This morning, my good pal Steve Heimoff published a blog post about how wineries can get famous. He raised some interesting points about the changes that have taken place in mass communication between the present and 1994 when the movie Disclosure "made Pahlmeyer a star." Obviously, he discussed the rise of social media, but concluded that a critic's score was the "best way to get huge notice by the public."
With all the hubbub over Robert Parker's recent 100-pt scores for Peter Michael's pinot noirs and their instantaneous secondary market price increase, maybe Steve is correct. Critics do influence sales. But perhaps not necessarily just a score. Jon Bonné (man, I wish I had an acute accent in my name!) recently named Steve Matthiasson his winemaker of the year. I didn't see any points in the article. Both accolades will undoubtedly propel sales, but I honestly wonder which honor will net each winery more sales? Not only are the honors slightly different in nature, but the nature of each winery is different.
The thing that Steve missed (or purposefully ignored) in his assessment of how social media fits into the realm of wine publicity, is that social media is not about short-term goal of selling wine. Social media is not about getting as many people to mention your brand as you possibly can. Social media has changed they way brands can interact with the consuming public.
Yes, anyone can publish a blog, tweet or announce their every move on Foursquare. Yes, the noise level has changed since 1994. Is Steve's blog any less relevant because a thousand other people are publishing similar gibberish (present company exclude, of course)? No. People like to read Steve's blog because they can engage with him. Before he started his eponymous endeavor, he was just the an editor for Wine Enthusiast magazine. But now he is STEVE! More people than ever know who he is because of social media. I keep commenting on his blog because one day he might respond to me. I've seen him respond to others, so I know he knows how. The level of engagement with his audience that social media has afforded him is the true power of social media. That is what sets it apart from being "simply the latest incarnation of mass media."
Critics' scores come and go. One release might receive outstanding scores and the next might not be reviewed. Scores are like the lead single from Janet Jackson's, fittingly named, Control album released in 1986. There is no relationship between a number and a consumer. If Steve were to take a more long-term view of how wineries can "break through the din," brand building might just entail more than scores. Just as Paul Mabray and his army of droids at Vintank (or maybe he bears more resemblance to HAL 3000?) keep repeating, there is always ROI in talking to your customers. He gets it, but everytime I read that I get a little annoyed. Why? Because it is way more than that. Engaging consumers and building a relationship is so very important, but engaging potential consumers (or at least showing them you are open to interacting with them) might be just as important. Wineries want repeat business, but they always want (or should want) new customers, too.
Critics and numbers have afflicted wineries with a form of myopia. Marketing myopia is not something new. In fact, an article published over 55 years ago suggests "businesses will do better in the end if they concentrate on meeting customers’ needs rather than on selling products" (Levitt 1960). Now that is a pretty profound idea in this age of social media. Do scores meet consumers' needs or just help sell bottles?
I know which above-mentioned winery will be earning my money (here's a hint).