Case in Point: Preventing your brand from being defined by what it doesn’t do

The big idea: Often, brands are positioned not by their actions but by lack thereof. Once-successful brands may find themselves repositioned by competitors’ actions or changing consumer tastes. A good hard look at the brand’s roots and relevance may reveal sufficient muscle to get back in the game, not by expensive and risky repositioning, but by reinvigorating what made it great at the start.

The scenario: Built on French winemaker Bernard Portet’s dedication to quality and consistency, Clos Du Val was a 30-year-old, privately held, family-run, luxury Napa Valley wine company. In 2001, despite three decades of producing fine Bordeaux-style wines distinguished by balance, elegance and complexity, Clos Du Val fell out of the pack of must-have Napa wines. Sales declined despite a decade of dramatic growth in the industry. Wine Spectator chastised Clos Du Val for failing to adapt its wine style to the new consumer taste for bold, fruity wines. The company found itself squeezed between the marketing muscle of deep-pocketed conglomerates and the overnight sensation of sexy, boutique wineries. Hired to instill “outside the bottle” marketing prowess, Brooke Correll was charged with devising a new game plan.

The resolution: To reverse the sales decline and reinvigorate the brand, Clos Du Val had to change from a production-driven business (“if we bottle it, they will come”) to a marketing-driven machine. Correll set out to determine whether the “California wine with a French accent” had what it took to get back in the game. She canvassed all constituents. She talked with distributors, retailers, restaurateurs, wine reviewers and consumers to assess the health of the brand. She conducted a quantitative pricing survey among peer Napa wines. She held interviews with its directors, management and sales force. Management wrote a new mission statement: “To produce, at a reasonable profit, exceptional quality, luxury-priced estate wines that capitalize on our French roots and Napa Valley heritage.” Confident that the wine was as good as ever and that the brand’s core was still relevant to consumers, management got down to the business of revitalization.

Clos Du Val simplified the product portfolio and took a long overdue price hike on the top tier. It unified the look of its labels to an updated version of the widely recognized terra cotta original. Correll demanded consistent brand imagery at every consumer touch point: a new Web site, a renovated tasting room, upscale branded merchandise and revamped wine clubs. Correll began a bold product placement program, securing placements of the familiar terra cotta label in “The Sopranos” and a slew of hit TV shows and movies. Correll then bet on aggressive PR, expanding sampling and media outreach beyond traditional wine trade magazines to upscale lifestyle and business publications and more than 250 metropolitan newspapers. Eighteen months later, armed with new labels, increased pricing, branded merchandise, national ratings and reviews, and a highlight reel of prominent product placements, the company pitched the story of its own makeover: There was a new look and new life at Clos Du Val.

Clos du Val’s tagline, “A Classic Is Always in Style,” signaled the revitalization strategy. The brand returned to its roots, built on existing equity and ramped up marketing. Media impressions increased 400-fold. Ironically, a Wine Spectator cover story titled “Napa Mavericks” hailed Portet for defying trends and standing by his French winemaking style. Clos Du Val, once derided as “my father’s wine,” regained the enthusiasm of its core drinkers and morphed into the go-to wine for Hollywood A-listers. Sales, driven by a new director with an aggressive strategy, rose.

The lesson: If you find your brand defined not by what it does but by what it doesn’t do, then it may be time to pump up your marketing muscle and revitalize.

Marian Chapman Moore

Chapman Moore is a professor of business administration at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business.

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