Connecting with the Chinese wine drinker


The Australian wine industry should not underestimate the power of the internet when it comes to promoting Australian wine in China, writes Jeremy Oliver.

I’m more convinced than ever before that if Australian wine is to take advantage of the opportunity presented by China it needs to do things differently. Penfolds aside, which is powering along because the brand has now reached the upper levels of brand awareness in China, most Australian wineries are continuing to hope for growth by using the same bag of tricks.
They’re signing up distribution arrangements with companies that have never handled wine before. They’re granting exclusivities to groups with no track record based on a single introductory order. They’re lured by promises that a ‘friend’ of the importer owns a hundred retail outlets and intends to set up two hundred more. They’re hoping that without prior awareness of their brands that they will attract hundreds of VIP customers to black tie events in the ultra-crowded wine markets of Shanghai and Beijing.
China’s wine market is still growing so fast it’s nearly impossible to define with accuracy, but it still has to be won. It’s incredibly competitive today and Australia is in danger of being overtaken as its second largest wine supplier by value and volume.
Businesses that succeed in China need to know:
who their customers are
how to reach them
and how they make their buying decisions
They then need to re-evaluate their own product offering in the light of this knowledge, and perhaps consider means of marketing and communication they have never used before. For this, read online.
I am just beginning to explore the online environment in China, and the results are extraordinary.
I recently conducted a well-publicised Q&A session on Weibo that lasted just over an hour. In that time I received over 400 questions and attracted 4000 new followers. I have recently launched a bilingual online TV series that educates young Chinese about wine, from an Australian perspective. In its first two weeks, the first episode of around seven minutes attracted around 280,000 downloads. By Chinese standards these numbers are good, but not necessarily spectacular. That’s how large the market is, and this is how to engage with the market between 25-40 years of age, which aside from brands like Penfolds, is the key target market for virtually all Australian wine companies in China.
Bloggers are of key importance in China, as young Chinese wine drinkers have adopted the opinions and thoughts of other young Chinese people they admire in this space.
Exporters ignore this crowd at their own cost.
While they’re keen to learn about western ways, Chinese people certainly apply their own spin to what they observe. In doing so, they create interesting and new opportunities for the promotion of wine. My publisher in China, the Beijing Publishing Group, recently staged several promotions on a ‘Gentleman’s Lifestyle’ theme.

Wine education was part of the concept, along with presentations on fashion, presentation, real estate and managing finances.

The last two are of particular interest to me, and deliver the message to Australians that the traditional bundling of wine with food and possibly even cigars might be less effective in China that with education on investment or luxury items like watches. Let’s not forget what the parents of this generation experienced, and that in China there might be a strong latent demand for all kinds of information that we in the west take for granted.
At these promotions (each in Beijing) I staged bilingual tastings of 8-10 rather better than ‘entry level’ Australian wines for audiences of 80-150 people. Throughout each event, each of more than two hours, the audience was attentive, totally silent and surprisingly knowledgeable. Their questions were incisive and thoughtful, and the appreciation of the wines entirely genuine. I’d struggle to achieve the same result with the same demographic in Melbourne. Wine culture in China is indeed developing that fast.
These thoughts are really pointing towards an inevitable conclusion: that for the overwhelming majority of brands, marketing in wine in China is a young person’s game.
That’s reflected in the demographics of those currently engaged in selling and communicating wine in China, where a powerful devotion to the subject often overcomes a lack of genuine experience. It’s not the way things are done here, but it’s not here. That’s the lesson.
It’s my view that the most successful Australian wine brands in China in the future will be targeted at the younger audience and will engage with this audience by understanding and meeting its aspirations. And the people responsible for this success will be under 35. 

*Jeremy Oliver has been a professional wine critic for 25 years and is one of Australia’s foremost wine writers and presenters. He is the author of best selling guidebook, the Australian Wine Annual and most recently published Wine with Jeremy in Mandarin – the first western wine critic to create and publish a book in China especially for the Chinese audience.


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