Eight out of ten cats…

Guest blogger Phil Reedman MW on building the Marlborough brand

Phil Reedman: Marlborough's unique proposition is not necessarily what's inside a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc.


At this year’s Romeo Bragato Conference in Blenheim, Phil Reedman and Brian Bicknell (Mahi) presented a thought-provoking workshop and tasting on South American wines, alerting attendees to the potential impact that exports from this region may soon have on overseas sales of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.

In Phil’s words, producers from Argentina and Chile are “parking their tanks on Marlborough’s doorstep.” Not one to mince words, is our Phil. Back home, he summed up the reaction of workshop participants in this post, which he’s kindly made available to Vino Vitis. Do check out Phil’s blog – it’s always well worth reading.

Eight out of ten cats…

It is a truism of marketing that the route to profitability lies in locking in the consumer to your product. Allow them a plausible alternative product and profitability inevitably falls off; keep the consumer engaged and profits flow.

Coca-Cola and Pepsi are, on the face of it, plausibly interchangeable products, but each brand has locked in consumers who ignore the rational offer of a substitute. Instead, they faithfully stick to their brand of choice. One has only to see the fierce loyalty and rivalry in Australia between Ford and Holden to recognise the cash value that emotion, not function, can deliver.

So where does this take us with wine? Marlborough put New World Sauvignon Blanc on the world’s palate, introducing a generation of drinkers to the variety and its flavours as expressed in this seemingly unique terroir. New Zealand had a great run, and international businesses, attracted by the river of gold flowing down the Wairau Valley, moved in.

International competitors set forth to produce their own Sauvignon Blanc in the Marlborough style. Casablanca in Chile, Lenswood in the Adelaide Hills, even the Loire Valley in France got in on the act, but what they made wasn’t labelled Marlborough and that seemed to be their Achilles’ Heel (although one French producer cheekily named their wine “Kiwi Cuvee” to ensure that no one needed to guess at the style). As fast as Marlborough could plant it, UK drinkers would drink it. For many years, New Zealand’s drinkers had to make do with Australian Sauvignon Blanc shipped in to substitute for the local product – which had been exported. The market was Marlborough’s for the taking; Marlborough was convinced that it had a unique proposition. But what if it didn’t, what if they were wrong?

What if eight out of ten cats (apologies to Whiskas) can’t, in fact, spot the difference? At a tasting in Blenheim recently, as part of the 2012 Romeo Bragato Conference, it wasn’t eight out of ten, but a reported 50% (Marlborough Express) of wine industry tasters who couldn’t tell a Marlborough Sauvignon from a Chilean Sauvignon of equal price. Hardly a scientific evaluation, I agree, but a tasting the previous day using the same wines produced an even more dramatic result.

Leyda Valley vineyard in Chile: smart wine and smart marketing.

If industry professionals can’t identify their own product, should the consumer, halfway around the world, be expected to recognise and appreciate the unique offer that is Marlborough?

Does Marlborough actually have a unique offer? Should we be concerned that Marlborough’s growers and winemakers can mistake a Leyda Valley Sauvignon Blanc for one of their own?

Well, “yes” is my answer to both questions. To address the second question first: we should be concerned that Marlborough’s wine community is able to claim Leyda as their own; it suggests a certain complacency. My reading of the tasting room’s reaction to the news that they’d got it wrong was one of amazement – not amazement that they’d got it wrong, but rather that Leyda could make a wine quite so smart.

Times have been tough, but winemakers and marketers still need to get out there and see what the world is drinking. Get on the plane to Santiago to see what they’re up to … they’ll show you round, they’re a friendly bunch. Maybe New Zealand Winegrowers should organise an Away Day?

Marlborough does have a unique offer, though it’s not the wine style, it’s the words: Marlborough, Wairau, Awatere and New Zealand. Leyda can use Sauvignon Blanc on its labels but just as Pepsi ain’t Coca-Cola, Leyda can never be Marlborough. Let’s forget about wine styles and their interchangeability; give or take, it’s an inevitability. Time it is to focus on the words and build the brand. Coke isn’t so different from Pepsi. But as Richard Branson learned, even if you do use the same recipe as Coke (for which, see Mark Pendergrast’s For God, Country and Coca-Cola, a great read on brand development disguised as a history of Coca-Cola), if you don’t have the words “Coca-Cola” on your bottle, you’re a long way from consumers’ hearts. Virgin Cola didn’t sell that well even if it tasted just like the “Real Thing.”

So, besides keeping up with the competitors’ latest vintages, Marlborough needs to build its brand in a consistent and long-term manner. Yes, this means spending money, money from all sectors of the interdependent industry and spending it forever. Coca-Cola doesn’t have marketing moratoria, neither should Marlborough. Failure to invest means being overtaken by others; a death by a hundred vintages. But if you reinforce to the consumer that Marlborough is the real deal, market leadership is there to be taken.


Having attended the workshop, I can attest to participants’ expressions of disbelief that the Leyda Savvie was not, in fact, an expression of Marlborough terroir. Afterwards, some attendees remained unconvinced, insisting that the organisers had stuffed up on the tasting order. As Phil’s post makes clear, consumers’ relationships with a brand must necessarily be developed around more than just the product.

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  1. Todd
    Posted October 9, 2012 at 10:17 pm | Permalink

    For Marlborough to build its brand, it needs to cut its ties with New Zealand wine growers and go it alone. Too much of Marlborough’s levies are spent on promoting other regions which simply aren’t up to competing in the international market without Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. A fond farewell to Central, Waipara, Hawkes Bay, etc., would be a godsend for marketing Marlborough.

  2. Posted October 16, 2012 at 3:38 am | Permalink

    I asked Phil if he had a reply to Todd’s comment, and he sent the following message:

    “The allocation of levies is always a vexed point but from an international perspective I can see advantages for Marlborough in continuing to “hunt with the pack” as it were. Setting up and running a new promotion organisation is going to cost Marlborough a considerable amount of its hard-earned cash and would duplicate the efforts of New Zealand Winegrowers. The confusion caused internationally by having two bodies risks fewer visitors from the trade and media attending Marlborough events because international visitors like, and let’s face it, it does work, having a single point of contact who can fix up an entire visit to New Zealand.

    “But I do sympathise with the view that because Marlborough is big and deemed to be successful in international markets less focus needs to be put onto the region; in my previous life with a large UK retailer who sold more New Zealand wine than any other retailer, we were ignored by the generic promotion body because we were deemed “big enough to look after ourselves”. Very irritating.

    “So, to declare UDI or not, that is the question. On balance, I’d say no. Why? Because to be inside the tent fighting for change is a lot easier than fighting to get in and effect change.”