The Importance of Cause-Related Marketing in the Wine Industry

Note: This is an updated version of a chapter I wrote in 2003 for the Wine Public Relations book called "Spinning the Bottle" the premise of cause-related marketing in the wine industry still holds true now more than ever and is a tenet of Charles Communications Associates to this day.

-Kimberly Charles

In my 20 plus years in the wine industry, working in both the imported and domestic wine arenas on both the East and West coasts, I have been witness to the largesse of the industry be it charitable associations, educational institutions, health related issues, and cultural endeavors among many other great causes. The Business for Social Responsibility organization defines social responsibility as "achieving commercial success in ways that honor ethical values and respect people, communities and the natural environment." The wine industry's connection to nature coupled with the diversity of backgrounds of people working within the business naturally attracts people who are generous of spirit and who celebrate friendship, sharing and giving. Philanthropy is an organic extension of this philosophy and it has been and will continue to be a great platform from which to launch wine marketing programs.

It is important to note at this point that creating a cause around a brand is not an end in itself. If a cause-related program does not help impact sales, it has failed. Oftentimes, public relations and marketing professionals become self-congratulatory over the merits of a really creatively designed program, but unless it helps sell cases, it will be difficult to justify the investment in public relations. When a program is carefully crafted with both rational and emotional drivers, it can have more impact on sales than price incentives, advertising and other common tricks of the trade.

When executed well, these programs have resonance and impact when they truly connect with a brand's essence. Two such programs are illustrated here representing a successful integration of either the brand's name and identity, the personalities behind the winemaking or the vision of the principals who owned the winery.

The Environment


Perhaps one of the biggest challenges the wine industry is facing in the 21st century is how to manage its role as a vital, growing agricultural business that inherently wrestles with environmental issues everyday in light of its water use, erosion control, herbicide/pesticide use, labor issues among many other elements that have an impact on the environment. Recognizing this early on, Sequoia Grove Winery in Rutherford, Napa Valley realized that raising the consciousness of consumers of wine about the need to preserve and protect our environment was of utmost importance. In the early 1990s, long before the sustainability movement had gained momentum within the wine industry, Sequoia Grove, together with its partner and marketer Kobrand Corporation, devised a program that targeted the restoration of trails in the Sequoia Kings-Canyon National Park in Northern California.

To put the program in context, it is important to note some of the challenges the winery was facing at the time. Its delicious estate and Napa designated Cabernets and Chardonnays were receiving great accolades, however, the winery was competing with more established "big gun" names in the Rutherford district and needed a creative program to gain entree into top accounts. Taking inspiration from the grove of majestic 100-year old Sequoia trees that graced the property, we designed a program that partnered with the National Parks and Conservation Program. The NPCA works on local, regional and national levels to help preserve and restore the national park system.

The name association of the park and the wine made it a clear connection with the brand, and consumers were asked to send in their Sequoia Grove corks to help restore the trails in the park. The program consisted of a campaign both on and off premise that described Sequoia Grove's involvement in the NPCA through shelf talkers, bottle-neckers, posters, menu cards and a full court press program. It was such a "natural" fit that it caught the eye of the Hyatt Hotel group, who decided to make the program part of its national hotel restaurant campaign. The only hitch to the program was that the winery was inundated with corks coming back in the recycled envelopes provided.such a headache to have!

Health & Wellness

Ehler's Estate is a winery founded in Napa by Sylviane Leducq and the late Jean Leducq who first purchased vineyard land in Napa in 1987. In 2001 they reunited the original 1886 Ehler's Estate vineyard and winery property by buying the remaining 30-acre parcel comprising the estate. The Leducq's had sold their commercial businesses in 1997 and created a trust to benefit the Leducq Foundation, which supports cardiovascular research. Today it is the third largest medical research foundation in the world and the largest dedicated to one cause. Jean and Sylviane chose cardiovascular research as the focus as they knew it to be the leading cause of death worldwide and they wanted to help fund ground-breaking research to seek answers and solutions to this endemic problem.

A portion of the proceeds of the sales of Ehler's Estate wines go towards the foundation. The story is told simply on the back label of the wines and the design on the front label subtly reflects a heart symbol integrated into the "E" of Ehler's Estate. A dedicated holistic communications and sales campaign has been developed to educate both trade and consumers and the winery will launch in the summer of 2003. The integration and integrity of the Leducq's philosophy and compassion into the winery's branding provides a great opportunity for a strong dialogue with the socially aware consumer.

A number of other great programs too detailed to elaborate upon here have met with success in the areas of scholarship, the arts and the welfare of those who support the wine community such as the farmworkers who are the backbone of the wine industry. Particularly in this time of corporate governance coming under great scrutiny, it is all the more important for wineries to demonstrate to their customers a sense of consciousness, integrity and connectivity to a larger picture. "A 2001 Hill & Knowlton/Harris Interactive poll showed that 79% of Americans take corporate citizenship into account when deciding whether to buy a particular company's product; 36% of Americans consider corporate citizenship an important factor when making purchasing decisions."

The future looks bright for the wine industry leading the way towards a more socially conscious enlightenment. Continued and generous charitable support together with programs such as the Wine Institute's recent launch of the Sustainability Code wherein wineries have an opportunity to adopt and grow with a sustainable business model for both the vineyard and winery, are indicators that the wine industry has an opportunity to create a business model that other industries can emulate.

Footnote: Since the writing of this chapter six years ago, the California Sustainabile Winegrowing Alliance is now moving towards certification in 2010. CCA is happy to be a part of the communications campaign to share that great evolution with the press and public.