If you are part of the wine industry still scratching your head about how to get yourself noticed and stand out from every other brand or wine in the category, then pour yourself a cup of tea and read how New Zealand producer, Invivo Wines, has managed to get itself noticed around the world. Now admittedly it has done so, in part, by linking up with chat show host, Graham Norton, but its founders, Tim Lightbourne and Rob Cameron, have also used FMCG marketing, thinking and innovation to make far greater noise about what they do than businesses 10 times their size.
Tim Lightbourne and Rob Cameron know how to make friends and influence people. Yes, they want to make quality wine, but they also want to have fun and make brands through Invivo Wines that everyone and anyone can enjoy. Richard Siddle looks at how they are shaking up the mainstream branded wine market.
Now every wine producer worth listening to wants to stand out and be different, but how many get anywhere near doing so? Well, for all those that fail to even make a whimper of a difference there are producers like New Zealand’s Invivo Wines that seem incapable of doing anything without maximum effect.
In fact so good are Tim Lightbourne and Rob Cameron, the double act behind Invivo Wines, at creating a noise about the business, you wander if they would be doing even better if they picked up a couple of guitars for their living. For when they are not tucked away at their winery close to Auckland in New Zealand they are often seen hanging out on the celebrity circuit thanks largely to their link up with comedian and chat show host, Graham Norton. But (much) more of that later.
In fact when the Buyer caught up with them in the autumn they had just flown in to London on a stop over from New York where they had been helping to launch their wines in to the US with star of America’s Next Top Model TV series, Nigel Barker. “Glambassador” for their wines in the States.
Even how they have grown their business resulted in headline news not only in New Zealand but around the world. Their decision in 2015 to give up 20% of ownership of the company through an equity crowd funding campaign resulted in them becoming the first company in New Zealand to raise the maximum amount allowed – NZ$2m – in a matter of days.
There is something refreshing and genuine about Lightbourne and Cameron, who as well as running the business handle the marketing and winemaking side of the company respectively. It’s no surprise to discover they have known each other since high school as they appear so comfortable in each other’s company, often ending each other’s sentences like an old married couple.
Having started the business as recently as 2008 they knew they couldn’t rely on stories of old vines, and former generations of winemakers in their families to get noticed, never mind tills ringing. They had to make some noise as well.
“The challenge is how do you differentiate yourself from all the other New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs in the market,” said Lightbourne.
Well, for a start they are have been prepared to literally walk the walk to get where they want to get to. For example, when they first got listed in Majestic in 2012 they jumped on a plane and tried to deliver a bottle of their wine to every Majestic store in the country. By hand. They may have failed to get round every shop, but they left teams of mini ambassadors for their wines in the hundreds of shops they did get round.
Crucially Lightbourne and Cameron also worked hard in their respective separate careers for a number of years before becoming this apparent overnight success story with Invivo Wines.
Cameron spent seven years working as a consultant winemaker at vineyards around Europe and has been making wine for over 20 years. Lightbourne had first forged a career in the consumer brands sector with a number of senior roles for major grocery and beauty companies such as HJ Heinz, Danone and L’Oreal through the 2000s.
But by 2008 they were both in a position where they were looking to go it alone and over a long beer decided to see if they could combine their collective winemaking and marketing skills to start their own wine business.
But to do so meant they could not come up with yet another terroir-based marketing story. “That’s been done just so many times before,” they cried.
“We want to engage with people in a different, more direct way,” stressed Cameron.
“We did not follow the classic way of starting up a wine company, which is namely to make some wine and then try and sell it. Instead we looked at the market and then engineered a business around what styles and types of wine that people would like to buy,” added Lightbourne.
Honest and direct
For them it is all about the “destuffication of wine” and taking the winemaker per se “out of the picture a little” when talking to the consumer. “That said we take the wine we make very seriously indeed,” stressed Cameron. But it is their focus on selling that wine through a strong brand that has helped Invivo Wines stand out from the start. Even its main Invivo wine label is, perhaps not surprisingly, designed by a traditional label designer but a fashion house.
This brand, consumer first approach to wine can be seen in all its marketing. It has, for example, run major billboards proclaiming: “For a complex oak nose, try Pinocchio. For a superb Pinot, try Invivo.”
Or how about: “Instead of making grapes taste like gooseberries, we make wine that tastes like wine.” Another campaign used the line: “For a rose petal bouquet call a florist, for a perfect summer rosé drink Invivo.” Or simply: “May contain traces of bloody good wine.”
It also carries the following slogan on every bottle it produces: “From grapes, time and two maxed out credit cards.”
It’s a clever, catchy, but down to earth approach that has worked for successful FMCG brands like Innocent Drinks and has having the same effect for Invivo.
“We like to have fun playing with words,” explained Lightbourne.
Although the Invivo story naturally navigates back to its crowdfunding success that’s not to say it was not doing well before it. In the four years since 2011 up to the campaign it had seen a 200% increase in sales to just over NZ$5million in 2015. But since the crowdfunding initiative it has seen its revenues more than double, said Lightbourne. It is now on course to break NZ$25m by 2020.
Its wines are now sold in over 20 markets with its biggest sales in the UK, Ireland, the US, Australia,Japan and New Zealand.
The Graham Norton factor
But it’s biggest success to date has to be its link-up with the irrepressible chat show host, Graham Norton, whose international profile for his show, means it is able to sell his wines in eight countries around the world alone.
Now anyone who watches Norton’s show will be aware he sometimes appears more interested in his wine than the guests. Which he might well be as he is far more involved in the process than the average celebrity winemaker. So much so that Cameron claims he actually puts together the final blends for each of the GN wines himself.
To do so, every year since the first vintage in 2014, Cameron and Lightbourne will visit Norton in the UK or Ireland, and present final blends of parcels of wine for him to taste and then mix together to create a genuine Graham Norton blend with the Invivo guys. Scout’s honour promises, Cameron. “He’s the one making those calls.”
Invivo film every annual blending session with Norton, and release the film along with the wine.
“Both ourselves and Graham didn’t want him to be just a name on the label, so getting involved in the blending session with us to choose the final blend and letting us film the process was perfect. Every year we put a fun twist on the film,” explained Lightbourne.
“He had liked our wines for some time and we had helped supply them for the production team of his chat show. So in 2014 we asked him he would like to get involved in blending and making the wine,” he added.
Thankfully for both, he said yes. So much so that production has gone from 14,000 bottles in 2014 to over 2 million now and one of the fastest growing wine brands in the UK. A GN Shiraz and GN Rosé has now been introduced to keep GN Sauvignon Blanc company.
The brand was also given a major boost in the UK in 2017 gaining distribution with Conviviality and all its potential routes to market. Lightbourne and Cameron are currently working with Matthew Clark to see how it can gain bigger traction in the on-trade. “We are working with their team to secure listings. It’s a great talking point for a wine list, good price point and quality wine,” said Lightbourne.
Norton’s blending skills should not be scoffed at either in the last two vintages his Sauvignon Blanc was given 90 points by Wine Spectator,90 points from Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate and last month awarded gold at the Global Sauvignon Blanc Masters. Accolades good enough to have it on Qantas’ Business Class wine list.
With a business driven as much by ambition as it is Sauvignon Blanc, Lightbourne and Cameron are also astute enough to know they need independent professional management advice to help take the right steps to grow the business in the coming years.
Which is why they have turned to Paul Schaafsma, former chief executive of Accolade Wines and now heading up Broadland Wineries, to act as their non-executive chairman. Someone they believe is ideally placed to help them build their branded portfolio considering his track record with the likes of Hardy’s and Echo Falls.
Such deals are normally put together by headhunters and executive recruitment businesses so it was refreshing to hear Lightbourne and Cameron simply contacted Schaafsma via Linked-in.
Schaafsma said he was attracted to the business as it is so intent on doing things differently. Like sending a direct message on Linked-in. As soon as they started formally talking it was clear to hime very quickly that they all “sung from the same hymn sheet”.
“We have all been talking about how do you get closer to consumers in wine. Well, these guys have nailed it,” said Schaafsma. “Hopefully I can provide some strategic insight, and some help, particularly when looking at the UK market and where new opportunities might be. It has to be about quality distribution in the UK.”
Invivo is also working hard to find its place and build distribution in the complex three tier US wine market. It is off to a good start signing up with leading US distributor, Seaview.
“The US is the number one export market for New Zealand so we have to be not only at the party, but find a way to dance better than anyone else,” said Lightbourne. Much of that rests in creating and driving interesting and quirky wine brands that “people can get excited about”.
Which brings us back to Graham Norton and how his name can help open up doors in markets around the world. Noticeably in Australia and New Zealand where his show is prime time viewing.
We can expect the GN brand name to be affiliated alongside a raft of new grape varieties as it takes on a wider role and significance.
“Other brands have clearly done that before, but not have got the personality of a Graham Norton behind it,” said Schaafsma. “There is so much duplication of brands out there. How do you get your brands to stand out? Graham’s wines are unique. They’re different.”
Which means tying in partnerships and agreements with growers in key countries to source the right quantities and quality of fruit, he added.
The Norton link up even extends to its decision last year to be the official wine of Eurovision, the annual, increasingly global, but essentially European song contest, which Norton just happens to present on the BBC.
Once again it was an inspired move. Limited investment for massive impact and it also gave Lightbourne and Cameron the chance to show what they could get actually up to with a guitar and microphone in hand – and prove once and for all that they have made the right decision sticking not just with winemaking but creating genuine, winning consumer wine brands.