy, get it right and the reward is great. There are those in the industry who tirelessly downplay the importance of the aforementioned groups, the reality is that wine needs them just as every other industry does. No product or industry is exempt from change nor detached from disaster. In order to maintain a prosperous, exciting and robust industry communication must diversify and adapt.

Overnight adaptation

The current global turmoil has flipped the wine industry (on and off-trade) on it’s head. Enforced closures in the hospitality sector and isolation requirements for the general public have in some cases meant an almost 100% reduction in trade. Despite this, the response of so many has been nothing short of inspirational.

Online retailers have experienced vast sales increases with UK retailer Roberson shattering their previous sales record. Local merchants and bars have seen a new influx in demand for online sales and across the entire industry we have seen a sweeping uptake in virtual events on digital platforms such as Zoom and IG Live. The quantity of such events has been so large that there has been demand to create and maintain a calendar which currently features well over 40 events for the month of April alone. Most importantly, underpinning all of this we have seen an increased focus on engagement across a range of channels using creative consumer-centric approaches to sales. Standout examples of this include:

  • #theBIGenglishwinegoodfriday – Jacob Leadley of Black Chalk wine lead the initiative (driven by the hashtag) that leading up to Good Friday as many people as possible should purchase English wine from a local grower or retailer and Good Friday itself would be filled with online events (interactive tastings, interviews with growers and more) focused on English Wine.
  • #67athome – Leading London wine club 67 Pall Mall have opened up their club (albeit virtually) to everyone in this time of trouble. They have packed out the month of April with exciting events with leading industry experts (Jasper Morris, Jane Anson and more) all available via Zoom.
  • Virtual tastings – This is where I have perhaps been most impressed. Growers like Nyetimber and retailers like Elliot Awin have begun selling wine online (by the bottle and in tasting cases) for individuals to taste at home with the grower themselves via Instagram and Zoom. This incorporation of an experience encourages spend, appeals to varying demographics and offers the opportunity to connect with the consumer.
  • The Drinks Coach UK – There have been a few examples of this kind of content; however, Cube’s effort with Joe Wadsack was of particular interest. Joe will be hosting 10 minus consumer tastings on the his YouTube account. The sessions will cover everything from how to buy wine locally to saving money on hidden gems.

Small and large businesses have utilised their existing infrastructure in order to build and retain communities with the goal of adding value and generating sales, most of this done outside of traditional media channels. This uptake in digital media could prove invaluable to small restaurants, wineries and retailers in gaining competitive advantage in a noisy space.

In this impressive growth and diversification lies proof that the wine industry was indeed harbouring a sizeable problem. The reception of wine’s digital revolution has been outstanding, this rapid consumer uptake is evidence to me that a gap existed, one which the industry simply was not filling. There existed considerable missed opportunity in regards both engagement and revenue. Now I am of course under no illusion that a percentage of this demand has emerged from consumer necessity; however, this style of communication and purchasing is proving to be a hit with a large number of consumers, too large to be solely out of necessity.

This new found focus on multi-channel media has people tuning in to events who may not have attended in person, through creative marketing efforts is encouraging people to try new wines and most of us all is fast-tracking the pace of innovation in wine communication strategy. These changes brought about by the necessity of crisis could well be lasting and transformative for the wine industry.

Back to ‘normal’

J.M Keynes said that the difficulty in escaping habitual modes of thought and expression lies not in the new ideas but is escaping from the old ones, which so often permeate every into every corner of our minds.

The adaptation and innovation of the last 3 weeks has shown us what can be achieved (in regards both sales and engagement) when the industry works smart and together as a collective. It is crucial that when the market eventually returns to ‘normal’ we do not lose focus on these new found forms of communications. Instead we ought to champion their success, incorporate them in to everyday strategy and not forget the impact they had on peoples lives. It is absolutely essential that during this time of transition we actively seek out, and take note of, the feedback of consumers. For many this is new ground, new territory, there will of course be both success and failure and learning from this will be important in establishing an effective new norm.

The industry has the opportunity to capitalise on the experiences of those succeeding online in expanding the industries reach, for small and large businesses to build lasting relationships with global consumers and to share the wonders of wine in an exciting manner with a diverse cross-generational range of consumers. Let’s lap up wine’s digital revolution and come out of this crisis shining.

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