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Every time I visit the wine country of California I am awestruck by so many things. The miles and miles of vineyards undulating over the Sonoma and Napa valleys. The glorious climate, blue skies, brilliant sun. The pervading epicurean gusto — every magazine, blog, restaurant and tasting room seems dedicated to living intensely and living well.

A vineyard and winery tour in any of the 50 states — they all have wineries now — is a real education in the intention and attention that goes into every single bottle. Given my line of work, one of my favorite insights is that virtually all of the principles that apply to making a great wine apply equally to building a great brand. How so? Consider:

The Quest for “Terroir”

This word, a French word that I can barely pronounce, is a deeply held tenet of great winemaking — perhaps the Holy Grail of the craft. The gist is that the best-made wine is the quintessential, purest expression of the soil, the climate, the grape and the region. The French believe that when this true essence is expressed in the bottle, you should be able to blind-taste a wine and identify the region in which it was made. (The master sommelier goes further — his/her testing requires him/her to identify not only the wine and the region, but the winery and the vintage in a series of blind tastings!)

Such discernment requires a better palate than mine, but the fundamental truth is the same for a brand: it should express the true essence of the company, product or service. Our job as brand builders is to draw out and express the “terroir” of that brand so that it is distinguishable even in a “blind tasting.”

The Traditionalist vs. The Interventionist

The old-style European winemakers did the exact same thing to their grapes year in and year out. There was essentially only one way to make wine. Any variations from year to year were simply the result of that year’s crop and weather — the genesis of our obsession with “good years” and “bad years” for wines. You got what you got and you accepted it.

There’s a newer style of winemaker now, a style that developed in California and has infected the world. This “interventionist” winemaker is one who continually finesses the grapes, the pruning, the water and nutrients in the vineyard, the fermentation, the barreling, the blending, the cellaring — in order to develop a very specific outcome he or she has in mind. In the event the grapes aren’t all that great, there are any number of ways to modify the process and results, and the skilled interventionist doesn’t shy from using any tool at his or her disposal.

In branding, we’ve always had more of the interventionist mindset. From the advent of brand management, executives have sought to manage and shape those elements toward an overall brand strategy. We’re seeing that right now with clients who have seized on our “Live Your Brand” philosophy: by not only managing communications, but by shaping the customer experience, they seek to generate tremendous leverage in moving the brand toward a desired outcome.

Melissa Thoma shares her tips for being a brand culture warrior.

The explosive adoption and influence of social media over the past five to ten years have introduced much more of the vagaries of the winemaker’s weather into the brand-builder’s world. Just as an early freeze or late summer rain might jeopardize the grape crop, a storm of customer discontent, flamed on social media, can damage a brand’s reputation. The brand-builder today must — like the winemaker — act from a guiding philosophical approach or strategy while being adaptable and assertive about making smart interventions when necessary.

The Law of the Harvest

Have you ever heard of a farmer “cramming” for the harvest? What works in college does not work on the farm. Stephen Covey made much of the principle in his (still) best-selling business book, “The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People.”

I grew up on a farm and haven’t worked so hard since I left 30 years ago. On our first visit to the wine country, I noted to my wife, Melissa, “As romantic as this all appears, at bottom, it still looks too much like farming to me. I don’t think I could do it again.”

Indeed it is. The pruning, fertilizing, training, thinning, weeding and harvesting are all measured by the sun, not deadlines. Then, fermentation, aging and cellaring run on a biological time clock that cannot be hurried. Making wine is governed by the law of the harvest. So is building a brand.

In our technological age, we want to rush everything and achieve instant gratification. Millions have been spent in large-scale branding launches in an attempt to achieve rapid gains in awareness and perception. But you can’t “cram” for a brand. You can nurture, shape, tend, cultivate, and manage your brand. A newly planted grapevine won’t bear fruit for three years. Don’t expect a lot more from your brand.

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The Law of the Ancient Vine

One of the most complex, delicious, and mysterious wines we have encountered is Ledson Winery’s “Ancient Vine Zinfandel.” It is produced from vines 125+ years old, planted by some of the earliest Italian immigrants to the California wine country; these are among the oldest vines in Sonoma County.

These very old vines produce an average of just three tons of grapes per acre compared to seven tons from younger vines. The result is a concentrated, complex fruit in which all of the flavor is packed into half of the berries. This was a glorious wine — almost sublime … when we first discovered it we stuffed several bottles into our suitcases, unwilling to wait for UPS to get it home. A similar truth holds for a great old brand. It’s had time to percolate, seep into the culture, root, grow and evolve.

David A. Aaker writes in “Managing Brand Equity:” “One study of brand-name familiarity asked 100 housewives in four cities to name as many brands as they could. They were paid for each name. On average they came up with 28, and 15% named more than 40. Half of the brands were food names. The age of the brands named was most remarkable: … over 85% were over 25 years old, and 36% were over 75 years old!”

Winemaking is not for the impatient; neither should branding be.

The Law of the Bottle

When a wine is released, it’s not nearly done. While the winemaker is finished with it, he or she is relinquishing its care and development into the hands of his or her customers.

Some 90% of wine sold in the United States is consumed within three hours of purchase. Some of the rest presumably is cellared by wine aficionados to enjoy 5, 10 or 15 years later when the wine has reached full maturity and complexity. Those who best know and appreciate wine insist that the most sublime and enjoyable expressions of a wine cannot be experienced unless it has “laid down” for a few to several years.

A brand is like that. It doesn’t really even have any meaning until we release it into the hands of our customers and start generating that customer experience. Customers talk, experience, and interact with the brand. How the brand behaves over time continues to influence what it becomes. And in the best of circumstances, someone down the line is eager to share our brand with a friend — just like opening a favorite bottle of wine and clinking glasses in enjoyment.

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Author Martin Thoma

Began his agency career as a copywriter before co-founding Thoma Thoma more than 30 years ago. Now Martin focuses on helping brands grow by discerning, defining and articulating their unique strengths.

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