“If you are successful, you are not breaking the rules. You are writing new ones.” - asserts Michael Houlihan, the Co-Founder of Barefoot Wine.
Barefoot Wine is an iconic brand that started its story in a laundry room of a rented farmhouse in the Sonoma County hills. With virtually no money or experience in the wine industry, Michael Houlihan and his partner Bonnie Harvey, identified an unserved market and built a multi-million dollar enterprise with international brand recognition.
Starting in 1986, Houlihan and Harvey built their wine empire and successfully sold the brand to E&J Gallo in 2005. Barefoot is now one of the largest wine brands in the world.
In talking with the founders of Barefoot about their path to success, they attributed much of their early traction to discovering an underserved market.
From growing grapes to final retail sale, the business couple focused heavily on market research before positioning their brand. They discovered that their target market was 35 year old moms with approximately 2.5 kids who were looking for a ‘Tuesday night wine’. With a hyper focus on serving this niche market, Houlihan and Harvey built a now globally recognized brand.
When the dynamic duo sold Barefoot, it was in all 50 states, 28 foreign countries and all of the US military bases. They received the industry’s top awards for growth including the Fast Track Growth Brand, Trend Setter, and Hot Brand 2 years in a row. Today Barefoot sells more than 20 million cases annually in over 150 countries.
Here are the seven points Barefoot Wine focused on to turn their wine brand from a laundry room operation to one of the most recognizable wine brands in the world.
Houlihan and Harvey negotiated a debt for a grape growing client with a bankrupt winery and were only able to get bottled wine in return. Now they had to come up with a label, marketing plan and distribution strategy.
Because they were wine industry outsiders, and lacked any preconceived ideas about the wine market, they approached the research in a very practical and thorough manner. They sought advice from corporate types but also, as Harvey puts it, “People with dirt under their fingernails,” ie the folks who drive the trucks, man the forklifts, and stock the shelves.
Houlihan and Harvey soon came to the conclusion as a result of their extensive research that three out of four grocery shoppers are women.
Their research also showed that these women wanted a consistent, fairly priced wine or a “Tuesday night wine”.
Create a memorable label.
When walking down the aisles, all wine labels seemed to have a similar visual aesthetic: hills, valleys, castles, or something in French. No one came close to such a bold, fun label as the now iconic bare foot logo.
Consumers were interested in something that was unique, and vibrant, unlike many other prominent wine brands. A large part of Barefoot Wine’s success is attributed to its label. It’s easy to pronounce, easy to remember, and the name is the same as the logo.
Houlihan and Harvey were disruptive by creating a casual wine targeted towards daily wine drinkers. They realized their market, a 35-year-old mom, was buying wine like she bought sugar, flour or butter. She didn’t want it to taste any different from the last time she purchased it. She wanted something simple, reliable, and consistent.
Barefoot wine delivered exactly that. Wine that was affordable, always on the shelf, and tasted the same week after week. With a ton of pushback from the retail buyers, Houlihan and Harvey kept pushing forward. Pushback can be an early indication that you are being disruptive, and they got laughed out of many retail buyers’ offices.
Where the wine industry was dry and exclusive, Barefoot was fun and inclusive.
Find imbalance in the industry and leverage it:
At the time, there were very few female retail buyers in the wine industry. It was 99% male in the distribution as well as retail end. Early on, Barefoot saw this imbalance. In 1995, they hired one of the first female winemakers. This helped them to get a pulse on addressing the emerging female market.
Use Cause Marketing To Connect with Customers.
Barefoot earned more respect from customers because they started supporting a group called the “Surfrider Foundation.” This local organization cleans up beaches and keeps pollution, especially bacteria from poor sewage, out of the water.
By finding and supporting this local cause, they were able to leverage an important issue that resonated with their ideal market. Targeting 35-year-old women with 2.5 kids in Southern California was a very small target to hit. This hyper localized effort allowed them to gain high value exposure to the moms who they wanted to get in front of. Barefoot’s support for the Surfrider Foundation was low cost and high impact exposure, creating significant awareness for their brand in this market sector.
But what was the connection?
Barefoot’s 35-year-old mom’s kids spent time at the beach, playing in the water. Because of the pollution from various outlets, these kids were at high risk of infections. Supporting such an important organization sent a big message that Barefoot cared about their customers who lived in that community.
Take the opposite approach as competitors when promoting.
Barefoot helped get the Surfrider Foundation word out there, but in a bold way. Every bottle of Barefoot Wine sported a tag that said “Hang 10 for clean water,” asking the consumer to give $10 to the Surfrider Foundation to test the beaches for pollution.
While everyone else typically offered more traditional deals, Barefoot Wine asked customers to pay $6.99 for wine and then give $10 to the Surfrider Foundation. This tactic attracted positive attention to the brand and got the Surfrider Foundation message to people along the coast, an area where Barefoot’s target audience lived.
Be seen on the shelves:
Barefoot made little signs in the shape of a surfboard, and provided a flyer that educated the shopper about the problems at the beach and what the Surfrider Foundation did to fix them. Even retailers loved the idea, which helped create more favorable product placement in the wine aisle. All this lead to increased brand awareness, loyalty, and ultimately the purchase of more Barefoot Wine.
When Michael Houlihan & Bonnie Harvey started back in 1986, buyers were throwing them out of the office. Nineteen years later, they sold the brand and today Barefoot Wine is one of the top wine brands in the world.