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Washington Industry Implements Strategy

State Wine Commission shifts focus to key influencers, media and trade

by Peter Mitham
steve warner washington
Steve Warner, the new executive director of the Washington State Wine Commission, is steering the organization in a new direction, which includes promotions to trade, media and other key influencers.
Seattle, Wash.—A year after announcing the appointment of Steve Warner as its new executive director, the Washington State Wine Commission is pushing ahead with a new five-year strategic plan.

Officially adopted in May 2012, the plan coincides with changes state wineries face as retailers adapt to privatization of the state’s liquor business.

While retailers spend a greater share of advertising dollars on spirits, formerly the prerogative of the state, the four-pillar strategic plan squarely targets trade and media for promotional efforts rather than consumers.

“We made a strategic decision to shift our focus away from consumers and focus on trade and media,” Warner told Wines & Vines this week. “It’s basically simple math. If we influence 100 consumers, we influence 100 people. If we influence 100 key influencers or key media and trade, it could be magnified 10-, 100-fold, 1,000-fold.”

Trade and media activities represent 92% of the commission’s $1.9 million marketing budget.

The $1.75 million wooing of trade and media makes sense to Marty Clubb, owner of L’Ecole No 41 and president of the Washington Wine Institute, which has been watching the changes in the state’s liquor business closely.

“The market’s still adjusting to the competitive environment,” Clubb told Wines & Vines recently.

While the institute is taking a “defensive stance” during the current session of the state legislature, keeping an eye on the interests of state vintners as the kinks in privatization work out, Clubb feels the promotion of the state’s wines could be an emerging issue.

“Besides the more intense competition between some of the new big retailers and some of the little guys, the whole concept of advertising is changing a bit,” he said. “No one advertised spirits in the past, now you’ve got some of the grocery stores and some of the wine shops spending advertising bucks on advertising spirits that probably used to go towards wine.”

The wine commission’s focus on trade and media is therefore a timely shift that promises to raise the profile of what the state has to offer.

Visit Seattle
Warner added that promotion of the state’s wines will also happen through arrangements with groups such as Visit Seattle (Seattle’s Convention and Visitors Bureau), with which it’s working on the annual March tasting event Taste Washington.

Visit Seattle manages the event, which draws more than 3,000 food and wine enthusiasts each year, allowing the wine commission to focus on raising the industry’s profile among trade and media attending the seminars and other industry events throughout the weekend.

Visit Seattle’s involvement also reflects the strategic plan’s focus on fostering wine tourism. Other pillars of the strategic plan include strengthening industry unity and supporting education and research.

Warner, who spearheaded the plan’s development, is keen to see its implementation.

With a background in the pharmaceutical industry—he worked was Merck & Co. Inc.’s managing director in Bucharest, Romania, and previously oversaw marketing in the Asia Pacific region—he feels the plan’s success depends on it being embraced and acted upon.

“A lot of it just comes down to the focus and the discipline on the implementation,” he said. “We have a great product. I know it’s not pharmaceuticals, but it’s a great product—it’s Washington state wine.”

Warner candidly admits that his own palate is still developing, but through regular meetings with the state’s post-secondary schools and industry representatives—and courses in Walla Walla, Wash.—he’s cultivating the relationships and knowledge to effectively advocate for the industry.

This week he attended the Unified Wine and Grape Symposium in Sacramento, Calif., and is returning to Washington state for the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers (WAWGG) conference in Kennewick during Feb. 5-8, and then heading to the Oregon Wine Industry Symposium scheduled Feb. 19-20 in Portland at the invitation of his counterpart at the Oregon Wine Board, Tom Danowski. In between, he’ll be addressing the dean’s business forum at Gonzaga University in Spokane with “Washington State Wine: A bright spot for the state economy.”

Attendees of WAWGG will have a chance to hear from Warner as he moderates the conference’s Friday morning panel discussions, “Destination Marketing: Leveraging Wine Tourism to Drive Direct-to-Consumer Sales of Washington State Wine,” and the commission’s presentation of its five-year strategic plan immediately afterward.

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