Branding: Europe vs. USA

by Eve Resnick on June 25, 2008

in General

Branding a wine is a complex process depending on the wine, the targets, the location and many other factors. I happened to read the interviews of the European owner of the high-end wine brand, Sassicaia, selling around $1,000 a bottle, the Italian Piero Incisa della Rocchetta and the Gallo’s American Director of Fine Wine Marketing, Kristina Kelley.

Those interviews reveal the deep gap between American and European strategies, between American and European winemaking as well as the same passion for their product and the same respect for their consumers. Both wineries are family-owned: the Incisa della Roccheta family owned their land for several centuries and established a tradition of excellence; the Gallo family owned their fine Sonoma vineyards for a few decades and is now producing fine wines on very carefully farmed lands or with carefully selected grapes.

First difference between the two families: Piero, now in charge of the US market, is a member of the family when Kristina Kelley is an outsider. This difference is almost philosophical: “Sassicaia is a global company that’s owned by a very small family—it’s not a corporation. As for any family business, there’s no one better than family who understands complexities and subtleties. No one understands the historical landscape and no one from outside of the family has such a deep understanding of the terroir. After 40 years (Incisa della Rocchetta’s age), chances are you’ll have a pretty good understanding of the product”, said Incisa della Rochetta. For the interview, Kelley had to be backed by the winemaker of the brand, Eric Cinnamon.

Then branding strategies show how culture impacts the choice:need for new consumers for Rancho Zabaco, reinforcing links with existing consumers for Sassicaia. “Before establishing a new brand, need within a consumer segment is identified. We ask ourselves is there an opportunity within the marketplace? What do we view as trends? What are people drinking and what are they looking to explore or to discover? It always starts with the need in the marketplace and who is the targeted consumer”, explained kristina Kelley for Rancho Zabaco. Incisa is facing a very different challenge: his brand is established, it’s even a “cult wine”, the production is sold out: “It’s not because your product is sold out that you should not work. The large part of my work is to get together with collectors on a global scale and to taste the old and new vintages of Sassicaia, so that people can understand how the wine ages and evolves throughout the years. […] My job is also to make sure that the old vintages of Sassicaia are served in the right order and coupled with the right dishes, drank in the right stemware. These things that might seem like irrelevant and annoying details to most, but they are pivotal to preserve the integrity of the brand.”

What about re-positioning the brand along its cycle? Whether launched in 1996 like Rancho Zabaco or created centuries ago, a brand has a life of its own and needs to be re-positioned. That’s where new brands and older brands find a common ground. Over the years, the image of sassicaia diluted: the sales sheets showed the same positive results but the family had the feeling the image didn’t fit the quality of the wine. Piero Incisa went to work and met with the distributors, the consumers and the collectors. When Kelley had to reposition Rancho Zabaco, she had to go back to basics: “When the brand was introduced, it wasn’t just Zinfandel. It was also Chardonnay and Pinot Noir – a very different brand composition than exists today. From the marketing perspective, we learned that consumers gravitated toward the Zinfandel. It then became our decision to reposition the brand in 1999 to focus on Zinfandel because that’s what consumers were telling us. ” For both brands, the consumer was the central point of the re-positioning.

Last but not least, what is the core in the process of branding a wine? For Incisa, it is “maintaining the integrity. This is not a job, it’s a way of life, integrity towards the land, respect for your community, those are the things that people do not see. And passion, passion, passion, because without a consuming passion, it is very difficult to love what you do and to be successful at it.” The process is a little trickier for a young brand but both Kelley and Cinammon echoed Incisa’s statement in their own words: “We are trying to separate ourselves from the more whimsical, critter labels and focus on bringing forward our stylistic and appellation focus for the wines. For the past three years, we’ve focused on bringing sophistication to our packaging and separating ourselves from irreverent labeling, while keeping it fun. As our consumer base has matured and evolved, we want it to mature and evolve with Rancho Zabaco and not feel like they’ve outgrown the brand, said Kelley. “Rancho Zabaco has always been known for value, but today when consumers consider the brand, we want them to experience quality and value”, Cinammon added.

There are cultural differences in branding wine on the two sides of the Atlantic but the sole business of branding is still at heart a world of passion for quality, style and value.

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