Does your brand tell a compelling story?

When I was asked recently by a journalist writing a magazine article on wine marketing for my “philosophy or winning recipe” to lead a consumer to fall in love with a wine brand, two things immediately jumped out at me:  service excellence by a customer-centric organisation and stories.

One can learn about developing a culture of service excellence and building a customer-centred organisation in any business course, but the art of storytelling is less tangible and more human – and it is key to stimulating the personal, emotional connection that will have customers selecting your wine brand over others on the shelf time and again.

One of my favourite quotes, which I have adapted for my email signature, is: “Good content isn’t about good storytelling. It is about telling a true story well.”

How, and why, have we forgotten how to tell our own good, true stories?

At what point in time did we decide that it is a good idea to tell ordinary everyday wine consumers about all the technical details of a wine, expect them to remember it, and simultaneously expect them to fall in love with our wines?

Four identified characteristics of good storytellers are: they are human, vulnerable, truthful, and trustworthy. None of these characteristics, except truthfulness, hopefully, are being shown when we ramble off the technical analysis of wine or repeat the exact same details that said wine lovers can read for themselves on the back label of the wine we are pouring. And let’s face it: we have all been to tasting rooms where the hostess is clearly just repeating the same, boring information in the same, boring fashion to every Tom, Dick, Harry, and Sally walking through their doors.

You decide to spend a well-deserved Saturday morning in the Winelands and treat yourself to a wine tasting on a farm you’ve had your eye on for quite some time. When you arrive, the farm is even more beautiful than the website or brochure suggests. Welcoming guests with rows of lush green vineyards, nestled at the foot of a majestic mountain, with impeccably-branded signage to direct you, a historic, white-washed Cape Dutch gable dated 1804 hinting at a rich history invites you into a tastefully designed state-of-the-art cellar and tasting room with perfectly-aligned rows of bottles of wine on display.

You are welcomed, shown to a table, given an order form (and maybe a writing instrument if you are lucky), and once you have made your selection, it begins: “This Sauvignon Blanc is made in a more tropical style, and it shows whiffs of guava, granadilla, and crisp pineapple. It spent 6 months in stainless steel tanks before bottling and had no wood treatment. Geniet die wyntjie!”. And then the hostess walks off. That’s it. Leaving you cold, unamused, unimpressed, and bored. Another Saturday, another Sauvignon Blanc. Oh well, at the least the vineyards are pretty.

After approximately 20 years in the wine industry, some of the best and most memorable stories I have been told were by people who were not trying to sell me anything.

When you hear stories such as that of Walter Finlayson making his first Chardonnay on Glen Carlou in a wine container with electric fans because he did not have a proper, temperature-controlled wine cellar. When you hear that the barman at Lanzerac’s Taphuis has been working in that very same bar for more than 40 years and served the likes of the Kennedys. When you hear the story of how a farm worker’s son harvested grapes with his dad from a very early age and grew up to be one of the industry’s best brand ambassadors and ultimately the owner of his own wine brand. When you hear the story of an ordinary gardener who left school early because his family was too poor to finish his education and he ultimately became the head chef in a restaurant after winning a chef training scholarship from a simple cookie recipe challenge.

When you hear the stories of refugees wanting a better life for themselves and becoming the nation’s best-known sommeliers, flying the SA flag on international soil at the world tasting championships. When you listen to Jan Boland Coetzee and Hempies du Toit talking about their rugby days in their “rou Ingils, met ‘n brei op die tong”…those are the stories you remember, that create an emotional connection, and make you fall in love with a brand.

As this blog post was unfolding in my head, I asked an industry colleague the same thing: “What makes a consumer fall in love with a wine brand?”. Her answer came rapidly: “The stories. Everything about the place and its people, encapsulated in stories”.

Great storytellers are human, vulnerable, truthful, and trustworthy.

They are authentic and genuine, not being afraid to admit doubts, confusion, or mistakes. They invite you in and reveal parts of themselves in telling their stories. As a result, you feel closer to them because you relate to the storyteller on a human level. There is no need for a perfectly memorised sales pitch or rambling off the entire fruit and veggie aisle when trying to describe a wine.

Great storytellers bridge the gap between “you” and “me”, making you feel one with them. Because storytelling is a conversation, a dialogue between people and an exchange of meaning which gives substance to any brand. It is not a lecture or an endless download of information. It is a shared experience in which both parties are active participants.

Think back to your parents reading you bedtime stories – what were they giving you really? A selfless gift. Their time. Something ego-less, not something about grandeur or seeking personal acknowledgement. It is about giving something special to someone else. And this in itself shows that great storytellers are generous in spirit.

Herein lies the secret of storytelling: Once your audience has made that connection on a human level with you, that connection creates loyalty and trust. And once loyalty and trust are formed, consumers are willing to invest in your brand. Consumers want relationships with your brand in terms of common interest, respect, and trust. They don’t really care about the 15% 4th fill Hungarian oak barrels being used in the maturation of your 1984-planted Chenin blanc bush vines on dryland soils. And they are likely to forget it once you’ve poured the next wine.

But they will always remember that Danie de Wet from De Wetshof and Springbok rugby player Jan Boland Coetzee were the two pioneers at the forefront of cultivating Chardonnay in South Africa by smuggling some vine-cuttings from Burgundy into the country via a visiting journalist.