Responding to changing market conditions is central to Plantagenet Wines’ export strategy, and the company’s ability to pivot has seen a pleasing growth in UK sales, despite the challenges associated with COVID-19.
The company commenced exporting to the UK back in the 1980s, and, for many years, the brand has been imported by Liberty Wines, one of the UK’s premier importers.
“Culturally, the UK has always been an important market for us,” says Michael House, Plantagenet Wines’ National Sales & Marketing Manager. “Given our brand personality and history, it’s a good fit for us in general.”
Because the company’s founder, Tony Smith, was English, exporting to the UK was a way for his family to access Tony’s wine and it also provided him with a great reason to head home for family visits.
Tony’s heritage is still reflected in the brand, with a name linked to the Royal House and three lions on the label. Along with a long-standing market presence, this has resulted in high brand recognition.
Michael says the UK market is not without challenge, though, as it is very price competitive.
“There were a few times when we had quite a high volume-based strategy and very low margin, but we’ve pivoted away from that in recent times,” he explains. “We don’t really do any supermarket business in the UK. We’ve dabbled in that area but moved away from it. We focus on higher-value, more premium channels in on and off-premise.”
Responding to COVID-19
The COVID-19 restrictions imposed by the UK government presented Plantagenet Wines with several hurdles, particularly being unable to get in front of customers or access new business by attending trade fairs. Just prior to COVID-19, the company commenced an export market rebuild/push, which has been more difficult to execute because of the pandemic.
“The main issue has certainly been moving the focus from on-premise to off-premise,” says Michael. “Traditionally, our distribution was more focused on hotels, restaurants, and the catering sector. Obviously, this was heavily impacted by the lockdowns, so our importers had to pivot very quickly into more independent retail channels. And we negotiated certain commercial arrangements to make sure that we’re competitive in that area. Prior to COVID-19, we were 80 per cent on-premise, and that has now swung to 80 per cent off-premise.”
Michael says that wine is very much a personal product, and sales are harder to achieve when you cannot have face-to-face interactions with people. Prior to COVID-19, members of the Australian team visited the UK once or twice a year for development events and trade shows.
“Like everyone, we’ve tried to use technology as best we can,” Michael says. “We’ve done some virtual tastings, sent a lot of samples over, provided collateral, and tried to be very creative in that regard.”
An important response to the pandemic was an upgrade to Plantagenet’s digital channels. “Our website and social media presence are a lot stronger than they were,” says Michael.
“I think that has helped develop our consumer and trade following in the UK. We’ve invested pretty heavily in lifting our overall digital presence, brand presence. You’ve got to have a strong digital brand presence now because it’s a global world.
“We’ve had discussions with our importer about different channels and different direct-to-consumer channels that they can sell directly into online. Online sales are growing because people are buying wine and having it delivered to their home because they are not going out in lockdown.”
Michael says the marketing collateral used in the UK is similar to their Australian material, but it may be tailored to meet a particular customer’s requirements. Sample packs are being used extensively to engage sales teams.
The UK represented 30 per cent of total sales in 2005/6 when Plantagenet’s strategy was volume-driven. UK sales currently represent five per cent of total sales, but given the re-engagement with the market, the company thinks it is realistic for the UK to contribute 10-15 per cent of sales within two years.
“We have identified the UK as a future growth market. We are actively re-engaging with our importer to rebuild the market. As well as stock support, we will be driving a mass sampling campaign to the on-premise sector when they reopen. We are also looking to sample key journalists and influencers. As soon as COVID-19 is behind us, we will be back in the market with two to three visits per year.”
Support breeds export success
Plantagenet Wines participated in the Export Market Development Grant (EMDG) scheme when starting its export journey. EMDG is an Austrade programme that reimburses exporters for costs incurred in marketing their products and services around the world.
“We have worked with Austrade in the past,” says Michael. “Our EMDG grant is exhausted now, but we accessed it pretty heavily in the 2000s. We still use their services from time-to-time and participate in the various industry events held by Wine Australia, which is an industry and government-funded body.
“We’ve been a member of both the UK-based Australia United Kingdom Chamber of Commerce and the Australian British Chamber of Commerce here at home.”
Michael says Plantagenet’s brand personality seemed to be a good fit with the Australian British Chamber of Commerce and the company felt that joining would help support the brand in the market. The main aim was to assist with developing B2B relationships and more direct-to-consumer relationships.
Plantagenet has sponsored events and provided wines for them, as well as facilitating exclusive member offers.
The future for Australian wine exporters
Plantagenet Wines is not the only Australian wine exports with its sights set on expanding UK exports. According to Wine Australia, the UK was the number one destination for Australian wine exports by volume in 2020, a position it has held since electronic export records commenced in 1990.
After a downward trend in volumes since 2010, the volume of exports to the UK rebounded strongly in 2020, up 19 per cent to 267 million litres (29.6 million 9-litre case equivalents). This places the UK well ahead of the United States (136 million litres) and mainland China (96 million litres). The value of exports to the UK also increased, up 29 per cent to $456 million, placing the UK as the second biggest destination by value.