Selling wine is an inherent part of the wine industry and while winegrape varieties and winemaking styles obviously play a role in activating interest, it’s the eye of a marketing expert that gets wine from the barrel and into consumers’ glasses. Harrison Davies spoke with up and coming wine marketer Zoë Downer about how she sees the industry moving forward.
Ideas drive any industry and the wine industry is no exception. The challenges befalling the big players in the Australian wine market are mirrored by a crowded field domestically for smaller boutique producers.
Presenting a brand in the best light and reaching the right people is key to floating to the top. Enter Zoë Downer.
Downer is a wine marketing consultant and founder of the Adelaide based wine marketing consultancy Counter Space.
The firm focusses on simple foundations of pairing what consumers want with wines that will fulfil niches in the domestic market that can be fulfilled.
The days of getting a good score from a wine critic and riding the coat-tails of that score to success are over and Downer assists brands in finding ways to present their wines in the best places to achieve the most exposure.
In a think piece penned by Downer, she explained what makes a brand strong and how that strength can take it from success to success.
“The brands we most desire and aspire to are powerful. We trust and believe in them and above all others decide we want to give them our money in return for what they offer,” she writes.
“Of course, there are many factors that impact the success of a brand, but there are three things the most desirable ones have in common: strong values, expression and creativity.
“An investment in all three forms an enviable blueprint with great benefit for the customer experience and ultimately the desirability and success of any brand.”
Downer has worked alongside established brands like Shaw + Smith as well as more up and coming labels like Gentle Folk and La Prova.
She brings her expertise alongside a true passion for the industry and a true personal connection to the wine she is helping to sell.
Starting behind the bar
Like many before her, Downer found her love for wine while pulling beers behind the bar at the Edinburgh Hotel in Adelaide.
It was there she began to learn firsthand how passionate people were for their wine and what made it so fascinating.
“The Ed had a great bottle shop (still does) that lent the pub a certain wine status not all pubs had, though I probably didn’t realise it at the time,” Downer explained.
“It was there that I started to see some of the interest and desire people had for wine.
“In any case, what I think I was seeing that interested me, was people appreciating wine for its quality and provenance but also enjoying it then and there at a place primarily about connection […] between family and friends; while eating, drinking, talking and celebrating.”
Following a degree in marketing from Adelaide Uni, Downer found herself in a wine sales position and was quickly whisked off to Brisbane to sling bottles there.
“When I finished university, I went to work in wine sales because I thought that is what a “real” marketer needed to do and because I didn’t fancy myself as a salesperson which seemed like a perfectly good reason to try,” she continued.
“It was one of the best decisions I have made; I was 24 years old and ended up transferring to Brisbane with the company and I just think I had to grow up fast in a good way. I left Red + White Queensland on a high and went to study a Master’s in Wine Business in Burgundy, France.”
Upon returning to Australia she quickly started putting her learnings to good use at a new position with Adelaide Hills producer Shaw + Smith, who was looking to establish itself at the peak of Australian premium wine.
“When I was eventually back in Adelaide, I joined Shaw + Smith and the kind of work I did there was varied but founded in further establishing their brands as premium and recognisable,” Downer said.
“Some of the things I helped with include an uptick in publicity, launching Tasmanian brand Tolpuddle Vineyard and creating Shaw + Smith’s wine club.
“Something I love about that role was experiencing first-hand the affection people had for Shaw + Smith’s wines. I feel I came to understand those customers in terms of their bond with the brand and was able to contribute to their wine journeys in meaningful ways.”
All this work inspired Downer to strike out on her own, taking the knowledge and experience she had collected from her years in Queensland, Burgundy and in the Hills and use it to help other brands forge a place in a competitive market.
Enter Counter Space
Downer wanted to be able to help producers at all levels of their business and help them build their brand beyond just consumer facing marketing.
More than that, Downer wanted to have something that was just hers.
“Counter Space started because I wanted to feel more ownership over something in a business sense and because I was at a stage in my career where I had the confidence to seek new challenges and inspiration,” she said.
“To a lesser extent, it was because I understood that parts of my identity and measures of success had become attached to employment and I wanted to take on those roles fully within myself instead.
“I found a desk to rent, downloaded some accounting software and launched.”
Downer’s consultancy had humble beginnings, as many businesses do, but they provided a foundation upon which she could help businesses grow in all aspects.
“The goal back then was bland, in retrospect – I just wanted it to work. And that meant providing outsourced marketing to wine businesses. I would be helpful to others and charge by the hour. I would ask them, what do you want me to do?” she said.
“The goal now is different; Counter Space offers something specific which is business strategy and planning centred on marketing. In particular, our goal is to help businesses explore values, expression and creativity as part of forming their marketing blueprint.”
She explains this idea of similar factors amongst successful businesses in her previously mentioned think piece: Three Things the Most Desirable Brands Have in Common.
In it she expands on why brands must balance creativity, expression and values and demonstrates why these factors can help other businesses guide their marketing decisions.
They are also the factors that help her when she is working alongside clients and aiming to take their businesses to new heights.
She also sees marketing as something that should be constantly changing and should follow a brand’s intuition when it comes to establishing human connections.
“Modern marketing understands that we have more potential and probably need to operate on an intuitive level when it comes to the business of human connection,” she said.
“It is like when you want to get a point across to someone, it helps to get in front of them which is why cellar doors and events can be so valuable for connection.
“Wine marketing should allow for more emotion, authenticity, integrity and values in its development, and get more distinct than ever when it comes to setting a direction. How does a wine brand help someone be the person they want to be?
“Traditional wine marketing from a production standpoint, was maybe more formulaic – working capital, four Ps, phone a friend, go to market.
“Unless you had a cellar door, it was fairly difficult to get in front of your end user, so oftentimes the marketing was about influence and control over the message and relationship with the people selling the wine for you.
“Some of the shortcomings might include varied and confused messaging, too-technical brand collateral, slow or no feedback loop, low collection of data, market disconnect, comparing apples to apples for inspiration and so on.
“When it comes to traditional marketing mediums like printed brochures, letters and newspaper advertising, it still has a place but with a traditional edge that might be most easily summed up as a one-way conversation, with more guesswork.
“Notwithstanding that the industry is, and has always been, a relationship business.”
Creating more space
Leading her own consultancy has forced Downer to face several challenges and also taught her a lot about the industry.
These challenges have been industry focussed but also personal as she had to find the confidence within herself to know that she brought value to her clients.
She said that despite these personal challenges, she found that overcoming those obstacles made her stronger.
“One positive was it urged me to work hard and I was compliant, easily able to accept instruction while feeling great confidence in others,” she said.
“But if you reach a time in your career when you ought to step up – whether by personal preference, that of a team or through having more experience.
“The effectiveness of the aforementioned approach plateaus, and moving the dial from agreeable and productive to leading with confidence, can be a challenge; it is not just our expectation of ourselves that is developing but it is how others might look to us as well.
“I am giving this example because I do see that there is sometimes quite a lot of confidence, seniority and opinion in wine, which could make this process even more challenging for a younger person in the industry.”
Downer set her sights on a bigger office outside the city and hoped that she could take Counter Space to be a bigger part of the industry.
“I hope Counter Space develops its offering to include saleable marketing products to be able to service more clients and help them more quickly, and; that it shares valued ideas and perspectives more frequently. I also hope to build the team around me,” she concluded.
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