What can innovators do to break down a consumer’s natural distrust of the new?

My colleague Juan Park recently wrote an article in which he challenged the oft-floated notion that the wine industry lacks genuine innovation and is slow to react to consumer demands. Rather than being held back by the inherent long-term nature of its production process, or stifled by a haughty attitude towards consumer demands which put the ideal of the product first, he suggests that consumers themselves can sometimes be the barrier to innovation. As consumers, we often fail to respond to products that move too far away from our expectations. With that, it’s often not that ideas are lacking, but rather that they are executed in such a way that they don’t capture our interest.

It led me to think about what this means from a branding perspective. What does a brand need to do to ensure that a good idea gains traction?

Branding is perhaps especially crucial for an ‘innovative’ product due to the simple fact that an innovation needs to gain the trust of consumers, and trust is at the root of all successful brands. As consumers, we base our buying decisions mostly on trust; we buy products or services that we trust will successfully deliver certain functional and emotional benefits. Yet innovations are an inherent risk for the consumer, as we simply don’t know whether something completely new will be genuinely useful or just a gimmick.

An example of a such an innovation in the drinks category, featured in our Global Consumer Trends report of this year, is one which draws heavily on the alcoholic drinks world, but which has completely removed the ‘alcoholic’ part of its description. Seedlip is the world’s first non-alcoholic distilled spirit, devised in November 2013 by Ben Branson. A paradox, you might think, as did guests when Branson introduced his product when he spoke at a branding conference I recently attended. What’s the point in a booze-free spirit – particularly one which goes for £27.99 a bottle?

The overwhelmingly positive reception it received from the room full of sceptical marketers and strategists was therefore quite revealing. We’re frequently made aware that consumers – especially younger, engaged wine drinkers – are drinking less, but spending more, and that they’re becoming more discerning. Branson has tapped into wider consumer trends – the increasing attention paid to healthy living, and the desire for high-quality, authentic products, and come up with an answer to a specific problem: that of ‘what to drink when you’re not drinking’. In other words, he’s created a product that offers a clear functional benefit: a sophisticated drink for non-drinkers made with the attention to detail of a complex gin, and one that offers a clear step up from the usual non-alcoholic bar offerings of overly sweet ‘mocktails’ or boring cordials.

Whilst the product itself undeniably hits the spot in terms of quality, Seedlip’s rapid success probably wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for the way in which the brand has been communicated. Packaged and sealed in a 70cl bottle that sits comfortably alongside the premium vodkas and gins on a bartender’s top shelf, it retains all the occasionality and theatre associated with cocktail culture. Yet the non-alcoholic twist is equally proudly displayed, with the brand drawing much of its inspiration from the natural world. Indeed, Branson, who comes from a farming background, describes his company as a ‘nature company that makes drinks’, drawing heavily on his own personal story and passion for nature. The brand is named for a type of old basket which his ancestors used to carry seeds before the mechanisation of farming, and its imagery is replete with motifs alluding to nature, with the label depicting the head of a hare made up of the ingredients of the drink. It’s a clear connection to the organic world, which plays on the emotions of the discerning and informed, yet health-conscious modern consumer.

Seedlip demonstrates how effectively communicating an innovation’s functional and emotional benefits can go a long way to ensuring that it gains traction, but as a final point with regards to executing a great idea: once you have your innovation, and a strong brand which makes its benefits clear to the consumer, where do you take it?

Branson realised the risks of trying to create something that was too much, too soon, and Seedlip is deliberately positioned as a premium product. This image is developed by concentrating on having the brand endorsed by influential members of the on-trade. By focusing on top hotels, bars, restaurants and members clubs – with the problem of ‘what to drink when you’re not drinking’ driving this strategy – the concept spreads as it gains traction amongst known trendsetters and industry influencers. Today, Seedlip can be found at world-leading venues such as the Savoy, the Fat Duck and Dandelyan, with the word-of-mouth marketing that follows not only giving Branson the confidence that his concept works, but also providing reasons for consumers to believe in it. It’s clearly a strategy that is paying off, with drinks giant Diageo recently taking an interest, and a minority stake, in the business.

For wine, it’s perhaps even more important for a new product to find its popularity in the on-trade, at least initially, since off-trade consumers have so much choice, and so little to guide them. As Abigail Pitcher, of the wine label and food packaging design firm BD Creative, said at a recent Women in Wine event on communication in London: “If you’ve got a new product and it’s not 100% traditional wine, then it just ends up in the section labelled ‘other’ – and consumers don’t know to look there.”

I would argue that even if that wasn’t the case, your product would have to work very hard to stand out from the rest on a crowded supermarket shelf.

So the answer for Pitcher is clear, with regards to building a new, innovative wine brand: “You have to seed it in the on-trade”.

Just ask Ben Branson, who, you feel, must know an awful lot about seeds by now.

Author: Chris Giles

Email: chris@wineintelligence.com