Blockbuster wines are like blockbuster movies – created to appeal to the widest possible audience, tested and tweaked at every turn. Yet, as with Hollywood films, even the glitziest launches can’t guarantee a box office hit. Apothic, however, is one of a handful of wines launched in the past two decades that has not only resonated with consumers, but gone from strength to strength.
“There is definitely a secret sauce,” says Heather Austin, director of marketing for Apothic. “When this brand was concepted and created, there were two factors at play.” The first was the emerging red blends category itself. “Red blends were starting to come about,” she says, but they weren’t well defined. “There was an opportunity to define what a red blend stood for.”
The second pillar was consumer research. E&J Gallo, who created Apothic, realised that while Millennials – particularly young males – wanted to embrace wine culture, they hadn’t found a brand that was both accessible, but also sophisticated. “We wanted to create something that was greater than the sum of its parts.”
Birth of a brand
In 2007, winemaker Debbie Juergenson began working on the blend itself, to create a wine that was aroma and flavour forward – that was so clear and differentiated, consumers could identify it instantly. “Something we consider sacred is the reliance on bold flavours. When consumers are walking down the wine aisle, there’s a lot of choice,” says Austin.
Gallo also realised that there was a big opportunity to do something striking with the label, as wine shelves of the time were groaning with traditional labels that emphasised heritage, or “there were these whimsical brands that were a little bit more cartoonish. There was a big gap in the middle for a brand to come through that was bold, a bit more daring and dramatic,” she adds.
It’s well-known in book publishing that while women will pick up and read a book with a male protagonist, men will not read ‘women’s literature’. Austin says that – to an extent – the same thing holds true in wine. “There is a bigger benefit in skewing more masculine,” she says, because it will attract both sexes. Hence, while Austin says the wine has wide appeal across both men and women, the team chose to add more masculine cues to the packaging. The final design was a dark bottle adorned with a label that manages to yoke masculinity, magic and night together. The look is Gothic, with splashes of blood red weaving through a wrought-metal design. The associated images feature crushed velvet, tattooed men, raven-haired women and fire.
Upon its launch in 2008, Apothic was a runaway success first in its home market of the US, and then later on in global markets.
As for marketing, “we have relied on intriguing products and intriguing experiences,” says Austin, including the use of augmented and virtual reality. The pandemic has, of course, sharply curtailed real life experience, so “we have been leaning in on unique partnerships,” including sponsoring Halloween for the US channel Hulu. The company also placed ads on the dating app Tindr. “We had spin-the-bottle games. We had a lot of fun interacting with our consumers.”
Twelve years after its launch, Apothic is not a single wine any longer, but a range that encompasses everything from a sparkling, a rose, a single serve (“travel light with a dark companion,” says the ad copy) and Apothic Inferno, a wine aged in whiskey barrels.
Kristina Kelley, head of public relations, says the reason Gallo has been able to create hits like Apothic, Barefoot and Dark Horse, is because of consumer research. “Gallo does a tremendous job in listening and that’s been there since the inception of our organisation,” she says, adding that when they see an opportunity emerging, they’re able to react quickly.
While companies around the world have launched red blends, only one – 19 Crimes from Australia’s Treasury Wine Estate – has had anything like a comparable success and it’s notable that both companies have internal teams who keep an eye on social trends, as well as wine trends.
“I’m really excited about the future,” says Austin, “because of the focus on innovation and the ability to bring new consumers in. I’m excited to introduce even more consumers to wine.”