Small event illustrates big-time lesson

One of the most valuable lessons I learned from working with Anders Gronstedt of Gronstedt Group over the past several years is that the brand lives with the customer, not the brand group. Not to diminish to importance of traditional branding activities, but nothing that happens at corporate is as critical to the life of the brand as what happens across the various customer touchpoints. My call to customer service is the single most important factor in my understanding of your brand and is the single event that will determine what I tell my friends, family and co-workers about your company, products and services. If I was lured into trying your product or service by effective marketing on your part, then your failure to deliver might be interpreted as a betrayal, and the kind of word-of-mouth that drives is your worst nightmare.

Last weekend I tripped across an almost archetypal case study of what can happen when a business does everything right on the traditional branding front, but pays too little attention to the customer’s hands-on interaction with the brand.

My wife and I drove up to Raffaldini Vineyards in the heart of North Carolina’s emerging Yadkin Valley wine country for the winery’s Second Annual Italian Festival. Raffaldini is one of the more highly regarded winemakers in the valley (along with places like Westbend, Shelton, Ragapple Lassie, Windy Gap and RayLen), and for good reason. For a region that’s so young, these vineyards are producing some really outstanding wines, and within another decade I fully expect the best of them to be on a par with some of California’s top tier wine producers. Raffaldini’s offerings include several medal-winners, and I especially liked the Bella Misto, which reminded me a bit of an Italian primitivo, only with a little more attitude. (Note: I love wine and I buy wine, but I’m not an expert. Your mileage may vary.)

From a traditional branding perspective, Raffaldini is doing just about everything right. Their visual communication elements are clean and classic, and are wholly consistent with the positioning as an Italian heritage winery. (Since the region is so young, we’re seeing a lot of approaches being tested by various vineyards, both in terms of their product and branding.) Their Web site is crisp, professionally executed and absolutely packed with information. The casual surfer can get the gist quickly while the more interested explorer can dig for quite a while without getting bored. The copy never lets the reader lose sight of Raffaldini’s place with respect to the legacy of Italian winemaking, and the site features a mailing list, a wine club, a blog and other features designed to establish and build relationships with customers.

An on-site festival celebrating wine and Italia, then, provides an ideal opportunity to give those customers a better sense of the physical place where the wine comes from – and smart marketers understand the power of the “I’ve been there” factor in driving closer identification with a brand. This is especially true when the place is as stunning as the Raffladini vineyard is. The festival site was on a hill with an amazing panoramic view of the state’s western Piedmont region, and I found myself remarking that Ronda, NC was like the Tuscany of America. If you look at some of the photos on the site, you’ll see what I mean.

Raffaldini put some effort into making sure the event was well publicized. In addition to putting the word out via their own channels, they submitted an entry to Smitty’s Notes, an extremely popular Winston-Salem what’s up Web site/e-mailer (this is how we found out about it), and I was told they also did some broadcast in Charlotte, which is less than an hour straight down I-77.

Unfortunately, this is where things began to go wrong. The first sign that the staff wasn’t prepared for the response generated by their marketing efforts greeted us as at the gate. Admission included a Raffaldini wine glass – another nice touch – but already they were discussing whether they had enough glasses.

From here things got worse. According to one man I talked to, an avowed Raffaldini fan who was quite knowledgable about the region, the Second Annual Italian Festival seemed to have drawn about twice as many people as last year’s event. (Being victimized by the success of your own marketing is one of the most tragic things that can happen in business, isn’t it?) The most glaring planning failure was the food line – singular – which was extremely long and barely moving. Since the publicity noted that they’d have food, we showed up hungry, and when we stepped in line it was about 100 feet long. In the next 15 minutes, we moved a couple steps, and it was literally an hour and a half before we reached the front of the line. In a pretty hot sun.

It was bad enough that they had planned so poorly, but there was no apparent recognition of the problem – a good event staff should have quickly realized there was a problem and pulled more people into the tent to get the line moving, but nothing of the sort happened.

When we did get to the front of the line, we decided to order the “antipasto plate” (the grilled sausages looked better, but by now it was after 3:00 and we’d lost so much time that we just wanted to grab a quick bite to tide us over until dinner). This turned out to be a pretty basic deli cold cut offering consisting of ham, salami cheese, none of which paid much tribute to Italian culture. (Since my wife is second-generation Italian, I have come to appreciate what the term “antipasto plate” can mean in the right hands, but this was disappointing even by non-snob standards.)

The wine tasting tent was better, but even there I found myself standing for a couple extra minutes while some members of the staff milled around doing nothing in particular. Since I had just come from the food line, I was already in a bad mood, and while some of that’s on me, it’s a basic fact of human nature that a bad mood can snowball in a situation like this, and once you let bad planning set the tone things are likely to get worse instead of better.

I want to make clear that this entry isn’t intended as a bad review or a hit piece. Raffaldini is doing so much right. They have a great product, a breath-taking venue, smart marketing, and I’m told their success is enabling further expansion of their facilities – all of which is very good news. I’m rooting for them and all the other vineyards in the area as they work to create a new economy in a region hit hard by the collapse of the textile sector and other manufacturing industries, the campaign against tobacco and a series of painful corporate defections. With any luck at all, I’ll be able to attend Raffaldini’s Third Annual Italian Festival next year, and hopefully I’ll be stunned by the meticulous planning and execution of the event. If so, I’ll let you know.

This year’s event provided a valuable, if painful lesson, though – and not just for Raffaldini Vineyards. The sum of their branding activities and the strength of their product was sufficient to draw an unexpected number of people to their summer celebration of all things Italian, but if what I heard around me was any indication, a lot of those people walked away grumbling. I fear there’s some unhealthy viral making the rounds. I’ll be back, but am I the rule or the exception?

Key takeaway: what good is all the traditional branding success in the world if the end result is negative word-of-mouth resulting from a failure to deliver along key customer touchpoints?

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