Becoming a top brand usually takes a great deal of work, but becoming a top South African wine brand takes something extra special. Or does it? Johannes Richter asked those in the know to share their secrets.
A small number of South African brands have done exceptionally well over the past few decades. The eponymous labels of Nederburg and Robertson, Namaqua’s boxed wines, Tall Horse, Van Loveren’s Four Cousins and Distell’s 4th Street have managed to become household names in South Africa despite the country being a beer-drinking nation. It’s easy to imagine some moody millennial somewhere blossoming into a potential wine connoisseur each time one of these popular wines is opened.
Statistically speaking, the customer most likely to pick up a premium Cabernet from your shelf or cellar in the next few years will hail from one of the markets these brands have managed to unlock. So listen up.
Finding the focus
According to the 2016 International Wine and Spirit Research report, 4th Street was the fastest-growing international brand in 2015 largely due to its focus on millennials – and young women in particular. The top brands all keep at least one eye on the millennial pie and actively engage with them in their language on social media. “Millennials tend to spend more per bottle of wine, try more adventurously, spend more on wining and dining, and drink more responsibly than similarly aged consumers of previous generations,” Nederburg global brand development manager Robyn Bradshaw says. “They also appreciate innovation, authenticity, provenance and storytelling, and support brands that support causes.”
But none of these giants reached the top by courting only a small (not to mention fickle) segment of the market. Successful brands are committed to broadening their appeal through communication.
Shaping the message
Innovation is a central theme whenever new markets and opportunities are mentioned, but it takes many forms. “Nederburg’s success is driven by innovation and the curiosity of our cellar team, which has sparked ongoing experimentation,” Robyn says. Four Cousins on the other hand succeeded by identifying a specific market and consistently hitting its sweet spot. Van Loveren initial success was a mixture of luck and good timing, CEO Phillip Retief says. But it wouldn’t have been possible if they’d not produced a quality product in a style consumers wanted. “We tried to break down snobbish wine perceptions in the premium glass market and achieved that.”
When you’ve found your voice, the challenge is to maintain it. “You need to adapt your strategy along the way and get a better understanding of your competitors and consumers without veering from your core message when the market gets tough,” Phillip says. DGB marketing manager Theola Conyers says they’ve followed a similar line of thinking with Tall Horse. “Our philosophy is simple: Demystify wine in a fun and humorous way. Wine can be very intimidating and we wanted to reassure consumers that wine can be enjoyed without the intimidation.” Once established, Tall Horse employed consistent strategies to maintain the image of a fun, irreverent brand.
Speaking the language
Customers represent the other side of the branding equation and reaching them effectively requires the right tone. Namaqua marketing coordinator Annelie Venter says in their case the brand’s familiarity is part of the message. “We speak our consumers’ language through the packaging, wine and media. They feel comfortable with the brand as we have something that fits everyone.”
It pays to pursue your market with the same enthusiasm you wish to evoke from it, which implies oodles of creativity. “Innovation can’t be overemphasised and doesn’t only apply to what’s in the bottle,” Robyn says. Nederburg is careful to keep its brand recognisable despite, or rather because of, its layered offering. “Our multiple tiering equips us to compete at a range of price points with a varied selection catering to various stylistic preferences for a wide consumer base, but with the signature bold, richly fruited profile common to all.”
It also means they put a lot of effort into communication. “Early last year we introduced the new Nederburg global communication campaign that steps outside mainstream wine conventions by inviting consumers to immerse themselves in a sensory rather than a cerebral experience,” she says.
The ‘where’ of a brand’s message can be just as important as the ‘how’ and ‘when’. “Tall Horse targets comedy festivals where consumers can enjoy our wines in brand-relevant moments,” Theola says. It helps that Tall Horse’s message is particularly well suited to its market. “New-generation wine drinkers are tech-savvy go-getters who enjoy life with all its opportunities. They’re always switched on, so we engage with them through digital strategies. The light-hearted communication resonates well with them and mirrors their personality.”
Facing the challenges
Competition at the top is stiff and is often tougher from the larger liquor industry than fellow wineries or wine brands. Wineries that compete for the local market also face different challenges to those who play in an international arena.
Nederburg is one of South Africa’s largest wineries and its sheer size presents its own challenges. “We export to about 80 markets around the world,” Robyn says. “This means we have to offer a versatile selection of wines to suit a wide spectrum of palates, pockets and occasions.”
At the same time, it gives Nederburg access to a variety of cultivars and the opportunity for stylistic innovation which they use to their advantage. “While you can expect a versatile, multitiered range of excellent wines made from mainstream varietals, you’ll also find a number of lesser-known cultivars in the cellars. This gives Nederburg a distinct edge.”
Distribution is also a challenge in the South African market and reaching untapped markets dominated by liquor in other segments is hard and costly. Tall Horse relies heavily on word of mouth and brand equity. Reaching untapped areas therefore requires a concerted effort by everyone along the value chain, Theola says. Ongoing challenges such as increased competition, unsustainable pricing and macroeconomic pressures also require a strong, creative response. “Innovation, packaging tweaks, strong sales and distribution teams, good key accounting and finding a competitive but sustainable price point are all part of our fight.”
Staying on top
“It takes ongoing innovation to keep the brand’s offerings exciting, relevant and top of mind,” Robyn says. Besides staying responsive and innovative, value is crucial to staying relevant for all these brands. This applies not only in the quality of the product, but also to dealing with your customers. Their experience determines your future!
For some brands variety gives everyone something to enjoy; for others focusing on a strong suit and excelling at their game yields positive results. Either way, it’s much easier to grow outwards and upwards from a solid base of customers with ample reason to share their appreciation with friends.
According to Theola, word of mouth is by far the strongest brand lever for Tall Horse. Annelie echoes that sentiment. “At Namaqua we like to say we share where we come from. Sharing has become part of our brand identity. Enough to share, more than good enough to share.”