Social networking: Growing pains

Can social networking help Laughing Stock Vineyards?

Cynthia and David Enns had a very good 2007. The co-owners of Laughing Stock Vineyards, a small premium winery based in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, won a gold medal for their 2005 Portfolio in the meritage red category at the 2007 Canadian Wine Awards. The honour validated a decision last year to sell their investment research consulting firm and focus exclusively on their five-year-old vintages business, which currently sells out its annual production run.

Despite their success, the Enns want to bolster client loyalty and bring in new clients to ensure they continue to thrive in an increasingly competitive B.C. wine market. But — and here’s the catch — they don’t want to expand, and they’re already at peak capacity. “The wine industry is one of the few industries that rewards the artisan, boutique effort, which is what we’re doing,” says Cynthia, who runs the vineyard while David makes the wine. It is that craft the Enns want to hone, because brand perception is key for premium wines. And, truth be told, they want to maintain the quality of life they already enjoy. “If we can get that brand loyalty, then we won’t have to work as hard bringing the wine out through all of the different channels,” says Cynthia.

Research shows younger buyers — the kind who consume social media — are fast-tracking their palate development, but tackling that market might dilute Laughing Stock’s premium image. And, more to the point, they haven’t the foggiest idea where to start. “We get traditional media,” says Cynthia. “We don’t get new media.”

Their first step should be to figure out where they can target current buyers online, says Maggie Fox, CEO of Social Media Group, a social media strategy firm. “When it comes to social media, it’s really important not to put the cart before the horse,” says Fox. The Enns must find out which online destinations their customers hit, and understand where their community is and what they’re talking about. “It’s really important to join a community, not to build one,” says Fox. Only then should the Enns start trying to appeal to the next generation. “There’s a place for anything online,” says Fox. “You just have to know your market.”

The Enns certainly know the off-line habits of their current 40-to-55-year-old target consumers, many of whom date back to their days in the investment industry. What started as an expensive hobby of David’s — he spent $20,000 on a mini-winery he set up in a friend’s garage in 2001 — soon turned into an enterprise requiring their full attention. By 2003, they had sold their house in White Rock, B.C., bought a property in the Naramata Bench area of the Okanagan Valley and were living in the province’s hot wine district. (The Okanagan is part desert, which is one of the reasons vineyards do so well there.)

They offset the lighthearted nature of the Laughing Stock name with an elegant bottle. And, in a nod to their past, the bottle is encircled with a ceramic decoration of a TSX index ticker complete with the share prices of companies on the day the grapes for the wine were picked, and the logo, LFNG, is meant to look like a stock symbol ticker. While they do produce other wines — another red blend, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris — 60% of Laughing Stock’s annual 60,000-bottle production is of one wine — Portfolio ($39 in B.C., $54.95 in Ontario).

When the Enns do figure out the online world, they — not a faceless corporate entity — must converse directly with their clients. “If the person online really understands and encapsulates the brand personally, it’s very simple for them,” says Fox. “They just need to be themselves and personify the brand.”

The power of experience is something the Enns are keenly aware of. “Once you develop a taste for nice wine, you can’t go back,” says David. “It’s like the heroin of beverages.” Now they just need a few more people to get addicted online.