Wine Marketing & Word of Mouth: Learning From Bill Bernbach

By Stephen Mitchell, Co-founder, Elemental Meme

NOTE: This is the first post in our new blog that will explore wine marketing, public relations and word of mouth.

Bill Bernbach is one of my heroes. He should be a hero of everyone who is a contemporary wine public relations or marketing professional.

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Bill Bernbach, Ned Doyle and Maxwell Dane were the three founders of the famous Manhattan-based advertising agency, Doyle Dane Bernbach. The agency was responsible for a number of highly successful campaigns including the revolutionary Volkswagen ad campaigns of the 1950s and 1960s and the ‘We try harder’ campaign for rental car firm Avis. Bernbach's tremendous influence was noted in a 1999 article in Advertising Age: "After Bill Bernbach's death in October 1982, Harper's Magazine told its readers, “he probably had a greater impact on American culture than any of the distinguished writers and artists who have appeared in the pages of Harper's during the past 133 years." In that same article, the magazine named Bernbach #1 on the magazine's 20th century honor roll of advertising's most influential people.

As co-founder and driving force behind an advertising agency, Bernbach had a very unusual philosophy; he believed that advertising wasn't the most effective way to sell products. He believed that the best way to sell products to customers was to nurture them to become brand ambassadors. Despite the fact that Bernbach's agency made its bread and butter by creating paid advertising, Bernbach stated that “Word of mouth is the best medium of all.”

Word of mouth or influencer marketing, is very different from traditional marketing. Whereas traditional marketing focuses on marketing to a broad target market, influencer marketing focuses on reaching and interacting with specific key individuals who have influence over potential buyers and are capable and willing to build buzz around a brand that results in increased sales. We will explore some of the strategies behind influencer marketing in future blog posts, but for now, the fact that over 60 years ago, this century’s most influential advertising professional identified word of mouth as the best way to sell products suggests that wine marketing and public relations practitioners today could benefit from his insights, experience and word of mouth. In our hyper-connected world where reaching a consumer and holding their attention is increasingly more difficult, focusing on word of mouth may be the most effective strategy for breaking out and growing a new wine brand. In fact, according to a recent Neilson survey "92% of respondents reported that a positive recommendation from a friend, family member, or someone they trust is the biggest influence on whether they buy a product or service.”

One wine brand that demonstrates the power of word of mouth is Barefoot Wine. In the mid-1980s, Barefoot co-founders Bonnie Harvey and Michael Houlihan practically fell into the wine business by accident. They started the brand in an unused laundry room in their home, and now Barefoot Wine & Bubbly has become the largest wine brand in the United States. Oddly enough, Harvey and Houlihan built the brand with no advertising whatsoever. What they did do is figure out how to get people to talk about their wines. They did it through a process that they called “worthy cause marketing”. In lieu of advertising, Harvey and Houlihan donated wines to worthy causes, made sure their wines were front and center in any event they donated wine to, and thought up creative ways to encourage people to talk about their wines. The strategy paid off; the brand moved 580,000 cases in 2004. And, in 2005, the brand was purchased by the Gallo family with Harvey and Houlihan retained as marketing consultants. Smartly, the Gallo family never changed the focus of generating buzz by building word of mouth for the brand. An IEG Sponsorship Report article in 2013 noted that "As the best-selling wine in the U.S., Barefoot Wine & Bubbly attributes its longtime support of community events and non-profits to establishing a dialogue with consumers and ultimately driving sales."

Along with utilizing cause marketing to generate word of mouth, Barefoot has also made effective use of social media to garner even more support. The social media folks behind Barefoot understand the importance and opportunities of on-line communications channels and realized that their job wasn't merely to push content but rather to interact and engage with fans and followers. Their successful approach to social media has been reconfirmed by the fact that Barefoot is frequently in the top 5 of Vintank's Winery Social Index (but not at the time of this post). Another strong plus is that Barefoot's winemaker, Jennifer Wall, who took to Twitter just 6 months ago, has quickly built up a following and is very much on top of interacting and engaging with her followers further helping the brand.

So, is word of mouth the only thing that drives sales for Barefoot wines? Clearly, the brand has benefited over the past few years from Gallo's marketing and distribution power and those factors are critical. However, if the strategy of building the brand via word of mouth was not working, Gallo would have abandoned it. But the strategy seems to be working just fine and moved the brand to 11,775,000 9-liter case depletions in 2013. I think that if Bill Bernbach were alive today, he'd be pretty damned impressed by the Barefoot brand.

As someone who has had the privilege and pleasure of working on 5 Impact Hot Brand Award winners and 3 Impact Hot Prospect brands over the past 5 years, I've learned a great deal about how to generate word of mouth that "ultimately drives sales and builds brands." One recent assignment handled by our agency was to launch a brand using word of mouth combined with public relations. This brand launch resulted in moving over 650,000 cases in year one and earned an Impact Hot Brand Award. While we had the benefit of great design, great juice and working with company that has a great distribution network, the brand launch marketing team viewed maximizing word of mouth to be the primary driver of the brand's rapid success.

So, why aren't more wine marketing and PR people using word of mouth? As Lynn Thorne noted in her book, "Word-of-mouth Advertising, Online and Off: How to Spark Buzz, Excitement, and Free Publicity for Your Business Or Organization with Little Or No Money", "Word of mouth (WOM) is simple. However, many in the marketing world either do not understand its beautiful simplicity, or they are too scared to employ it in their own strategies."

Let’s start the conversation, it’s time!

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