If you spend any time in a marketing or public relations environment, you hear pundits and experts talk about becoming "brand storytellers." When I've heard it mentioned, brand storytelling is normally presented in a less-than-helpful way. It's an idea floating around in space to be tweeted with a conference hashtag rather than something you see in action.
That said, brand storytelling does exist. Though it loses its meaning with every marketing conference, it's something that could make a mediocre product outsell a great product. Or it can make even the most budget conscious people want to spend money with you. The latter rang true on Megan and I's recent trip out to Sonoma in August.
A Trip to VJB Cellars
While out in wine country, we did what anyone visiting that area would do - try out different wines. I will admit, our wine pallets before this trip were less than refined. When we did actually buy a bottle, it would normally be a bottle under $5. If we ever ventured over to Perrine's over on our side of town here in Atlanta to buy a $15 or $20 bottle, it meant we were staying in on a Saturday and cooking a feast. It was an event that happened maybe once a quarter. To say our trip out to northern California was educational would be putting it mildly.
Our last day in Sonoma
We had already spent one full day in Napa and another day in Sonoma driving around and doing a few wine tastings. We'd go out to the vineyards, try the grapes that made the small splash of wine in our glass and learn about the wine making process. While we loved most of them for different reasons, we were at the point where the wineries were starting to run together. And we had yet to make any purchase outside of the occasional tasting fee. Then we went to VJB.
We drove up to VJB Cellars in Sonoma and it sat next to probably 4-5 other tasting rooms within less than half of a mile. Once you walked in you felt like you were in Italy. The venue had a very Tuscany-esque feel to it. The smell of fresh cheeses, pesto and bread greeted you when you walked into the main building. Since it was a Monday, we had the place to ourselves. We walked up to the tasting counter and the tasting list was very different than what he had seen the past two days.
When you go to most wineries, you are normally presented with a standard list. You'll probably have a Chardonnay, a Pinot Noir, some medium red blend and maybe a Cabernet Sauvignon to finish. This tasting list had that but other blends we had never heard of. When we asked the sommelier about this, he started telling us the story of the winery.
VJB was started by a family (the Belmontes) from Italy. They had owned a very popular and successful restaurant in California and started dabbling in making their own Italian wines. Eventually, the Belmontes sold their restaurant and embarked on their real dream of opening up a winery. The winery is a small batch operation and the family intends to keep it that way. Most of their wines are normally only sold 300 cases at a time. At the winery itself, Maria (the matriarch) still runs a full kitchen, handmaking delicious italian food for visitors to eat. She handmade all of their bread, cheese, pesto and other ingredients. And it was delicious. The panini I had there was one of the best panini's I've ever had in my life.
Megan and I also noticed that one of the wines had the name of a girl. We asked why and the sommelier told us how every year, the 9 year old daughter of the family would go out and pick three different types of grapes and hand them to the head winemaker. Only the winemaker and her knew which grapes were involved. The winemaker would then find the right proportions and make a special blend named after her. Even the sommelier wasn't sure about the grape ratios used.
A Purchase Decision
Every winery that you visit has its own wine club where they want you to buy and ship larger quantities home ever few months. VJB wasn't any different in this regard. The only difference is what Megan and I did with that information.
Spending time, talking to the sommelier for a while and learning about the family made us feel like we were playing a small part in that story. In addition, the wine that we tasted was very good. They offered blends we couldn't find anywhere else and only made very small quantities of a few of those blends. So, surprising even ourselves, we joined VJB's wine club and will get one case shipped to us twice a year. Just enough quality wine for a special occasion and to remember our trip. The Trader Joe's Two Buck Chuck connoisseurs joined a Sonoma Valley wine club.
It's All About the Story
While we legitimately enjoyed VJB's wines, it was the story that sold us on making a purchase. We would've have more than likely walked out of there with nothing more than fond memories and a casual "we need to remember that winery for later" comment walking onto our next adventure. The family story that the sommelier told us made us want to feel like we were part of that story and be able to serve something at dinners that nobody else would be able to bring to the table. VJB became a brand experience that we wanted to share with others.
This experience isn't unique to VJB. Many brands can make their potential customers feel like their part of their story. While they may not be able to have one-on-one time in person with every customer (or nonprofit donor), things like social media and great storytelling can accomplish some of this at scale. A few already do this.
TOMs shoes makes customers feel like their part of something bigger when you buy shoes from them.
Wendy's used to make it feel like you were buying a burger from Dave Thomas himself.
Monday Night tells you the story on how their company started out of a Bible study hosted in one of the founder's garage.
The NFL asks its audience about their own stories on how they make football.
While having a superior product is important, telling that product's story could make the difference between a success and a flop. A great product can fail if nobody tells its story in a compelling way. Brand storytelling before a product launches is what can make PR successful. Great brand stories are shared organically - just like how I've shared VJB's story with you all.
What brands do you see telling great stories?