The extraordinary marketing of food, wine, place, & culture

After a 3 day 1,300 km drive from Rome – stopping at different towns along the way, Anna [my wife] and I arrived in Burgundy. A region of France that is renowned for many things – one of them is wine. Although we had visited France before – we had never been to Burgundy – we had planned this trip for some time – studied books and the web and had formed expectations.

To wine connoisseurs,  I must confess – I know very little about wine – but –  I am extremely interested in the marketing of wine – the relationship between wine and place, the theatre of wine cellars, the labelling, the meta-narratives of the brands, and the consumer behaviour associated with the selection and consumption of wine.  Just to put my knowledge of wine in perspective – if I am at a wine retailer – when others may check out the qualities of the wine – I am exploring the qualities of the labels, looking at the branding approach, and how labels are designed to attract the consumer and the gain the consumer’s interest, desire, and action. I see wine as a destination in a glass and when someone say this is a ‘charming’ wine I think that what is interesting is how an industry comes together and collaborates and self-organises whilst many industries are tearing themselves apart with competition.

Wine marketing also highlights how different levels of demand should have different communication tactics – primary demand for wine/region should be conducted by the wine associations, secondary demand should be conducted by the producer/brand/estate, and tertiary demand for wine should be communicated by the wine retailer – although there is synergies each level has a specific communication task to attend to. The wine producers of Burgundy perform this task particularly well.

What is also interesting about wine is that whilst ‘product variability’ is generally associated with the service component of a product – wine variability is due to a range of factors – climate, soil, variety, incidence of the sun, wind, rain, temperature, disease, pests etc. in addition to the skills of the winemaker and the facilities of the winery – and all of this adds to the mega-narrative of the wine. You hear people say ‘that year was a particularly good year – you probably get 5 years in 100 where the conditions are perfect’.

History tells us that for thousands of years people have drunk wine – sometimes for survival [to purify contaminated water], sometimes medicinal, sometimes ceremonial, and sometimes for pleasure. Wine is an early example of international marketing. Today, regions and countries compete for prestige.

In ancient times wine was seen as a miracle – there was a God of wine – Dionysus [Greek] who was also known as Bacchus [Roman]. And for centuries since, religion has played a major role in wine making. Today, for some consumers still refer to wine as a miracle and for many wine is a high involvement product. For these people, the consumption of wine is a ritual, wine is collected and admired, certain wines have high status, and the regions and vineyards that produce these special wines have sacred qualities. Some, purchase wine as an investment – they never see the wine and certainly would never contemplate sharing the wine with a few dinner companions. From a marketing perspective there is no question that the consumption of wine is of interest.

We had booked a motel on the outskirts of Dijon. At first glance the location appeared a little like the outskirts of any city with large shopping malls, large stand-alone steel framed shops with corrugated coloured sheet-metal cladding, bitumen car parking, and yell-at-you signage. Initially, it was a little disappointing as this landscape was inconsistent with my memories of France and not what I expected from travel books – where I guess the photographs are carefully selected and edited. We book into our motel, clearly, the target market is travelling sales representatives. We deposit our bags in our room, the room is clean and functional, and reasonably priced. From our window we spot some vineyards and a church steeple and after a short walk we are in the lovely village of Marsannay – Anna remarked that ‘this is more like I expected’. We spotted a restaurant and made a note to have a meal there later in the week and then discover a little square with a statue dedicated to winemakers. Later that day we will catch up with a friend and using the map app on my phone we find his home and then head back to the motel  – intending on a little nap.

However, the attraction of the Marsannay region is just too great and we get back into the car and explore. We wander around the next village and have a coffee – already we know that our time in Burgundy will be too short and make a vow to come back. It is early autumn; the leaves are changing colour and beginning to fall. For Anna and I the fall of autumn leaves is a spectacular event – in Western Australia trees are mainly evergreens – we really don’t get the same intensity; also, our seasons, some say we have 6, are less distinct. The autumn spectacle unfolds before our eyes, many of the buildings, homes, and stone walls have Virginian creepers or crimson glory vines and the dark red of autumn is stunning. The smell of fallen autumn leaves and the earthy smell is a nostalgic smell from my childhood in Scotland.

That evening we have been invited to have a meal with a friend and former university colleague, Dr Steve Charters, who had kindly offered to guide us through the route des Grands Crus – the road of great wines. Lucky for us, Steve is an enology [wine and winemaking] professor at The Burgundy School of Business. He is one of an elite group who has a Masters of Wine; in addition, his PhD was in the consumer behaviour associated with wine and the meaning of wine qualities and quality. That evening we enjoyed a lovely meal with his family and, naturally, this was accompanied by a few glasses of local wines specially selected by Steve.

The next day, with our host busy teaching, Anna and I head of to discover the nearby city of Dijon. Once we have negotiated the unfamiliar roads and have found parking, we explore a city enormously rich in culture and architectural treasures from the past. However, Dijon is also serviced by beautiful markets, retail shops and a modern tramway. As we explore the city we discover that the region has been inhabited since the early Neolithic era, was a Celtic [Gallic] centre of power, and after many battles yielded to Roman rule [The siege of Alesia, near Dijon, is recognised as changing the destiny of the Celtic people]. Later, from the 11th to 15th centuries, Dijon, through commerce, became a centre of wealth, power and knowledge. This rich architectural and historical heritage is now recognised by a UNESCO world heritage listing. What an interesting place.

Anna and I had a very big day in Dijon. We visited the local markets, several coffee shops, enjoyed bueuf bourguignon in a traditional bistro, explored a cathedral, took in a museum, spotted roofs with geometric patterns, briefly enjoyed the sun and a stroll in a park with a magnificent fountain, and, as Dijon is renowned for its mustard – we sampled a few mustards.

The Cote dOr is an escarpment that gives its name to the region. On the south-east side of the limestone escarpment on gentle sun-filled slopes, is a 60 kilometre long, yet narrow ribbon of vineyards, and the home to 8 out of the 10 most expensive wines in the world. Running through the vineyard is the route des Grand Crus – a narrow winding lane that provides wine lovers access to this sacred ground.

an exemplar of marketing philosophy & practice

The next day Steve gave us a guided and expert tour of the region. We visited a number of places of significance, one is the historic Le Clos de Vougeot, for much of its history it was the property of the Cistercian monks; who played a significant role in the advancement of viticulture and winemaking techniques in France. In the 14th century they built a wall around their vineyard [hence clos] and in the 16th century built the Chateau du Clos de Vougeot. The monks produced wine up until the time of the French Revolution when their property was confiscated by the government and sold. The following years were eventful; however, it came into the hands of the Confrerie des Chevaliers du Tastevin [which sounds better that the fraternity of the wine-tasting cup] in 1944. This group are dedicated to the promotion of Burgundy wine and food, Burgundy as a place to visit, and the maintenance of Burgundy culture. From a marketing scholar’s perspective, this group have created a spirit of collaboration and by promoting the wines of this region have ensured that the wine producers of this region receive a premium price for their premium product. The group meet regularly to ensure that best satisfying wines are produced and that value is communicated and established.

a sacred place

With Dr Steve Charters’ knowledge of wine and the region, we discovered the history of the region, the stories of the domaines, how quality is ensured through the Appellation d’origine controlee (AOC), how the region came together and collaborated with a sense of purpose. After a short drive through the narrow roads we soon find ourselves listening to the story of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and inspecting the sacred land that produces what many regard [for over 200years] as the finest wine in the world. A highlight was being allowed to stand on this land and chat with the ‘carer’ of the ‘teroir’. Casually, Steve informed me that I was priveledged to stand on the most expensive agricultural land in the world – if it was for sale.

As a marketing scholar, I believe that Confrerie des Chevaliers du Tastevin and Romanee Conti are great exemplars of excellence in marketing. Marketing is about best satisfaction and both are dedicated to best satisfaction. In the case of Romanee Conti – [no pun intended] my opinion is – that if Burgundy produces the best wine – then Romanee Conti has the constant quest to be the best of the best satisfying wines.

Special thanks to Dr Steve Charters and his family.

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