In our position as advisors to wine businesses, distribution is often a topic of conversation. The wine industry can be tricky to navigate, and managing relationships with different distributors in multiple markets can indeed be a challenge.
Before I founded Trellis Growth Partners in 2008, I worked for a wonderful company -- Premium Port Wines, the vertically integrated North American importer for the Symington Family Estates of Portugal. I could write a myriad of posts about my admiration for the family and network at PPW, including the way the company works with distributors.
In my role as Director of Marketing & Communications, I worked closely with the Vice President of Sales, who through a regional network of sales managers, oversaw 150 distributors throughout the country and abroad. Given our niche portfolio of Ports, Madeiras and Douro red wines, we simply could not align all 10 brands in one house in each market; hence the large number of business partners. This meant the company was constantly doing market work, the business of selling wine.
I estimate that during my time at PPW and 13 years in the industry, I've planned for, presented to, tasted alongside and negotiated in well over 100 meetings. I've worked most of the US markets -- there is just nothing like a week on the road covering 30 plus accounts in six to eight cities and sleeping (not enough) in a different bed every night. (One particularly fond memory involved decanting Vintage Port at 5 am one morning with Rupert Symington after a long, lively dinner with a Wine Spectator writers which lasted until 1 am.) Burning up "shoe leather" while out tasting and developing relationships is how wine is sold, and it's a skill and practice the Symington family has mastered globally. They love what they do, and it shows in their gratitude for the industry that has supported their family.
While I can understand the frustrations that can arise with distributors -- especially those who don't pay in a timely fashion, I find it difficult to comprehend the contention held by many suppliers. A former winemaker client once said in a condescending tone with his face afire with anger, "It's my job to make the wine. It's my distrbutor's job to sell it." To which I replied, "It's your job to make the wine and your job to sell it."
With that attitude, it's not surprising that he was having a lot of difficulty in the distributor department. Most distributors aren't begging for brands these days, and I'm not aware of a law mandating distribution, so we need to remember that deciding to sell in this channel brings opportunities, challenges and responsibilities. If just the thought of distribution and the work it entails makes you a little crazed, it's time to assess your business model -- not externalize and blame the network you selected.
If you're going to include distribution as a sales channel, you might as well get the best return on your investment of time and aim for success -- why not set out to be your distributor's favorite supplier, which can become an important competitive asset for your brand.
1.Bring your A game.
Do you want to answer the phone when you know there's a salty tongue on the other end of the line? Neither does your distributor. So bring your A game -- attitude, that is. If we approach a relationship begrudgingly, our tone, body language, and overall ability to communicate, relate and negotiate suffers. Be the supplier your distributor looks forward to seeing.
2. Walk a mile.
Have you burned through any shoe leather lately? Or ever? If you haven't worked the market, you have no business complaining about performance. Yes, it's expensive. No, that is not an excuse. If you can't afford to work the market perhaps you shouldn't be there. It will take investment -- and a good pair of shoes, to open and grow a market. Not visiting a distributor to open the market is like having a closed sign on your tasting room door and wondering why you have no customers. When you get tired, remember that you go back to your office; the distributor is still out carrying around a heavy wine bag.
3. Seek to understand.
Tip two helps in this department. Take the time to learn about the distribution channel. Understand what these businesses are looking for, how they operate and ask questions about the approach of successful suppliers. There is a lot of variance within this channel, so while there are some generalizations, every distributor will have different practices. It's your job to know these, too.
4. Jointly build and execute a plan.
Prepare for your sales year and for each of your meetings. We recommend that our clients set planning meetings with each of their markets where prior year performance, current year goals, programming and policies can be discussed. It is important to be realistic regarding performance -- come to the table with figures and ideas in mind, but remember that your distributor is not your employee.
5. Tackle the tools. Yesterday.
Having a website trade page is a must. This should include simple one click downloads for labels, bottle shots, product sheets, and people and property photos. Go a step beyond and use your Facebook business page to connect with accounts, thank them, and promote them to your customers in those markets. Share your winery's marketing plan, communicate great news, and be sure to have your bite-sized story honed.
6. Choose wisely.
Due the diligence necessary to determine if it's a fit. This includes plenty of diligence -- reference and credit checks, asking tough questions, determining portfolio fit and marketing coverage, and outlining join expectations ahead of time. Distribution deals done in desperation are doomed from the get go. Just because you need to move boxes doesn't mean they belong in a market.
7. Love what you do, and be memorable.
This is a build on bringing your A game. Every interaction with your distributors and their markets is a reflection of your brand. The Trimbachs have a song, the Symingtons are down-to-earth with delightful smiles, Charles Bieler has a pink cadillac -- what's your signature or calling card? What do you want the reps to say when you leave? I'd much rather sell a wine made by a gent I genuinely like than one made by a bloke who drives me bonkers.
February 2009 Seeking Distribution: Tips for New or Growing Wineries on How to Approach the Wholesale System
Implementing an effective distribution strategy can be an excellent way of building a wine brand. Wholesalers provide sales know-how, relationships with accounts and their buyers, expertise in the three-tier system and logistics, and a network of “men on the street” who serve as winery ambassadors. Distributors are a set of business partners -- an extension of the winery, so selection for proper mutual fit is critical.
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