Sonoma Seeks Wine Image

Experts help define a diverse county's branding

by Andrew Adams
sonoma branding
Branding experts Trini Amador, left, and Hunter Hastings of BHC Consulting presented their firm's strategy to focus and strengthen Sonoma County's brand as a wine region.
Santa Rosa, Calif.—When wine drinkers pick up a good bottle of wine priced higher than $15, they choose a Sonoma County label only 5% of the time.

Vintners in Sonoma County hope to double that rate to 10%, and are pinning their hopes on a new branding campaign to crystallize the image of Sonoma County wines as authentic, well made and providing a thrilling experience.

Honore Comfort, executive director of Sonoma County Vintners, announced the branding effort Jan. 12 at the group’s annual meeting in Santa Rosa. About 300 members attended the meeting held at the Vintners Inn.

Comfort said one of the group’s key goals in the coming year is to focus on presenting a strong, unified brand image of Sonoma County. “In some ways, this is the hardest work we do,” she said.

The county is both huge and diverse, stretching from the Pacific Ocean to San Francisco Bay and California’s interior mountains, and encompassing many distinct terroirs and wine regions. To help solidify the Sonoma County brand, the vintners’ group hired BHC Consulting headed by Trini Amador, who is originally from Sonoma County and whose son and daughter work in the wine business.

To gain in-depth understanding of Sonoma County’s wine industry and its challenges, BHC staff met extensively with industry insiders and outside experts, then followed up with what Amador described as “decision acceleration” to further define the identity and focus of Sonoma County’s branding efforts.

Amador attended Thursday’s meeting along with Hunter Hastings, a senior consulting partner at BHC and former brand manager for Procter and Gamble and vice president of brand management for brewing giant SBC, now part of SAB-Miller. BHC clients include major international brands like DuPont, Jack Daniels and Clorox.

Create an ‘irrational relationship’
The key to successful branding, Amador said, is to create an irrational relationship between people and specific products: Classically, the Pepsi drinker who refuses to drink Coke. “If you go to the store and this brand is not available, you won’t buy a replacement,” he said. “It’s irrational.”

Hastings said in the case of Sonoma County, 80% of core U.S. wine drinkers only pick Sonoma County wines once out of every 20 times they purchase wine. “We have to change their attitude, thinking and feeling to change their behavior,” he said.

The core target group, according to the consultants, consists of people who are older than 30, educated and earning more than others in their peer group. They are active, social and enjoy travel and cooking. Hastings said wine is important to their life—but not everything.

More importantly, he said, this core audience is focused on experiences and puts an emphasis on experiencing new things and sharing these discoveries with others.

He recommended reaching this audience with a brand message to convince them that Sonoma County is home to world-class wine and an unparalleled blend of experiences that provide thrilling discoveries. “I found this wine and this great winemaker…that’s a thrill,” Hastings said as an example.

Hastings said that with this message, the diversity of Sonoma County’s wine country becomes one its most attractive qualities, rather than a perceived liability. Each of the many regions and AVAs—from the Sonoma Coast to Rockpile—can provide their own message and strengths under the larger umbrella of Sonoma County.

The next step, Hastings said, will involve incorporating the branding language of Sonoma County into “creative briefs.” These can then be tailored for specific promotional needs targeting, for instance sommeliers, distributors or wine writers. He said this will ensure that wherever the Sonoma County brand is directed, the message is uniform and geared for maximum effect.

During the next six weeks to two months, Comfort said the vintners group will work with leaders in each of the county’s AVAs to add detail and focus to the creative briefs. She said the group also has contracted with San Francisco-based Landor Associations to provide images and other creative material to accompany the brand message.

The campaign’s goal, Comfort said, is not only to make Sonoma County wines more competitive, but to focus consumers’ minds on the concept of the county and its wines. When they’re faced with a wine shelf, Sonoma County ideally should stand out because the consumer knows the brand. “We have one chance to do this—one chance to do it right,” she stressed.

The concept of countywide wine branding took a step forward last year, when a state law mandating “conjunctive labeling” went into effect. Backed by a majority of stakeholders, this requires that any wine label that includes one of the county’s AVAs also be identified as Sonoma County. The law will become fully effective in 2014.

Group announces new board members
The Sonoma County Vintners also announced three new members to its board. The new members are:

Stan Fridstein, a partner at Mulberry Trample, a wine brokerage that specializes in placing excess wine inventory into the most discreet channels possible, in a way that does not hinder long-term branding and selling efforts. Fridstein is also the co-founder and president of The Right Start, Inc.

Bahaneh Hobel, an attorney in Dickenson, Peatman & Fogarty’s Alcohol Beverage group. Hobel’s practice focuses on all aspects of alcohol beverage law, including state and federal licensing and regulatory compliance for wineries, breweries, distilled spirits plants, importers, wholesalers and retailers.

Dan Kosta, co-founder of Sebastopol’s 11,000-case Kosta Browne Winery and a Sonoma County native who sits on the board of directors for the Sonoma County Harvest Fair and participates in judging events such as the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, West Coast Wine Competition and San Francisco International Wine Competition.

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