United Distillers & Vintners (UDV) is determined to grab a bigger share of the booming UK wine market. But its plans to relaunch Le Piat D’Or could run aground in a sector where heavy branding is often seen as the kiss of death.
Le Piat D’Or hit the jackpot in the Eighties – when the UK wine market was in its infancy – by invoking the French, then seen as the ultimate connoisseurs of fine wines, in a series of memorable TV ads. Whether the French really adored Le Piat D’Or is debatable, but wine experts hated it.
A former PR man from IDV, which marketed Piat D’Or in the Eighties, says: “The wine writers absolutely loathed it. They considered it cheap and nasty. I just kept telling them that people loved it – and they did.
“I remember when we broke through the 1 million case mark in the UK. People couldn’t get enough of it.
“Wine was just beginning to take off in the UK and it gave people a very easy route into the market. It offered a transition from sweet German wines, which were very popular at the time, to French wines. It gave people confidence.”
Piat D’Or has been in steady decline since its Eighties’ peak. According to drinks industry analyst Canadean, the brand sold 660,000 cases last year.
Meanwhile, the public has “discovered” new world wines with the help of a growing army of TV pundits and self-styled experts.
French wine – once a byword for quality and distinction – is now seen as over-rated and over-priced.
The most popular new world brand, Australia’s Jacob’s Creek, has seen sales grow from 190,000 cases in 1990 to 1.54 million last year, with minimal advertising. The rise of Ernest & Julio Gallo’s Californian range has been equally meteoric: from 150,000 cases in 1990 to 1.5 million last year.
Over the same period, UK wine sales have increased by more than 60 per cent – from 54.5 million to 88 million cases.
UDV responded to the new world boom in 1995 with its Californian offering Blossom Hill – sold through its subsidiary Percy Fox.
But, unlike spirits and beer, the wine market remains resistant to branding and is still dominated by relatively small specialist players. Brands have a role to play in reassuring the nervous first-time buyer, but they reek of the mass market.
In a sector steeped in notions of connoisseurship, building a brand is a slow, subtle process.
Supermarket own-labels have stepped into the breach, offering the reassurance of quality without the baggage of a heavily-advertised and potentially clichéd name, such as Blue Nun or Piat D’Or.
But, compared with grocery aisles, supermarket wine departments remain confusing and undifferentiated places.
Asda wine marketing manager Jane Fenwick says: “Brands are needed because people may enjoy a bottle of wine and then find they can’t remember the name when they come to buy it again.
“But you have to be careful because too much branding can put buyers off, particularly at the premium end of the market.”
Asda has developed a logo in an attempt to distance its wine range from the supermarket’s cheap and cheerful image.
Youth-oriented brands such as Scraping the Barrel by Manchester wine merchant Kingsland – the Co-op’s former own-label wine arm – have tried to play on the trade’s stuffy image, with limited success. The brand has been listed by Safeway and off-licence giant First Quench and sells 200,000 cases a year.
But Kingsland managing director Nigel Gardener, former marketing director of jam-maker Chivers Hartley, says Scraping the Barrel was only meant to last for two seasons. He says the company is looking to launch a more serious wine range later this year.
“There is a lot of opportunity to build brands in the wine sector,” says Gardner. “But whether someone will be able to build another major brand is debatable. We are never going to have a Heinz or Mars in wine. The nearest you are going to get to it is something like Gallo.
“You can’t build huge brands with a product that varies in quality from year to year.
“Classic marketing theory dictates that the product has to be consistent.”
The other problem for would-be wine brands is pricing. “There is a huge cut-off point at &£5. Most wine sells at between &£3 and &£5. It is difficult to build in a premium,” Gardener adds.
UDV has deployed its branding expertise to devastating effect in the spirits sector, building Smirnoff, Bell’s and Gordon’s into formidable brands on the back of expensive marketing campaigns.
But the company may find it more difficult to repeat the trick with wine. A lot will depend on the quality of the liquid in the bottle.