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A little more conversation

Published:  23 July, 2008

How do you get consumers and the trade talking about a 50,000-case brand with next to no above-the-line marketing budget and without the help of an expensive PR agency? Nick Dymoke-Marr of Orbital Wines managed it, for the cost of 100 bottles of wine (+ p&p). And all by the power of the blog.
First, some numbers. At the last count (in December 2005) there were 26 million blogs - short for weblogs, a kind of interactive online diary - in the world, with 85,000 new ones being created each day. And the number of blogs devoted to, or mostly involving, wine? Just 56 worldwide, according to At least one part of the wine world isn't faced with a glut.

It's easy to dismiss blogs as just a bunch of geeks sharing specialist knowledge on microchips, but the top US-based blogs generate hundreds of thousands of hits per day - an enormously powerful medium, but one that is famously difficult, by its very nature, to harness for commercial purposes.

The wine brand in question is Stormhoek, the South Africa wine most famous for featuring a freshness indicator' on its labels. Nick Dymoke-Marr, managing director of Orbital Wines and part-owner of Stormhoek, embarked on his blogging experiment shortly after last year's LIWSF, with the aim of simply having a better conversation with our customer. Communication in the wine industry is very, very one way. It's

"we are the experts and you are the consumer waiting to be educated".'

The success of the project is startling.

Sales doubled in a year, which Dymoke-Marr attributes both directly and indirectly to the blogging experiment (more on that later). Google searches for Stormhoek' went from 500 a month in May 2005 to 66,000 in December, while the Stormhoek website is one of the most linked to' (one of the standard Internet currencies for determining a website's success) in the wine world: 13,200 links, compared to 1,100 for Kumala and 5,900 for Penfolds.

Dymoke-Marr says he built up the Stormhoek brand in the traditional UK wine-trade way: identify a niche or gap in the market (premium South Africa); make a bloody good wine', get the press on side, get distribution, expand the range and try to build a quality reputation'. But, he adds, Then you look around, and it's really, really hard to take the next step and have a proper conversation with your consumer. Marketing in wine is very simple really, very standard, and I really wanted to look at doing something different.

I was talking to Hugh Macleod, who runs Gaping Void, one of the UK's top blogging sites, and he got excited about the brand. We decided to see what we could do by utilising the "blogosphere". Blogging had done wonders for English Cut, a company that Hugh's involved in that offers super-expensive Savile Row suits: its entire marketing is Web- and blog-based. So we decided to give it a go.'

From small acorns

The idea was simple: offer anyone who is a blogger, over 18 and based in the UK (and later France and Ireland) a free bottle of pre-release 2005 Sauvignon Blanc. Around 100 bloggers responded to the offer on Macleod's website, and the bottles (with personalised labels) were sent out. We were amazed by the response. Almost all of the bloggers wrote about Stormhoek, [and] some even took pictures of the bottle and gave real, no-nonsense tasting notes - not the sort of thing the wine industry usually sees as a "proper" tasting note,' says Dymoke-Marr.

Stormhoek also had its own blog up and running on its website with reports from the vineyards in South Africa, as well as thoughts from the team in the UK. So far, so standard (from a PR point of view). But then it got exciting.

Bloggers around the globe picked up on Stormhoek's blogvertising' experiment - particularly those involved in marketing (of which there are lots). The discussion evolved into a debate about Stormhoek's business model, our ROI, econometrics and social media vs socialised media,' says Dymoke-Marr. The biggest fish in the blog pond to get involved was Robert Scoble, a high-level director at Microsoft who is responsible for the company's internal communications and global training programmes. Importantly, he's also the company's unofficial blogger. One blog he wrote (which was read by tens of thousands of people at least) started with the memorable line: Microsoft's real competition: Stormhoek'. He also wrote, Anyway, what they are doing with Stormhoek is giving us stories to tell other people. Does it matter if the wine is good? Of course! But, quick, name more than five wineries. It's really hard, isn't it?'

Internal disruption'

So, to what can the rise in sales be attributed? We got more listings this year, certainly, but the rate of sales increased

in existing stores as well, sometimes quite dramatically, and we did no more promotional activity than last year,' says Dymoke-Marr. But it's not as simple an equation as more coverage equals more sales. As Hugh Macleod says, Bloggers and their friends didn't suddenly start descending on supermarkets [and] buying the wine in large numbers. That's not how it works. What happened is that interfacing with the blogosphere fundamentally changed how Stormhoek looked at treating its primary customers (the supermarket chains) and the end-users (the supermarkets' customers). It caused an "internal disruption", both within the company and the actual trade.'

Basically, if you take out Macleod's eulogising on the Brave New World of the Web, Stormhoek suddenly had a bloody good story to tell its customers (both trade and consumer) and a lot of feedback to fall back upon - especially seeing as they also asked for comments on their label design and received hundreds of e-mails.

Stormhoek now intends to build on its wired' reputation through further Web work and using its tech' associations in the traditional media. However, the traditional marketing caveats still apply: is the increased demand just a curiosity spike or something more long-term, and will its wired' reputation prevent growth outside its limited sphere of attraction? Is Stormhoek's success repeatable for another brand, or was it the first on the boat' status that made it remarkable? No and yes, respectively, seem the most likely answers. But, as with all discussions regarding the Internet, nobody can really know.

Journalist John Lanchester put it succinctly in his lengthy article on the success of Google, Engine Trouble', in The London Review of Books: Everyone knew that trains and railways would change the world, but no one predicted the invention of the suburbs. Google, and the increased flow of information on which it rides and from which it benefits, is the railway. I don't think we've yet seen the first suburbs.' The same could be said for blogging and its possible effect on traditional marketing.

The main danger of using blogs as a marketing tool is obvious. As Dymoke-Marr says, The thing you have to remember is that you can't control the conversation, and if you get your approach wrong, you can get killed out there.' Nevertheless, Stormhoek's risks in using this strategy are relatively small and the possible benefits immense. Moreover, it's great to see a wine company really trying something different to get attention. I'd rather see a blog driving sales than a BOGOF.