As Good As It Gets

It’s rare that you get an invitation so unmissable that you put four days aside to earn three hours of privilege, so in a departure from the normal posts, please simply find below the menu from an event whose ambition was far from timid…

The occasion was the QANTAS ‘Best Dinner in the World’ (care of last weekend’s Audi Noosa Food and Wine Festival), and tickets were $750/head – that sets quite some expectation!

Menu, wines and presenting chefs as follows:

Rice with Black Squid Ink & Sea Urchin served with Emilio Lustau Light Manzanilla Papirusa, by Carlo Cracco, Ristorante Cracco, Milano, Italy

Tian of Spanner Crab, Braised Spring Onion, Ginger & Garlic served with 2010 Grossett Polish Hill Riesling by Tetsuya Wakuda, Tetsuya’s Restaurant, NSW

White Miso Marinated White Fish, Capers & Lime Salad served with 2005 Laroche Chablis ‘Les Clos’ Grand Cru, by Yoshihiro Narisawa, Les Creations de NARISAWA, Tokyo, Japan

Chilled Risotto, Poached Organic Chicken and Wild Mushroom Puree served with 2006 Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay, by Andre Chiang, Restaurant Andre, Singapore

Roast Squab Breast, Chocolate Feuilletin, Abalone & Soubise served with 2006 Rousseau Clos de la Roche Grand Cru, by Mark Best, Marque, NSW

Tajima Wagyu, Savoy Cabbage, Baby Potato Fondant, Beetroot and Fernet Branca Jus, Celeriac Puree served with 1989 Penfolds Grange, by Luke Dale-Roberts, The Test Kitchen, formerly of La Colombe, South Africa

Strawberries, Strawberry Oil, Soured Cream and a Pukeko Egg (chocolate creation) served with 2009 Gundeloch Nackenheim Rothenburg Riesling Auslese, by Ben Shewry, Attica, VIC

S Pellegrino Sparkling Mineral Water and Acqua Panna Still Mineral Water

Everything was as good as it sounds, and hosted at BERARDO’s in an atmosphere of informal excellence.

The opening dish of risotto was an absolute dream, and hard to look beyond – all ozone, iodine and perfect opaque, grainy bite – while Mark Best’s Squab and Chocolate Feuilletine was delicately pitched as so bitter, rich and yet expertly punctuated with gamey, textural sweetness that I honestly wondered if I would ever again eat anything so accomplished.

I doubt that the Manzanilla could have been bettered – either as a partner or an example; Grossett’s Riesling was as precise and elegant as we have come to expect; Rousseau’s Clos de la Roche was so ethereal that it could have been served as a course on its own; and the Grange was all musculature, with high tones of echinacea and wintergreen, and underwritten by dark fruit flavours and sombre length.

The whole evening was about as good as it gets. Enormous thanks to Jim Berardo for the vision; James Halliday for the wine pairings; and the puckishly mischievous Matt Preston for mc-ing with just the right mix of gravitas, insight and humour.

Expectation met and exceeded!

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Once Upon A Time…

The idea that any good brand story should have a beginning, a middle and no end, is not a new one. In fact, the return of the ‘story’ has been a strong play in the wine world of late, from generic country brand positioning through to keynote speeches to MWs from advertising legend, John Hegarty.

The trouble is, not everyone can spot what a good brand story is, and, at times, that also includes the consumer. Equally, and even when given the opportunity, not every brand owner convincingly understands what is most compelling about her estate.

Few wineries will ever have the advertising or media muscle to dominate the consumer conscious in the way that either mass market staples or high profile luxury brands can. The simple faith in a true story well told is an effective enterprise, and one that in a world of social media extension, can quickly gather momentum and generate profile.

However, there does now seem to be a risk that every winery dog, cellar-door hand or oddly-shaped root vegetable is currently auditioning for ‘story content’ in a contrived attempt to introduce narrative that wouldn’t be out of place in the early rounds of Australia’s Got Talent. The fact of the matter is, if you are looking that hard for your true story, it probably isn’t really there at all.

My favourite brand story is not the definitive account of a person, place or experience, but rather an ‘episode’ about the recording of a live album – Keith Jarrett’s Koln Concert. Jarrett, a brilliant but often mercurial musician, arrived in the city for the sound check, feeling ill, truculent and not at all happy with the piano that had been supplied for his performance.

What transpired was one of the greatest pieces of improvised music of any genre, as Jarrett riffed for two hours, steadfastly ignoring the lower and upper register of the piano, and concentrating his focus on the middle keys. His whoops and hollers of excitement are captured on the recording, and add to the authenticity of the rendition, making it truly sound like a spontaneous conversation that you – the listener – can repeatedly hear for the ‘first time’, without losing any of the anticipated excitement of a unique, one-off performance .

It strikes me that in this improvised journey – quite literally, without an obvious beginning, middle or end –  lies a more honest account of how we should seek to create authenticity, credibility and engagement around our brands. A true story is a wonderful place to start, but sometimes it is the gradual realisation of what it takes to deliver that story – the endeavour, rather than the original inspiration – that is the compelling hook.

In short, the real brand story should be in the ‘telling’, not in the narrative or content.

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Australia: Get Real!

Of all the reversions to type that appear during a generic rebranding exercise, the retreat back to ‘great value at every price point’, ‘excitement’ and, above all, ‘over-delivering’, is as soul-destroying as it is frustrating.

For a start, there is the inanity of it all. ‘Exciting’ – surely a Pinot Grigio is not ‘exciting’ just because your brand or region hasn’t made one before? ‘Exciting’ is not simply a substitute for ‘new’ or ‘latest’, and at the very least it should be able to generate a keen sense of anticipated delight or unexpected surprise.

‘Great value at every price point’ is just a non-truth, plain and simple. No one country can – or should – ever claim to do all things equally well, and better than everyone else. Inputs, production costs, harvest results and foreign currency rarely swim in synchronicity, and any range may frequently look convincingly good from one end, only for the other end to promptly drift from view and/or credibility.

The ‘we-can-be-all-things-to-all-people’ shtick really just translates as being sufficiently anonymous – and yet appropriately ubiquitous –  to attract most of the people, most of the time.  I suppose there is no commercial shame in that, but it is hardly a rallying cry for an increasingly forlorn supply chain (growers, winemakers, brand owners, regions) looking for leadership, hope and a half-chance at a sustainable future.

And now for the real insult: we apparently aspire to ‘overdeliver’. Really? What I think when I hear this claim is that we timidly and consistently fail to attract the real price that our brand and offer truly merits. It is as if we think that we are going to conquer Asia because our regional Cabernet is more than half half as good as Classed Growth, but only one fifth of the price…

The point of great value is not only that it performs at a price comparative to the competition or perceived brand leader, but that it resolutely surprises and delights beyond expectation. Once that standard becomes the expectation, the brand invariably has to ‘go again’, but it should never undershoot the market in the first place in order to compensate for an apparent lack of ambition or self-belief.

Australia makes great wine. It should command a fair price that its winemakers and growers would be proud and prepared to pay. That is also how to inspire and best influence the consumer, whether she is being invited to consider ‘new’ Australia as a producer of unique and interesting regional styles, or whether she is discovering Australia for the first time.

So, tips for wineheroes looking for a reality check/cheque:

  • ‘Value’ is not determined by the producer, but by the market and by the consumer. Talk about ‘quality’, ‘interest’, and ‘story’, but leave ‘value’ out of it. It’s not your place.
  • By all means have the courage to put your wine in an international context, but this is a comparative and not a competitive exercise. Let the audience join up the dots and determine what is the better buy.
  • Claiming to ‘over-deliver’ is just a tacit admission of failing to position your brand properly in the first place. Don’t do it.

Above all , remember that Australia is the real deal, not a consolation prize.

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Does It Measure Up?

Following the last post about the role and significance of culture in an organisation, please consider this next thread more of an ‘add-on’ than a new stream…

I couldn’t let the comments from Stephen Sadove, below, pass without sharing, as I think they neatly challenge one of the most redundant ideas in current management practice: “If you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist.” The trouble with this view is that it doesn’t have the ‘soft hands’ required for the subtleties of today’s workplace or marketplace.

In a recent New York Times interview, Sadove, chairman and chief executive of Saks, makes a clear case that it is actually culture that drives numbers: “Culture drives innovation and whatever else you are trying to accomplish within a company — innovation, execution, whatever it’s going to be. And that then drives results. When I talk to Wall Street, people really want to know your results, what are your strategies, what are the issues, what it is that you’re doing to drive your business. Never do you get people asking about the culture, about leadership, about the people in the organization. Yet it’s the reverse, because it’s the people, the leadership, and the ideas that are ultimately driving the numbers and the results.”

Because we tend to view the outward manifestations of work performance as products shipped, revenues booked, or earnings-per-share, we can easily discuss them in analysts calls and at management meetings. We can barely see – and surely can’t measure – the cultural aspect of what makes great products and unique experiences. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be decoded, and it certainly doesn’t mean that it is not contributing.

Beloved of audit and finance committees and CFOs, and often dressed-up as responsible governance, if we applied the ‘measurement’ dictum to many current aspects of marketing, public relations, social media and consumer interactions, we would still be in the dark ages with regards to brand engagement.

Intuition and instict – the idea of knowing both your domain and your audience – is worth much more than process or reliance on recorded measurement. It takes real commercial courage to support and rely on these skills above evidential data, and yet it is often this approach that provides a breakthrough.

When was the last time a new innovation, product development or consumer insight came your way as a result of Nielsen stats, Datamonitor desktop or retailer EPOS? Sure, these all contribute, but someone, somewhere has to have an idea and a convincing purpose based on what she knows of the market, the consumer and the latent opportunity.

Above all, most measurement metrics tend to reflect past performance, or, at best, current attitude. Hard measurement is limited in terms of a predictive index, and it certainly doesn’t give a real-time read of how, when and in what direction current attitudes are changing.

Passion; vision; faith; empathy; bright ideas and the courage to fail. All priceless; all resistant to measurement.

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Culture Before Strategy

How we get things done, as much as what we actually do, drives performance. Issues of trust, change management, conflict resolution and ownership are all fundamental to how any team performs, and often the manner in which we strive to achieve something can be as significant as the achievement itself…

Consider the two ideas of strategy and culture. Strategy can be viewed as the setting of a direction towards a defined and required outcome. At its simplest, it is merely planning for a particular result so that your company or brand can flourish.

Culture is harder to define. Perhaps we can see as the set of habits that allows a group of people to cooperate by assumption rather than by negotiation. Based on that definition, culture is not what we say, or make policy for,  but rather what we do without asking.

A healthy culture allows us to produce something much bigger than the sum of the individuals involved. Look at it this way, if we only see that 2+5+10 = 17, we haven’t really explored the benefit of leverage or scale – teamwork. What we really should be looking for is 2 x 5 x 10 = 100. A profoundly different result, and yet the difference is not of strategy, but of culture.

Culture is the domain that encourages – or obstructs – the velocity of strategy and progress. By addressing where an organization is limiting its velocity, and by establishing a dynamic and supportive culture, you can accelerate the engine that fuels innovation and achievement.

Hence culture, rather than strategy, is the ultimate enabler.

What are you doing in your company to establish or influence culture, and do you invest as much time in that as you do strategy?

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Consumer Conversations And Retail Roulette!

I’d like to challenge the idea that major retailers should be more engaged in shaping the future of Australian wine brands.

Why? Because in most cases, retailers are not brand builders…unless, of course it is their own brand, which now just happens to be the fastest growing segment within those sceptred aisles…’Finest'; ‘First Choice'; ‘Premium’ – take your almost generic, own-label pick.

A recent conversation with Dan Jago, the astute and eminently likeable Director of Beer, Wines & Spirits for Tesco, left me in no doubt: “We are facilitators of distribution, not creators of opportunity, and we are certainly not here to build your brand for you…” I would consider that a fairly definitive response, and one that openly invites the brand owner to play better poker in the bidding and acceptance game of category planning.

But like unfortunate children who seem to forget the pain of an inquisitive hand in the fire, the usual suspects still queue up and expect a different result to the chastening  ‘you’re-in/you’ve-missed-your-hurdle-rate/you’re-out’. Retailers do not do this to be obstructive – supplier retention is, after all, a key contributor to profitability – but rather because they are in the business of giving their consumers what they want.

Accordingly, a strong indication of consumer preference is reflected in the volume and rate of sale of any given line or sku, and hence its standing as the ultimate litmus test of what’s in and what’s out. Consider shelf-space occupancy as a kind of performance-related, buy-to-let scheme and you begin to get the idea…

The trouble with this model, apart from its dauntingly Darwinian process of selection, is that it assumes that consumers actually know what they want, merely than what they like or can have. When a brand matures, or when a category stalls, immediate intervention is needed or else the inevitable consumer drift will happen. And while this ‘drift’ may be a fair reflection of current popularity, it should not necessarily be taken as a true indicator of future potential or absolute lifespan.

The missing piece in today’s retail engagement is consumer connection and ongoing ‘trial and discovery’ – a very different game from the usual ‘trial and error’ of in-store dispensing. In the search for a meaningful exchange between brand owner and consumer, the point of sale was traditionally viewed as a successful conclusion. It now should be regarded as an opening line, and the vital opportunity to turn a purchase decision into a brand conversation.

Retailers don’t build brands, brand owners and consumers do. Where is your consumer conversation currently happening, and can your brand speak for itself?

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Defining Modern Australia

There is a great deal of passion in Australia at the moment concerning ‘multi-culturism’, and whether or not that term continues to serve a useful reference.

One of the key questions is this: at what point does any contemporary expression – whether it is language; art; product or faith – become so far removed from its origin that it is no longer derivative, but rather something completely new and discreet in itself?

I was recently struck by the strong cultural inheritance of the Barossa, one that clearly borrows from Silesian; German; English; Scottish and Australian influence. Standing in the kitchen at the Apex Bakery in Tanunda, and learning how the fiercely-held local traditions now eclipse even those of their country of origin, left me pondering what it means to be ‘modern Australian’.

Later on I moved from the valley floor to the bigger skies of high Eden, and I noticed that many of the larger gum trees were scarred with black on the windward sides of their trunks. It was explained to me that well before the presence of Europeans, the local Aborigines would set a clutch of embers next to sheltering trees in order to provide light, heat and a signal of return whenever they were in the area. Unlike the still living traditions of European influence, this seemed a poignant, almost unremembered, inheritance that we would do well to try and recapture.

Today, our landscape displays the punctuation marks of agriculture very clearly, while in contrast, Australia’s indigenous and nomadic culture has left little or no trace by way of footprint. The native Australians created a practical intimacy with the land that was best defined by a sense of belonging and witness quite at odds with European notions of property, ownership and legacy. Unfortunately, the subsequent story of disavowal and dishonour is now irrecoverable.

However, as Australia now strives for an improved identity in the world of wine, I hope that our new-found respect for nourishing inheritance and land – rather than exhausting them both – might be the beginning of a long and careful reconnection.

Ultimately, do we define our land and inheritance, or do they define us?

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