Rural Support Trust chair Neil Bateup says there is a lot of apprehension among farmers about the future as they follow and experience the disruptions caused by Covid and also by the war in Ukraine.
Polly Hammond found an unexpected ally in Covid-19, after five years dragging wine into a digital landscape. Locked down in Barcelona, where her daughter is at university, the 5Forest founder was inundated by requests from wine companies desperate to dive into digital. “Everyone had this ‘oh shit’ moment. Suddenly I need digital and I need it right now,” says the American-born Kiwi, on yet another late-night cross-hemisphere phone call. “I don’t think we’ve had a decent night’s sleep since lockdown. We have never been this busy.”
But as countries have learned to ‘cope’ with Covid-19, one way or another, complacency has set in for some, with digital put back in the ‘too hard’ basket. “I was kind of shocked,” says Polly, who admits to a “huge bias”, but has seen the value of digital marketing and e-commerce for wine companies. “I live around digital and I see the numbers and I know the impact it is having for wineries who are embracing it.”
When Covid started to bite, sites like wine.com began selling far more than ever, and there was a phase of ‘yeeha! We are going to embrace digital’, says Polly. “We will learn how to do it and we’ll make a plan”. That was when it was necessary “because you were afraid you would lose your shirt.”
It was great while it lasted, and she’s concerned to see some digital dreams shelved, “because it makes us not very resilient”. Many Kiwi wine companies that contacted 5Forests during Covid-quarantines were in “digital debt”, meaning they’d invested no time or money in an online presence, except for the website their nephew built them, for example, or an occasional social media post. That meant gearing up for the Covid world required more money and effort. “There was this huge amount of interest and quite a few takers, but probably twice as many people who couldn’t afford to overcome the challenges they have boxed themselves into.”
Digital debt often comes down to a lack of labour, interest and leadership, perhaps an infatuation with hand selling wine, and confusion over responsibility, says Polly. “There’s an ambiguity around whose job it is to pay for and oversee digital marketing.” Some are worried they’ll tread on toes if they sell direct to consumer, but Covid-19 provided a perfect excuse to be bold and take advantage of the moment, she adds.
During lockdown, Polly and her team found band aid solutions for some of the slow or no adopters, to give them an online route to market - such as Shopify, which could be overlaid by a more substantial and considered investment down the track. But the main message to companies was that they must not “silo” digital, she says. “It has to be part of a well thought out and researched, planned strategic business model.” To do digital right you have to treat it like work, she adds. “People love Instagram and it has built a Rosé market around the world. But to make it work you have to treat it like a proper branch of your brand.”
Without sound business models, perhaps including digital, (though it’s not the answer for everyone, she explains) Polly fears independent wine companies risk losing the “war of attrition” already underway, so they are ultimately “gobbled up”. The New Zealand industry is at a crossroads, she adds. “We have got to decide if we are going to care about, and communicate with, our customers.” Being “wrapped up in our juice” without thought for the market is not working, she adds. “We want to make this thing that is beautiful and artisanal. But what’s the point if you can’t sell it? The wineries who are going to succeed are the ones who will look at everything they do.”
• Starting in December, Winegrower will run a regular column from Polly Hammond on digital marketing and e-commerce.