Slowly, slowly, catch the US wine market monkey

Monday, 2 February, 2009
Greg Castle
There is often the misconception that one has to be all things to all markets. A Jack of all trades inevitably is a master of none, and this is decidedly so in the big world of wine marketing. South Africa, let alone individual wine producers and brands, in wanting to break into the large and lucrative American market, will have to focus on highly concentrated niche market identification and follow through with appropriate strategic intent and activation thereof.
For too long now, a few big brand names that most South Africans have never even heard of, have denigrated the "Wine Brand South Africa" by offering what is often perceived by most Americans as "cheap and nasty", if not simply perceived as nasty because it is so cheap. Despite great strides in reducing wine snobbery around the world over the years, the 'Snob Effect' is most certainly still very much in play for many wine shoppers seeking a perceived good or excellent wine. As a result, South African wines have to some degree been forced into a corner which we should not have allowed to happen. This unfortunate success by these bold and careless 'marketers' in the past decade has done South Africa's perceived quality name much damage. Of course there are the wonderful exceptions, though in most instances in insignificant volumes to really make any sort of mass impact. This has simply led to market perception confusion, or simply indifference.

The formation of the mooted USA Producer Association (USAPA) by concerned members of the South African wine fraternity is a welcome initiative, with the potential to really get things going on the marketing and government lobbying front. For too long now the South African government has ignored the wine industry, despite its significance as an employer and contributor of welcomed tax revenue. With one of our major competitors, Australia, who just over a decade ago were only a fraction of the size of the South African industry, having more than ten times the financial backing of our government, there is little doubt that we will lose the battle fast. USAPA will however need to work extremely close with WOSA (Wines of South Africa) in ensuring a common set of objectives though with a more refined and specific set of strategies and tactics. We still need one global face.

One could argue that the wine industry hasn't perhaps endeared itself to government for various reasons, not least of all the political infighting and apparent lack of marketing direction. It may therefore have to prove itself first in order to be taken more seriously by those with the lucrative coffers.

One way to do this is to approach the market with the strategic intent of concentrating all effort and investment on the most appropriately lucrative niche (or mini) markets in bit sized chunks. This needs to be well researched so as to avoid disappointment later through wasted effort and spend. To conquer by penetrating the niche before moving on to the next so as not to spread the net too thinly, allowing the big fish to break free. This requires a rifle shot marketing approach (as opposed to ineffectual shot gun spray). Perhaps the time is ripe, now that Australia is starting to lose their own Chardonnay consumers to New Zealand's Sauvignon Blanc, to make a relatively bigger noise in the right corners of the US market.

Ideally the first step would be to tempt those in more open minded wine circles, less blindly brand loyal to Californian or French wines; opinion leaders prepared to explore and try something new. Once they get to try "Brand South Africa", it must be ensured that they are suitably impressed by the value for money (not to be confused with cheap price) relative to the exceptional quality on offer, if we are to have a chance retaining those new brand faithfuls. The effect of this then goes to work in the most cost effective form of marketing activation, that being word-and-mouth promotion from the suitably impressed to their influential network. This is where the initial success of such a campaign lies in its most focused and cost effective form; but it is just the beginning.

Greg Castle is the MD of Torquil Strategic Marketing (, a strategic marketing planning agency. With a marketing career spanning 16 years, his executive leadership experience spans a number of blue chip global and South African corporates including: Kimberly-Clark, BASF, Rainbow Chickens and HL&H. He is also a boutique wine maker and avid wine enthusiast. Contact him via email on