Put down your wine glass for a minute and pick up your calculator, your P&L and your cash flow statement instead. Unless you start paying as much attention to the business of wine as you do what’s in the glass, you might find yourself drinking alone.
Years ago I heard it said the best way to make a small fortune in the wine business is to start with a large one. If it was true decades ago, it is even truer today. The United States is both the single largest wine market in the world AND the most competitive. More than four times as many wine companies sell their wares in the US (8,800+) versus 20 years ago. To exacerbate the degree of difficulty, there are less than 1/3 as many distributors (700 or so compared to 2,000).
I recently attended the Texas Wine & Grape Growers Association convention in Dallas. In the trade expo, there were many booths showcasing expertise in grape growing and wine making but very few on how to sell and market your wine. At our booth, we met a lot of new, small winery owners just getting into the business. A line from an old Eagles song came to mind, “…with starry eyes and dreams no one could steal.” There was a definite, “If I build it they will come” attitude in the air. But, as someone who’s been on the sales side of wine for 30 years, I could have told them all no matter how great your wine is; you still face the Herculean task of getting people to buy it. Making great wine is not nearly enough in today’s environment.
When it comes to tools and strategies about marketing and selling wine, most of what’s available centers around the direct-to-consumer space (DTC) Very little is offered in a business-to-business (B2B) context. Yes, I know, we have this thing called the 3-tier system and we always will. But, it’s 2016. There’s only so much distributors can do for you. It’s not like it was 20 years ago. We find ourselves in a new reality, which will only get worse as distributor consolidation accelerates.
A great separation is about to occur in the wine business and the winners will have learned how to “box above their weight class” by implementing the three powerful new strategies outlined below.
1) Take responsibility for the quality of your distribution
One of the most popular metrics in our industry is “Accounts Sold.” The thinking goes that if your Accounts Sold numbers are growing, you’re growing distribution and you’ve got a healthy brand. But, this is a rather “hollow” metric. You need to go MUCH deeper into the data. It’s also important to know which restaurants and wine shops are buying your wine and how they are using it. But even that isn’t nearly enough. You also have to know who should be buying your wine. Which accounts offer your brand the best exposure to your target market? Which accounts are capable of the most volume? You need to learn how to target these customers and you need to know how to market and sell to them.
But, wait: isn’t this what you pay the distributor to do? At one time, it might have been. But, we are in a hyper-competitive environment- much more so than any time in history. You simply cannot afford to leave something as important as the quality of distribution up to someone else. Distributors have too many other brands on which to focus and they expect you to do your part. A good rule of thumb for the modern age is: the best you can expect from a distributor is to match your efforts. The distributors can help you achieve your business objectives but only you, and you alone, are responsible for it. The good news is with the right data, the tools to use it and the right set of best practices, you’ll be well on your way – even if your sales team is very small.
2) Invest in a CRM system specific to the wine business
Why does anyone “invest” in anything? They put their capital to work because they want to earn a return on their investment. Too many wineries look at only one side of this equation. I’ll make this is as simple as I can for you: before you hire one more salesperson, give your wine company a fighting chance by investing in the technology that has become absolutely essential in today’s competitive wine market: cloud-based CRM. In a nutshell, CRM (Customer Relationship Management) gives you the power to control your own destiny like no other sales & marketing tool.
You need a CRM system that is specifically designed for the B2B end of the wine business. It doesn’t replace your distributors’ efforts; it augments it. The best is GreatVines. Is it expensive? Yes. Is it worth it? Absolutely. Saving a few bucks to try and do it your self is like stepping over a dollar to pick up a dime. And don’t think you can retrofit your DTC CRM system for B2B. It’s a whole other tool meant for an entirely different purpose. You need both. The reason so many wineries have invested heavily in DTC tools is because there is very high return on investment. In other words, it’s worth it. Well, there’s an even higher ROI waiting for you on the B2B side!
3) Start buying your own RAD (Retail Account Data)
You need to buy it and then use it. I’m talking about from a company like Trade Pulse. Uploading your own data into your new CRM system will allow you to fully exploit and leverage it in ways you never dreamed possible (see “Quality of Distribution” above). Yes, you can get “free” RAD data from your distributors but it’s highly fragmented. Even if you do have the time and manpower to string it all together, using Excel to crunch these numbers will never yield the insights you need to rise above your competitors and have meaningful conversations with your distributors. Why rub two sticks together when you can use a blowtorch? Push a button, get an answer. Welcome to 2016.
If you think investing in these two areas is only for the “large” wine companies, I have two exciting bits of news for you. First, most of the large wine companies are using only one of them right now: RAD data. Second, the cost of cloud-based CRM is on a per-user basis, which means small wine companies can leverage the same technology at a proportionate price!
If you invest in CRM and RAD data now, you’ll be able to do many things the big wineries can’t. But, the window of advantage will close, soon. You also have to remember; you’re competing with ALL wine companies- not just the big ones. 8,800 of them! So, as Andy said to Red at Shawshank prison, “You can either get busy living or get busy dying.”
Ben Salisbury is the founder and President of Salisbury Creative Group – a wine business consulting firm focused on sales effectiveness. Their client base includes Gerard Bertrand (France), Sacred Hill (New Zealand), and Fetzer (California).