• Transform magazine
  • November 29, 2021

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Branding for the brave new world of English wine

Richard Village Headshot

Richard Village, strategy director of brand consultancy Smith&+Village, argues that the brand identities of English wines should strive to be rebellious, creative and distinctively English rather than follow the traditional conventions of Old World wine.

In the last two decades, English wine has gone from being a bit of an underdog to a serious competitor on the world stage. Historically, English landowners with a taste for the grape dabbled in planting vines on their own estates, but the wine world didn’t really wake up to England’s potential until the ‘Nyetimber effect’ in the 1990s. The Kent vineyard won the trophy for the best sparkling wine in the world with 13 out of 14 tasters thinking it was Champagne. With a warming climate, the chalk and limestone soils of southern England have become prime growing areas.

In 2015 Tattinger, one of Champagne’s greatest houses, announced they’d bought an old apple orchard near Canterbury, then Vranken-Pommery snapped up land in Hampshire. There has been an explosion of activity in recent years, and Great Britain now boasts over 700 vineyards. By 2040, English wine is expected to be worth some £1 billion, with fizz being the most important category.

With less history and fewer traditional or conventional constraints than other wine producing nations, English winemakers are known for being newer, younger and more experimental, as well as being driven by a passion for excellence. You would have thought this might present an amazing opportunity for growers who are pushing boundaries to reflect this in their brand identity as they delight their customers.

With the exception of a couple of urban wineries in London, much English wine branding seems to fall back on the received codes of Old World wine. This seems at odds with the new scene that is being forged right now and the pioneering, innovative, thrilling nature of English wine as a powerful, new phenomenon. To me, it stands to reason that the creativity surrounding and representing it should try and capture the more rebellious, extraordinary side of British design. So why is our wine branding still stuck in dewy images of vines on the South Downs and faux coats of arms, peddling the mysticism of terroir-based marketing?

Perhaps it’s to do with a mistrust of the discipline of branding and its association with buyouts by the big drinks conglomerates. Small producers who put their heart and soul into the making of really special wines may shy away from even using the word ‘brand’. For them, and for wine aficionados, it’s all about what’s in the bottle – what happened in the soil and the making process. I don’t want to detract from this kind of communication at all, but it can be mystifying for all but the most 'connoisseurial' consumer and it seems to leave out the emotional power that a good bottle of wine can exert.

There must be more inventive ways to tell not only the winemakers’ stories but what they want their potential drinkers to feel when they enjoy the fruits of their labours – revelling in the enjoyment of the wine drinking experience, while still anchoring the brand in a strong sense of place. With braver branding, English wine producers could connect with customers on a more emotional level. Like all non-essential food and drink purchases, choosing a wine is driven by feelings and anticipation of an experience to be savoured. Allowing free rein to find a distinctive visual language and written words means they could define themselves more precisely, stand out from the crowd and really create and connect with a tribe of their own.

The field is wide open for the first English wine superbrand to rise up and gain attention internationally. That the product must be impeccable goes without saying, but so must everything that surrounds it. The bottle itself, for instance, can become a powerful conduit for meaning that transcends its function as a decanter of liquid. I’m always inspired by how the Absolut vodka bottle broke through in the 1980s. Based on a 19th century pharmacy bottle found in Stockholm, it formed the distinctive centrepiece of countless ad campaigns, and a blank canvas for the collaborations of artists and musicians, comprehensively turning vodka from something marginally sleazy into an art form. Using the contents of the bottle as the inspirational starting point for your brand story, rather than the only story, is surely key to something as thrilling and ground-breaking as English wine.

The English wine movement is at a really exciting stage, as international buyers and consumers develop more of a taste for it, and overseas markets open up. With more non-sparkling wines appearing in the market and experimentation taking place in the winery, why isn’t this spirit of innovation, expertise and playfulness showing in the branding and communications? When it comes to bubbles, can’t we have a more distinctive look and feel for English fizz, dressed to impress among its peers? Why should it follow the codes of champagne, after all does Savile Row feel like the Avenue Montaigne? As well as an ‘Absolut’ winner, there’s scope for many different identities to reflect the idiosyncrasies of the passionate wine makers busily making waves in the world of wine.