White or Light or Sweet or Pink

'My background was not in this business," says Julie Brosterman, founder of Women & Wine. "I was a strategist in the mortgage and real estate industry." "Strategist" in a business context may mean a lot of things, but for the sake of this discussion, let's limit it to the strategy of marketing -- making a product appealing to a certain demographic. In this case, the product is wine, the demographic is women, and Brosterman is strategizing.

Brosterman says that up to now, there's been an "excessive marketing of what I call 'the Virginia Slims of wine.'" As women have been increasingly recognized as a significant wine-buying demographic, "Interesting studies have come out. In the first half of 2005, large wine companies started marketing a lot of wines specifically for women, and they were white or light or sweet or pink -- pink being White Zinfandel or something like that. Then, about three-quarters of the way through last year, a study came out, and 57 percent of the women surveyed said they preferred red wine. You just feel like there's this great disconnect between what is being marketed to women and what women really want. I think we have more of a finger on the pulse of what women really want."

What do women really want? Before we answer that, let's let Brosterman acknowledge that the large wine companies aren't totally clueless. Even if they're wrong about what's in the bottle, they do seem to be getting a few things right when it comes to supermarket-aisle buyers: "I think there's a big trend out there to create products that will appeal to women on the shelf by the name, or the bottling, or that sort of thing. It's such a competitive business that they're doing whatever they can. I compare it a little bit to the cosmetics industry. When you're walking through the cosmetics counters and they're just exploding with product," you tend to notice "the ones that have the prettier packaging or the bright colors that appeal to you, or something sexy or subtle or whatever. Walking through the wine aisle is the exact same thing. It's a very visual connection, especially when there's nobody to give you any guidance. You find that you respond to the labels that are attractive."

But, thinks Brosterman, just because you respond to that pretty label doesn't mean you're happy about it. "We think women are smart," she says, speaking for her company. "They don't like to be marketed to. They're put off by some of these brands, because they suspect that they're being made by someone who's not taking women's interest in wine seriously." What they do like is "recommendations." Even at the grab 'n' go supermarket level, "We just want to make sure that they know that there are better choices -- they may be wines that don't spend as much on marketing or wines from different countries, like Chile or Spain, where they're not spending as much money on marketing."

And how does Women & Wine convince harried shoppers that they have the goods on the better choices? By giving them what they want -- by bringing to women the message that "wine is a story about a person and a place that produces it. That makes women connect -- the whole idea of buying things based on stories, more than scores or ratings." Brosterman's research showed her that "a 96 from Robert Parker meant more to a man than it did to a woman."

Women & Wine stepped into the gap. "We're kind of a next-generation storytelling sort of company," says Brosterman. Generally, "The trend in luxury marketing is to tell a story to create a bond between the customer and the brand. I think that's what we're especially good at. Let the customer decide if it's something that appeals to them, but tell it in a way that is not just saying, 'Buy this,' but saying, 'This is quality. And the reason this is quality is because of this painstaking process, or this very limited release.' Not an advertorial, but a real story, even if it's about a new wine program in a hotel or a chef that's doing a wine-pairing dinner. It's written from a very personal and intimate basis -- a look inside."

It may be a general trend in luxury marketing, but it also seems uniquely suited to wine, with its broad array of storytelling possibilities -- winemaker to vineyard to vintage to varietal, and on and on. And it's working. "We have a lot of respect from people in the wine industry who want to see us succeed and think this is a great message for cultivating the woman customer. The more knowledge and information a woman has, the greater her comfort level, the greater chance that she's going to reach out and try new products."

And, crucially, it's information of a certain kind. "People reach out to us because they like the messaging and the style of the messaging. I think it really enables them to tell their story in a different way. It's not about the score or the rating, and we try to showcase wines that are not being heavily marketed to women. The ultimate compliment is that a lot of major companies are retooling their websites to be more lifestyle-focused -- to tell a story for the purposes of getting people to connect with their brand."

Industry support is helpful, of course, but Women & Wine aspires to be, first and foremost, a trusted consumer source. It doesn't exist to promote this or that wine. "What we're doing is telling a story to get people to connect with the idea of having wine as a part of their life -- then learning the different stories so that they can choose the brands that they like." They write about and recommend particular wines, but, says Brosterman, "We're not partnered with any one in particular. We don't write about any wines we don't like. We recommend wines that we do like, but we don't compare one to another. Our wine club is really about value and finding wines that other people would not discover on their own. Maybe they're from an unusual location."

The model has worked; the strategy has paid off. The company newsletter goes out to around 15,000 readers, and that's just the beginning of Women & Wine's services, which range from travel packages to wines for book clubs to wine-themed articles and radio broadcasts to a host of other projects currently in the works. "I think people have responded so positively because we add a level of intelligence, and we have fun with what we're doing. It's not silly, but it is fun."

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