Gallo chief marketer: To engage young adults, wine business must ‘create brands that people trust’

Part of the challenge with wine marketing is many shoppers venture into the wine section of the grocery store without a specific brand in mind, according to the chief marketing officer for the world’s largest wine company, speaking at a Napa Valley business event Thursday.

“The reason why people don't engage in our category really comes down to fear, uncertainty and doubt,” said Stephanie Gallo, chief marketing officer for E. & J. Gallo Winery, at the Business Journal’s Women in the Wine Business Conference. “And the only way we can overcome those fears and get people to engage in our category is to create brands that people trust and really deliver on the expectations.”

The power of a brand, Gallo said, is in its ability to deliver consistency and comfort. And that power became evident during the pandemic, when shoppers wary of getting sick would quickly enter and exit stores, scooping up trusted brands, rather than lingering to explore various options.

The pandemic over the past three years also accelerated consumers’ shift to the digital arena as a way to find, shop and enjoy wine, Gallo said. That gives vintners another key tool for communicating directly with them and helping connect them for virtual and in-person experiences. And branding is a key to success when shoppers are seeking wines online.

Jug wine as a gateway beverage

But branding can mean different things to different cultures, and those differences can shape new markets, Gallo said. While the company markets the Barefoot brand similarly domestically and internationally, the Carlo Rossi brand that’s known as the 4-liter jug wine of choice for boomers has been adopted outside the country as an entry-level wine for new consumers to the category.

So the E. & J. Gallo marketing team has applied the lessons from Carlo Rossi internationally to reach emerging consumers in the U.S.

Such lessons are key, because the wine business needs to engage Gen Z and younger millennial consumers, Gallo said. She pointed to a statistical trend for those consumers away from drinking as much alcohol as frequently as older consumers, then opting for a beverage other than wine when they do imbibe.

“Our category has won in (alcohol consumption during) traditional occasions, really centered around the meal occasion,” Gallo said, speaking to the audience of several dozen mostly women industry professionals gathered at Freemark Abbey Winery near St. Helena for the conference. “And the way that the Gen Z consumers engage in alcoholic beverages is not really around the meal occasion. So how are we as an industry going to evolve so that we can meet consumers where they are?”

Another disconnect Gallo sees with traditional wine marketing is the focus on exclusivity.

“I hate the word ‘premiumization’ — hate it. I think it’s elitist,” she said, referring to an industry term for consumers’ gradually shifting to higher-priced wines.

Rather, she wants wine marketers to add “democratization” to their go-to-market vocabulary. To her, that means pricing wines so they’re affordable for both consumers who are doing well and those who haven’t yet experienced the economic bounce back from the pandemic. And it means making wines easier to shop for and more appealing to different palates.

“Everything about our category — it’s hard. We have to figure out how we can welcome more consumers to our category,” Gallo said.

And part of making wine more accessible is not expecting consumers to learn “special wine language” before being able to find and enjoy the beverage, she said.

“It makes you feel stupid and uneducated,” Gallo said. “We need to take a page from spirits. It has done a great job as an industry celebrating the mass market and celebrating premium products. Folks that are at the premium end of the business don’t look down at the mass market. There’s a reason why spirits (as a category) is winning.”

How to take online wine marketing up a notch

Younger consumers are a big market for luxury goods, but reaching them in ways and messages that they respond to can be a learning curve for wine marketers, according to panelists at the conference Thursday.

Alexis Traverso, director of digital marketing for Far Niente Wine Estates, pointed to Gartner market research that 64% of luxury goods spending is by consumers ages 25–44. And the aspirational marketing messages of past generations don’t resonate as well with Gen Z and millennials, she said.

“They're really craving that inspirational, that authentic inspiration,” Traverso said. “It's no longer trying to be like ‘that person’ or that supermodel. Now, it's, ‘Hey, we are going to inspire you because we have shared values, we're transparent in our messaging, we are we share the same cause for concern about the environment and sustainability.’”

Examples of such inspirational marketing include women’s clothing company Everlane’s listing of the cost for every component of its shoes, purses and other items.

But digital is no longer an afterthought in the marketing budget, according to panelist Kristen Reitzell, senior vice president for communication, digital marketing and e-commerce for Jackson Family Wines.

“The majority of our budgets and marketing are going to, from a consumer perspective, go to digital activation, because that's where consumers are. And that's where they're finding us,” Reitzell said.

Traverso provided tips for do’s and don’ts for wine marketers on social media:

  • Do analyze data and what messages consumers are responding to.
  • Do seek out “brand pillars” competitors use, messaging and approaches that consistently communicate what they stand for.
  • Do “boost” posts, or pay the platform to increase visibility. Traverso said she’s noticed that only 5% of organic (unboosted) posts are seen by target consumers.
  • Do know the rules. For example, federal regulators don’t allow certain messaging from a winery about a specific retailer.
  • Do test content. See what makes consumers respond.
  • Don’t obsess over followers for the brand’s social media channel. Originally that was the focus of vintners on social media, but the platform’s software algorithms have changed, putting before users content that has better engagement, impressions and reach.

Yet a significant, persisting headwind for wine businesses in reaching younger adults is the recurring message in the news that they don’t like wine, said panelist Jolene Yee, general counsel and vice president for government affairs for Delicato Family Wines.

“If you keep saying that narrative, it makes it very unappealing for millennials and Gen Z to enter the wine space,” Yee said. “We need to own the narrative. We need to stop talking about how people don't like wine, because frankly, lots of people do like wine.”

Conference sponsors were Dickenson Peatman & Fogarty, American AgCredit and Coblentz Patch Duffy & Bass. Venue sponsor was Freemark Abbey winery.

Jeff Quackenbush covers wine, construction and real estate. Before coming to the Business Journal in 1999, he wrote for Bay City News Service in San Francisco. Reach him at or 707-521-4256.

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