France – an opportunity lost

This weekend the main feature is France, part of the February month-long Joie de Vin celebration at LCBO stores across the province. There is a selection of some 20 wines chosen from the wine-producing regions of France and all price points are represented.

The Joie de Vin celebration is one of the most low-key events in recent history at the LCBO.

I make this comment when I compare the Joie de Vin program to the huge splash which was the first of two California celebrations conducted at the LCBO last year.

That event started with promotional materials inserted in newspapers prior to the launch, billboards, radio slots, tasting events and media kits for critics and writers and an ongoing onslaught from agents who sent wines to professionals when those wines didn’t reach the tastings. The message in the stores was even more full-frontal in its colourful California lifestyle displays everywhere you looked. Consumers and their advisors were in the loop that something was going on with attractively-priced mid-range wines featured in waves throughout the campaign.

The overarching purpose of this blitz was to open widely the California brand to the big and informed value-buyer segment, a category that has historically always considered California wines to be either too cheap to be of acceptable quality or too expensive to be even considered.

The French event has been a sleeper by comparison.  There have been two newspaper inserts over the first two weeks of February and they have been attractive in their packaging and content. Tick that box.  There have been a few wines offered at modestly-discounted prices – tick that box.  The stores have a handful of cardboard Eiffel Towers in the window and some aisle or row-end displays that give the customer a sense that something is going. Ok, maybe we can tick that box. But, the in-store presence is otherwise subdued and appears like just more eye-noise, and there is a lot of this noise in today’s LCBO store.  As well, there have been no special professional tastings related to this campaign and the number of wines featured at the LCBO is less than half the number that were on promotion when the California event was underway.

Consider the relative positioning of France and California at the LCBO (General List): French wine sales in 2012-2103 were $115 million vs $149 million for the USA (primarily California).  Sales dollar volume for France for the same period decreased by 3.3% while the USA saw sales dollar volume grow by 26.4%. France does somewhat better in Vintages where the super-premium wines from Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne are offered but in 2012-2013 USA Vintages sales were still higher than those for France ($95 million vs. $82 million), despite rising prices in the Bordeaux futures category.

There is clear evidence that France continues to do a poorer job of positioning itself as a producer of value wines.  It is a country best-known for many of the most expensive wines in the world and this brand image is so firmly established it spills over into lesser categories – where the everyday wines reside – and scares off customers who don’t otherwise know about the values available in regions such as the Loire, Alsace and the Rhône. This is a problem, especially at a time when domestic wine consumption in France continues to decline and at a time when the New World continues to aggressively pursue greater market share with wines of ever -improving quality and value.

In the past California suffered under the reputation as a maker of expensive wines as it is the pricy wines which have traditionally garnered the headlines. Stories abound of long waiting lists for iconic wines that never reach the public.

The message delivered in the California campaign last year was clear: California makes very appealing wines that sell for less than $20.00 and these wines run the gamut of styles from cool-climate to hot continental climate and everything in between: California is not a monolith. The consumer got the message as the G.L. sales growth demonstrates.

If this data did not call the French marketing people into action then there is a problem.  The current campaign indicates the message has not been received in France nor by the Canadian staff of its global food and beverage marketing arm, Sopexa. This is too, bad, not just for French wine makers.  It is even more tragic as there are many consumers who would leap across the aisle to France if they only knew more about the wines and regions of France.  These wines represent exceptional value, diverse variety and are food friendly across a wide array of cuisines.

All of this begs the question: why does France not step up?  Is it arrogance: our wines are so good anybody who needs to know about them already does know about them?  Is it ignorance?  Do the French not know how to market?

I doubt it is either of these.  Rather I think it is a simple matter of culture.  The Joie de Vin has the look of a playful French marketing campaign and while it might work over there it is simply too muted to have any effect in Ontario.  It is not a  campaign that crosses generational lines and it is not a campaign that has enough North American sizzle for consumers to take notice.

The LCBO will work with agencies and industry marketing bodies to promote product.  Each year the LCBO publishes a calendar of themes and campaigns and works with its industry partners and their creative and PR people to bring each campaign to market.  The LCBO has a selfish interest: the more customers learn about the wines and the wine regions of the world, the more they will explore. The more buzz in the stores, the more frequently consumers will visit, explore and buy.

The reciprocal benefit is for the partner, be it France, California, Italy, Australia or whomever.  The more the consumer knows about its grapes, regions and wines the more likely he or she will add its aisle to their path in the store. Big campaigns are the opportunity to build brand, re-define brand, expand brand… all of the above.  Successful campaigns need investment and properly executed will pay immediate dividends.  Under-designed, under-funded campaigns are a waste of money.

Shame on France.  I hope the Joie de Vin campaign is a success by whatever measure the marketing folks have embraced.  Regardless, it will not move the needle very far.

à bientôt…

Copyright© W. John Switzer 2003 – 2014.

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Author: John Switzer

I am wine writer, educator and tour guide. From 2005 to June 2014 I published a bi-weekly newsletter, the Winesights Vintages Newsletter (WVN). This Newsletter was closed in July 2014 when the Government of Canada put in place the onerous administrative requirements of Canada's Anti-Spam Legislation. The legacy of WVN continues on this blog spot where I post wine-related articles as well as reviews of a small selection of best-value wines from each bi-weekly LCBO Vintages release. I hold the WSET Diploma, I am a WSET Certified Educator, I teach in the WSET program at the Independent Wine Education Guild in Toronto where I am the past Director of the WSET Diploma program. Since 2010 I have been a judge at Decanter World Wine Awards on the Rhône panel and I am a member of the Society of Wine Educators.

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