Prestige and History: How branding and bottling is critical to introducing your wine brand to China

IMG_3617As wine companies worldwide open their eyes to the true potential of China as a fantastic wine market, and in many cases a saviour of the wine industry  it is important to consider the way wine is currently being marketed in China. A vastly different drinking culture exists in China compared to the western world and as such, any penetration of wine into that drinking culture will require a considered market entry strategy that goes beyond the traditional wine marketing. Such a strategy would invariably require both an education of the Chinese consumer on how and why to drink wine and in addition to this an adaption of the marketing mix to appeal directly to the Chinese consumer. So what are Wine companies and distributors doing now in China to sell wine, and make it appealing to the Chinese Consumer?

Well it’s important to brand the wine appropriately. Most brands especially from Europe emphasise the word “Chateau” in their label, and many Chinese brands do likewise. This is understandable in a culture that is over 4000 years old, tradition and history adds prestige to a wine brand, and the word “Chateau” has an association with history and tradition. Some Chinese wine companies have gone so far as to build replica “Wine Chateaus” in China to capture the prestige and history of European wines and wineries. These Chinese brands also emphasise strong Chinese icons such as the Great Wall or the Silk Road, and this is wholly aimed at appealing to the nationalistic and patriotic feeling in China. However most of these Chinese brands are not really very great to drink…in fact I wouldn’t recommend them at all of I am honest. Of course that doesn’t mean they don’t sell in the Chinese Market, because they do!

Another brand image consideration in China is the bottle and closure device used. Even cheap, low cost wine is generally sold in bottles with a large dimple, and when you meet with wine distributors in China this is one of the first things for which they will look: How deep is the dimple? The bottle doesn’t need to necessarily contain prestigious wine, but it needs to appear that it does. Using Cork closures is the other strong preference for the Chinese wine consumer, although a synthetic cork will probably suffice. The emotive sound and sensation of the cork being released is still important to the Chinese, and it is not as New Age as a screw cap. Once again this goes back to the desire for age, tradition, history and prestige.

So what can we read into these branding and presentation preferences? Well wine is about prestige in China, and is more about the image than substance. If you think about my other article on understanding the Chinese wine market where I discuss the “shooting” and Toasting of wine in China, then taste is probably not going to be your primary motivation when buying wine in China. Ultimately creating the “right” image and branding for your wine will open up many more doors in China than the taste of your wine. Present your wine brand as prestigious and you will find entry to the Chinese wine market much easier….but challenges will always exist, especially if you are from the New World Wine markets.

The education of the wine consumer is a long run project in China and so wine companies, distributors and even provincial governments are taking innovative approaches to this challenge. On a recent trip to China, I had the pleasure of being invited to a “wine tasting” that was put on by a local Chinese wine merchant, to show off his European and Australian wines. This wine tasting was in a purpose built wine presentation room, with cellared wine in cabinets on all the walls of the room. At the tasting were all the powerbrokers of the local communist party and government, and they were seated in rank order along long rectangle tables facing the lectern at the front of the room. The guests were all introduced to the wines one by one, and a plate of food was served with each wine to show the matching qualities of food with wine. Throughout the tasting, each glass was sipped and savoured not shot. This was all part of the education process, and seemed to be a great success. Unsurprisingly however, after the formal presentation of wines, everyone got up and did the networking thing, where toasts or “gan bei” was the order of the day….I guess some drinking habits die hard.

One wine initiative is in Qingdao, Shandong province, which is a city on the coast of China about half way between Beijing and Shanghai. The initiative is interesting for it is a local government initiative designed at introducing the Chinese consumer to wine. Qingdao is a popular beachside resort, and in summer the city population can swell to nearly 20 million people. It is also home to China’s most famous beer – Tsingtao, and was a former German concession in years gone by. To help promote wine to the Chinese consumer, the Qingdao government have created “Wine Street”. Wine street is a one stop wine education and promotion centre, replete with Mine museum, wine distributors and restaurants showcasing wine. The Qingdao Wine Museum has been built in a disused Mao era nuclear fallout shelter built underground, and takes advantage of some of the nearly 2000square meters of floors space in the tunnels to show people the history of wine. It is like Disneyland for Wine, and showcases different wine regions from around the world, not just Europe. What a great promotional idea!

Across the road from the entrance to the Qingdao Wine Museum are 17 wine distributors shop fronts, all designed around a “traditional” European shopfront facade, and inside the distributors showcase their wine with displays, tasting rooms and other paraphernalia. These wine distributors showcase many wines from around the world, and if nothing else, will help to build awareness of wine regions beyond old world wines in France and Italy. Next to the Wine museum is a series of restaurants which only stock wine from the various wine distributors. This is solely aimed at helping to cross promote the distributors, but as an added bonus it also helps to educate the consumer about wine as an appropriate accompaniment to food.

These wine education measures that are taking place across China are great news for International wine companies looking to introduce their wine brands to the Chinese domestic market. All that is required is that a market entry, promotional and distribution strategy can be tailored to the specific needs of the Chinese consumer so that ultimately there is success.