Elizabeth Schneider is the award-winning host of Wine for Normal People®, a podcast, book, and online community for people who like wine (but not the “attitude that [sometimes] goes with it”). She is also an experienced speaker on entrepreneurship and wine, as well as a certified sommelier and wine educator. We recently spoke with Elizabeth to get her perspective on what motivates customers, both today and tomorrow.
Listen to the full interview here or read along in the transcript below. (Please note that the written interview has been edited for length and readability.)
Milton Cornwell: Elizabeth, thank you so much for joining us today and sharing your thoughts on consumer engagement. I think a great place to start would be to have you give us an overview of your podcast and recent book, Wine for Normal People, along with what led you to pursue these endeavors.
Elizabeth Schneider: Well, first of all, thank you for having me. The problems that I saw in the wine industry led me to do what I ultimately did…We always think about people as demographics, as consumers, and as having dollar signs on their heads.
When I got started in wine, I felt that. I came out of Wesleyan University, a liberal arts grad, and I was living in Boston, I was a professional. I walked into wine shops, and I had no idea what I was doing and, certainly, no one was willing to offer help… I felt like, “Hey, I’m a smart kid, I can make this happen. I can interact with really smart people.” I was working in high tech in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This was not small time, and I could talk and present in meetings. And yet, when I would go into wine shops, I would just, as I say in the book, “leave my self-esteem in the bold shoulder Cabernet aisle.”
…But then I fell in love with wine because I took a class. I finally found somebody who would actually teach me something. And at that point, I got the wine bug and I thought, “How can I get into this?” It was very hard to figure out how to get in. I got my MBA at UNC, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. There happened to be a large winery, which I will not mention, that was recruiting on campus for marketing, which was my focus. And I wound up in the industry.
But then it was even worse when I got into the industry, because what I realized was that Big Wine is not about the customer. I’m not sure it has to be at that scale. For people listening to this, it does have to be about people. In large wineries it’s all about the supply chain and about cogs in the machine and they’re doing something very different. But, if you actually care, the end drinker is so important. And we very rarely think about that.
So, my mission became to try my best to be the best Emissary for wine. Not for a brand, but for wine. And to try to teach people how to appreciate it, and how to love it, by doing what I know how to do […]
Milton: Did you find that there was, in the wine industry many years ago, a closed door, if you will? That the knowledge of what the wine world was really all about was on the other side of that door? It was almost like you had to try to figure out, “Do I want to go in there?” And then figure out, “Well, how do I get in?”
Elizabeth: Oh my God, that’s such a great way to put it! …It’s sort of like this black box. After doing so many corporate events and [interacting] with people on a regular basis, [I found] it’s like a confessional sometimes. People are like, “Look, I buy really expensive wine and I’m not exactly sure what such and such thing is.” Or, “I am afraid to ask because I have…”
And these people are so educated! I mean, this is notwine for dummies. It’s people who really want to learn and they are kind of nerdy. I have a lot of doctors. I have a lot of lawyers. I have a lot of finance professionals. I have a lot of consultants, people who are highly educated… [and they’re saying] “How do I even get into this?”
Somebody just wrote me yesterday. He was like, “Look, I’m not your typical demographic. I’m a baby boomer, but I feel like I’m just now getting into wine.” And I said, “I don’t care about demographics. Are you willing to learn? Are you interested? You’re welcome here then.” And I don’t think people say that ever.
Milton: So for those listeners [and readers] that may not be as familiar with your podcast, tell them exactly what it is that you have out there available for folks.
Elizabeth: I have released over 300 episodes and been around for nine years. The podcast focuses on wine education and really navigating people through regions, changes and grapes. And then, there’s practical stuff too. There’s shopping and visiting wineries and things like that. But really, it is geared towards the wine drinker. The sole idea of it is to communicate hard information into something that is fun, easy and lovable.
My goal is to make people want to love wine by using analogies that they can understand and things that they can relate to. Which, again, the wine industry does not often do a great job of, because we think that’s all anybody ever thinks about, because all weever think about.
Milton: Your focus has been on helping educate consumers on all the things that they should know about wine, but were perhaps embarrassed to ask, right? So, can you tell us a little bit more about what you call “humanizing” the consumer, and why it’s so important?
Elizabeth: This comes from my time working in corporations and also having so many friends who work in the wine industry. I’ll give you a really great example. I spoke at an international industry conference last year. (I rarely get invited to industry things. Most people in the industry don’t even know I exist, even though I tend to exert a lot of influence sometimes on what people buy.)
But, the industry conference was… My mind was blown. I was listening to what people were saying about the consumer. The “millennial consumer” and the “boomer consumer” and the “generation X consumer”. All I kept thinking about was, “When was the last time any of you spent a few hours with somebody sitting in a wine shop and watching how people have to navigate through this category in this industry? When was the last time you actually sat down with somebody and had them really be frank and honest with you about what they go through when they make wine decisions, and how absolutely stressful that can be?”
Milton: I think it’s important for all of our winery brands that they attempt to try to create more of a relationship with their customers in telling their story and not treating them as [just a sale]… How we make those happen is critically important, no?
Elizabeth: Yeah, it is. And it’s not just about having a virtual tasting and calling it a day. Again, that’s another way that, in this environment right now, people are like, “How do I sell more wine? How do I sell more wine?”
These people are not ATM machines, they are humans, right? So, you have to offer them some extra value. You need to do things, like maybe you need to think about, “What if they don’t know exactly what a toast level on a barrel is and what it does?”…Those are very complex concepts and most people do not have time to think about that. But, you could do something like that. You could talk about what you’re doing in the winery, in the wine making process, that has nothing to do with selling bottles.
When you’re referring to a personal level, I don’t mean saying, “Hey, Sally, we really appreciated you,” and writing your name at the bottom of a card. I’m talking about getting into what would actually matter to people. And do you bring something different to the table than just your wine and tasting your wine? I mean, people can only do that for so long…After a while, that’s not going to work. So, how do you strategically decide “Hey, I want to be in your life, customer…I am here to make you happy and smarter and like wine more.” And of course with goodwill comes good business.
Milton: This area we’re touching on, is this really what you’ve referred to in the past as going beyond the demographics of customers?
Elizabeth: Yes! The number one thing I would say to wineries is, “Do not look at age as the bellwether. There are millennials who know a million things about wine, and there will be generation Z who will also know a million things about wine, and my generation, generation X. Don’t assume that just because somebody is from a certain generation that they have a certain attitude.
It’s not monolithic; generations are a human construct. We have to deal with people [based] on their interest levels. What are people interested in?
…Every winery has a different kind of customer profile. It’s not about the demographics; it’s about “Who’s going to be attracted to you, and what are they like? What’s the common thread that you see?”
I can tell you in my audience, I would hang out with every single person that listens to me practically— because I have managed to cultivate a group of people who have the same interests that I do. When we do our Underground Wine Events, I want to spend time with the people who attend because I know they all have something in common. And I can guarantee that wineries, especially smaller ones, have that too, but they don’t often hone in on that. That’s way beyond demographics.
Milton: Hopefully we have some of the small-medium sized wineries that have the opportunity to listen to this. And if we were to get things kind of granular, because we’re talking in bigger concepts, are there any things that you would suggest? The one, two, three things that are, “If you’re not doing these things, you really should explore them as a means of trying to really understand their customers on a better level”?
Elizabeth: You need to talk to your tasting room staff and you need to talk to retailers that sell your product and find out who your customer actually is. Not what the numbers say, not what the dollar figures say, find out who these people are. And if you can do that, then you can much better target a strategy about what would be of value to them. Not knowing who people are, not knowing what your vibe is, or how you’re actually connecting with people is a bad choice. I think a lot of wineries totally disregard their tasting room staff. I’m not saying that they don’t treat them well. But are you asking these people, because these are your frontline. These are the people who are seeing folks come in. They’re seeing people who are satisfied.
And again, if you sell your wine in a retail environment or in restaurants, go make an effort to talk to servers about your better accounts. Ask them why people buy your wine. What is it about that wine? It makes a huge difference to your understanding.
Once you figure out your vibe, then you can figure out what kinds of things people would want. People love being asked. Go take a survey. Say, “We care about what you want to hear about,” but don’t make it about your wine. Make it about another educational topic, or a topic in wine.
Another idea, and I know this is controversial for some people… What about banding together with some of the other wineries in your region and making things a bit interesting? Having conversations or doing a multi-pack so that people can taste what Oakville tastes like, or people can taste what Sonoma Mountain tastes like? Being the only thing that you’re concerned about is not serving your customers well.
Milton: How do we do some of these things now in this COVID world, where, to a degree, we are somewhat isolated and travel to our tasting rooms has been disrupted? And our restaurant industry has been disrupted? What are some other things that we can be doing in addition to these online virtual tasting rooms?
Elizabeth: In marketing, they always talk about, “Surprise and delight.” Surprise and delight means you are not doing the same thing everyone else is doing. I feel like wineries are panicking because they’re worried that if they’re not doing virtual stuff, [they’re in trouble.] But take your time and do it well and do it focused. Do it less often, but do it really, really well.
Do whatever you need to do to expand your knowledge of the person, the wine drinker, be empathetic. Think of these people as if they were friends or family and figure out what your family vibe is, what your tribe vibe is and cater to that… You might shed some customers that way, and that is okay. But, you deepen the relationships and then you attract more people that you want to attract. It’s okay to lose customers if they’re not good customers. What’s not okay is to ignore the idea that you’ve got so much going for you and you’re not probing into that.And again, it’s all about humans that are on the other side of that transaction.
Milton: [So] it’s not just a virtual tasting you need to be worrying about right now because everybody is doing it. You need to figure out other ways to be able to use the technologies, to communicate the story about the vineyard. Where are the vineyards located? Anyone that wants to understand what barrel tastings are all about and why they’re important, or a Brix count or something like that. Use the opportunity for engagement.
The other thing I think I’m hearing is that now is the time to plan for the future. Our COVID world is not going to last forever. People are going to ultimately be able to come back together and the things that you do now over the next six months to nine months to 12 months can have a very significant impact on how your winery and how your engagement activities really come into play, correct?
Elizabeth: 100% right. Do the work while you can, which is now.
Because you don’t want to forget this when you go out into the world. And frankly, it’s going to give you a competitive business advantage by being empathetic and caring and thinking about things in a different way, because I can guarantee you, most wineries aren’t thinking that way. But, the ones that do are the ones that have incredible loyalty. The ones that do are the ones that have a foundation for building on. And the ones that do are attracting people that they want to attract. And that is, in the end, the most important thing. And not being so worried about sales is going to get you more sales.
Milton: So, this is not just a generational type of situation. It doesn’t matter whether it’s baby boomer or Y or generation X, millennial. These are principles that carry forward across all sectors: Truly relating to people on a human basis, how people would like to be treated and they open up when you really just appeal to them on that nature, right?
Elizabeth: Absolutely. You’re a guy from the Midwest. I feel like this is a real value, probably, that you learned as a child, right? Is that everyone matters.
Elizabeth: Everyone that comes to you matters. They might not all be for you. That’s okay. But yes, don’t judge people by where they are in their demographics.
And gosh, if they’re interested and they don’t know anything, seize that moment! You could change someone’s life. You could make them so excited about wine. You could bring some joy into someone’s life. It doesn’t matter how old they are.
So yes, we need to go beyond demographics. They don’t work…The reason that I know this is because the people that listen to my podcast are all over the map in terms of age, even though it’s a podcast and it’s new technology. As for people buying the book, I’ve got people who are 70 and 80 buying my book and asking me, “Can I have 10 signed book plates because I’m giving it to all my friends? We finally have something that we can relate to in wine.”
Milton: Well, I loved our opportunity to catch up here. For any of our listeners that want to follow you, where do they go to be able to plug into your podcast and get a copy of your book.
Elizabeth: The podcast is available anywhere you get your podcast, and it’s Wine for Normal People.
The book is available on all major booksellers: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and all your indie bookshops, of course—I’m all about the small and medium sized businesses! So, I’m always saying, ask your small shop to bring it in.
And my website is winefornormalpeople.com. I can hook your bookstore up with a publisher if need be. It’s Chronicle Books.
Milton: I really appreciate you spending some time with us, Elizabeth. Thank you so much.
Elizabeth: Thank you for having me!
I encourage readers to listen to the entire interview, which really conveys Elizabeth’s down-to-earth personality and approach. At the end of the interview, I took away five main points for our talk:
- Wine marketing has focused too much on demographics these past years, especially when it comes to generations. (Admittedly, we’ve been guilty of this as well!) Every generation will have it’s share of people interested in wine and wanting to know more. These are the people the wine industry needs to find and connect with.
- Communicate difficult information in a way that is fun and approachable to relate to wine lovers on a deeper level.
- Engagement with your customers is more than putting your signature on a card or sending out an automated email. Really get to know your customers. Ask them questions. Find out what they like and what they don’t like, even outside of wine.
- If you are doing that engagement work, you will find your ideal customer, your “tribe.” When you do, cater to them. You might lose a few customers, but you’ll gain more than enough loyal customers to make up for it.
- Talk to your tasting room staff and your retailers to find out more about your customers—they are your front line!
- While everyone is experimenting with virtual tasting rooms, try to remember: The name of the game is to “surprise and delight.” Don’t be afraid of “new technologies” and think outside of the usual marketing tools wineries use.
If you would like to discuss logistics and creating the ultimate customer unboxing experience, please reach out to us!