What the wine industry gets wrong about marketing to younger generations

Wine marketing for younger

Wine has been looking for ways to reach newly of-age consumers since the 1990s. What will it take to get it right in today’s market? Know how the wine industry is using a marketing approach to younger generations.

Source: Seven Fifty Daily. By: Tina Caputo.

A documentary produced for California winery executives issued a wake-up call about the younger generation’s disinterest in wine. “There are 70 million people in the U.S. between the ages of 21 and 30,” the narration stated, “yet less than eight percent are regular wine drinkers.” To help turn the tide, it was time for the industry to put a new twist on wine to emphasize enjoyment rather than appellations and hillside terroir. 

The year was 1995, and the video, which I helped create, was about Generation X. More than 25 years later, the wine industry now finds itself in a similar situation with the next generation: millennials.

Silicon Valley Bank’s 2022 State of the Wine Industry report made a splash earlier this year with dire warnings about declining sales to millennials, yet calls to do a better job of marketing wine to younger generations are hardly new, and the industry has yet to master the practice.

Lessons from Past Efforts

Gen X consumers are certainly drinking more wine today than they did in their younger years. In the mid-’90s, less than eight percent of adults aged 21 to 30 were regular wine drinkers. In 2021, according to the Wine Market Council’s recent survey, 15 to 16 percent of Gen X consumers—now in their 40s and 50s—identify as weekly wine drinkers.

Though it’s likely that some naturally became interested in wine as they grew older and began earning more money, Wine Brats’ geographical reach and membership numbers suggest that the industry’s efforts also had an impact.  

However, little was done to engage younger drinkers after the Brats’ national organization dissolved around 2004. As millennials reached legal drinking age and early research suggested that these young adults were not only open to wine but were driving sales, the wine sector felt no particular urgency to court them. Now, the industry is playing catch-up.

In approaching younger consumers today, Quigley says, it’s important for the wine to remind itself that younger consumers want many of the same things—whether the year is 1990 or 2022.

“The commonalities with Gen X, millennials, and Gen Z are that they don’t want to be talked down to and made to feel stupid,” he says, “and they want products and the people behind them to be authentic.”

A Different Market

Though there are parallels between the 1990s and 2022, today’s market presents myriad challenges that didn’t exist 25 years ago.

Wine was growing massively during the 1990s, following a decade of plummeting interest. With boomers fueling the ’90s wine boom, there was both sufficient cash and a need to feed the industry’s growth. It’s a very different situation now. The industry is not growing like hotcakes.

Damien Wilson, chair of Sonoma State University’s wine business program.

Since the ’90s, the number of wineries in the United States has tripled, says Wilson, yet the volume output has only doubled. Because the industry has seen a disproportionate influx of smaller wineries that are producing their wines at a higher cost, he adds, younger consumers are being priced out.

Wine is also expensive compared to other beverages, explains Rob McMillan, the executive vice president and founder of Silicon Valley Bank’s wine division. He argues the industry isn’t producing enough interesting wines at entry-level price-points. “Look at BMWs,” he says. “You don’t start with the 7 Series. You start with the 3 Series and that’s the on-ramp for that category. So what’s our on-ramp?”

Not only does the industry need to create a range of simple, affordable, cleanly made wines, says Wilson, it must rethink the way it presents wine to younger consumers.

When we think of the language used by initiates when they’re talking about wine, they don’t talk about elements of regionality, nuances, and complexity. Basically, wine becomes a platform for the delivery of alcohol within a context of social interaction. Recognizing that element of wine and coming up with packages and products that are conducive to that situation is really one of the keys.

Damien Wilson, chair of Sonoma State University’s wine business program.

McMillan points out that in decades past, most beer and spirits offerings were mass-produced and uninteresting. Wine was the only beverage with premium options, which led consumers to view it as special. “Now, younger consumers think of beer, wine, and spirits on equal footing,” says McMillan. Wine also faces competition from new, growing categories like hard seltzer and ready-to-drink cocktails.

As a result of these headwinds, tactics that were once successful—like waiting around for younger consumers to “age into wine”—are no longer working.

I hear people say, ‘Oh, well, all we need to do is wait. I understand where everybody’s coming from—they’re thinking of their own experience and saying, ‘Well, I didn’t like wine at first, either.’ But it’s different now.

Rob McMillan, executive vice president and founder of Silicon Valley Bank’s wine division.

Ramping Up Wine Marketing

To help the industry address market realities and create a unified message, McMillan and Stratton have joined with other industry veterans to create a national marketing effort targeting younger consumers. Dubbed WineRAMP (which stands for “Wine Research and Marketing Project”), the group seeks to pursue a USDA Research and Promotion Program, which would provide a framework for the wine industry to collectively fund promotional efforts through mandatory assessments.

While the project is still in the early “listening” stage and its direction has yet to be determined, WineRAMP founders say they recognize the need to focus on values that are important to the new consumer, including sustainability and diversity.

It’s also important to show younger generations a good time, says Tyler Balliet, the former publisher of Second Glass, a wine magazine for millennials. After realizing that his generation was far more interested in experiencing wine than reading about it, he and partner Morgan First pivoted in 2009 to launch a series of pop-up wine festivals called Wine Riot—not unlike the wine rave concept of the 1990s.

In 2018, they founded Rosé Mansion in Manhattan—an Instagram-worthy, 14-room “wine amusement park” devoted to pink wines. Before its pandemic-related shutdown, the venue attracted 30,000 young adults each month.

“It was a fun night out, so you could run through all these rooms and try different rosés,” says Balliet. “If you wanted to learn about science, we had that there. If you wanted to learn about culture, we had that. But at what point did wine become memorizing note cards? That’s not wine enjoyment.”

Taking the stuffiness out of wine is not a new idea, yet it is one that the industry has yet to embrace on a large scale.

“I actually think it’s a super exciting time, because there’s a massive hole in the market and the old guard botched it,” says Balliet. “Those wineries aren’t selling wine to young people because they don’t want to sell it to them.” That opens up opportunities both for new producers and forward-thinking established wineries that make the effort to adapt—for example, by using lesser-known grape varieties and cutting out pricey French oak barrels to make a line of affordable and interesting wines that will appeal to younger drinkers.

I am wildly hopeful. Things are going to change and it’s going to be messy, but wine’s not going anywhere. Wine drinking might dip for a little bit until the industry can respond, but there’s so much opportunity. But you can’t just keep doing what you’re doing.

Balliet says of the U.S. wine industry’s future.

You may be interested in reading: The nine best-selling Champagne brands in the United States.

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