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Harnessing the Emotional Power of Sonoma

Going Beyond Wine Features and Functions

This article was written before the wildfires along the north coast of California. We’ve subsequently added a recommendation for “Harnessing the Power of Sonoma” that joins the Sonoma County Vintners in supporting recovery and rebuilding through donations to the Sonoma County Resilience Fund.


Knowing your brand’s consumer benefit is a basic tenet of brand marketing. Like the framework of benefits from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, brands and products also employ this hierarchy for the consumer, which when simplified, can be described in three tiers:

  • Attributes – What describes the product? (e.g., red wine, 750 ml, $15)
  • Functional Benefit – What are the functional attributes of the product? (e.g., refreshment, relaxation, taste)
  • Emotional Benefit – What is the product’s emotional pay-off? (e.g., sense of sophistication, shared celebration, feeling like you are “in-the-know”)

All wine brands can deliver against the Attributes and Functional benefits. The power to breakthrough and become a “pull” wine brand comes from delivering a compelling emotional benefit. As we noted in Issue 1, Napa is a pull brand. So, too, is Sonoma.

For a quick summary of the psychology of marketing of benefits and how they tie to causes of human action, read “The Psychology and Philosophy of Branding, Marketing, Needs, and Actions” on Forbes.


The “holy grail” of branding occurs when a brand becomes more than a product serving a simple function (think Maslow’s base tier of physiological needs like food, water and sleep), elevating to something consumers identify with. It’s an emotional connection. And as brand marketers, we want consumers to engage to that level with the brand.

The good news is, research shows that consumers already emotionally identify with Sonoma. Quantitative research with over 1,600 consumers who enjoyed wine within the past four weeks revealed how they felt about Sonoma and Napa. They described each region as shown below:1


Our subsequent study took a deeper look at consumer attitudes toward Sonoma. In focus groups of consumers spending $15 or more per bottle, people consistently demonstrated an awareness of — and an affinity for — Sonoma wines. This level of awareness and affinity was higher than what was anticipated. Their emotional connection exists regardless of whether they have visited Sonoma or not, and their descriptions and feelings were the same. They know Sonoma. They know Sonoma’s warm, hard-working people, beautiful land, good food and excellent wine.2

Additional research conducted by the Sonoma County Vintner’s Association confirmed that the awareness and the positive associations are even greater among consumers spending $20 or more on a bottle of wine.3


While these traits are excellent to draw upon, the connection consumers feel for Sonoma is more powerful than these attributes. One of our most earnest pursuits in brand marketing is consumer relatability and self-identification.

When we have it, it is a powerful impetus to drive consumers to action. Through research, consumers repeatedly told us they feel like they are like the growers and people of Sonoma.4


In purchasing patterns, the most dramatic gains for Sonoma are occurring in the Direct-to-Consumer (DtC) channel. In 2016, Sonoma shipments doubled the growth rate of Napa, increasing by 22.2%. Revenue growth outpaced volume growth (28%), as the average price of bottles shipped increased 5.5%.

From 2011 to 2016, Sonoma, California, as well as Washington, Oregon and Rest of U.S. aggregate stole DtC share from the Napa and Rest of California aggregate, growing its share of the DtC market from 36% to 45%.5

Similarly, Sonoma volume and share are both growing in the retail channel. For year-end 2016, the total volume share of the domestic Ultra-Premium+ priced table wine category (identified as still wines priced $15 or higher) was almost 1/3 of the total case sales (32.3%). Nearly 1 in 3 domestic bottles sold at $15 or higher carried a Sonoma County appellation.6

Visitors to Sonoma are also spending more than those visiting Napa. In 2016, Sonoma tourism generated over $1.828 billion in destination spending. For the same period, Napa tourism delivered $1.293 billion in destination spending. In this instance, Sonoma dollars are more than 40% greater than Napa.7




How can you take advantage of the way consumers relate themselves to the growers and winemakers in Sonoma, especially in light of rebuilding efforts?

People Like Me

Consider a series titled “I Am Sonoma” or “We Are Sonoma.” Highlight the individual growers or winemakers of Sonoma brands using their headshots on shelf talkers or in Facebook posts. More information about the people behind the wine increases the likelihood of relatability for the wines. Relatability is a proven trigger for purchase.

What Grows Together Goes Together

Sonoma is also famous for its dairies and artisanal cheese. A series of wine tastings, possibly organized by Sonoma sub AVAs, with Sonoma sourced cheese is an excellent showcase for Sonoma wine. The experiential aspect of the event increases the personal connection to the featured wines. Selecting artisanal cheeses emphasizes the craftsmanship in the produce of the region, and is a great tactic for featuring wines priced over $20 per bottle.

Third-Party Associations

The Sonoma County Vintners Association named October as “Sonoma County Wine Month.” Find templates available for Trade use in-store, on shelf talkers or on menus to highlight wines sourced from the region at This easy-to-use third-party endorsement for Sonoma County wines is an interesting trade-up or trade-over opportunity to introduce your customers to the region. If your store has a wine bar or regular tastings, it’s an easy way to offer a Sonoma flight.


#SonomaStrong In-Store Feature

Because consumers strongly identify with Sonoma, they are also deeply interested in helping the residents of Sonoma County recover from the recent devastating wildfires. In- store, you can feature wines from Sonoma by donating proceeds from their sale to the Sonoma County Resilience Fund. Online, you can feature Sonoma wines alongside a call-to-action for consumers to individually donate to the Sonoma County Resilience Fund. You’ll find compelling information about the destruction the fires created, as well as the commitment of the Sonoma community to rebuild on the Sonoma County Community Foundation. To quote the Foundation: “Our hearts may be broken, but our spirits are not. In the face of this destruction, we know that we will recover, as the resilient community that we are. Be safe, be well, and be strong. Thank you for your generosity and commitment to Sonoma County.”


Though it’s difficult and somewhat rare in the wine world to be a “pull” brand, Sonoma County has established itself in wine consumers’ minds as a brand made by “people like me.” By connecting to your customers on an emotional level, you can increase the value of an average wine sale. Highlighting the quality wines of Sonoma and their relatability is a great place to start.

  1. Wine Origin Attitude & Usage Study, E&J Gallo Winery Custom Research, March 15, 2011.
  2. Consumer Research, The Meaning of Sonoma Origin, E&J Gallo Winery Custom Research, Spring 2015.
  3. Sonoma County Winegrowers/Sonoma County Vintners, Consumer Study, January 9, 2013.
  4. Consumer Research, The Meaning of Sonoma Origin, E&J Gallo Winery Custom Research, Spring 2015.
  5. Sovos Ship Compliant and Wines & Vines, 2017 Direct to Consumer Shipping Report, February 2017.
  6. ©IRI, Total US MULO, Latest 52 weeks and YTD ending 9-3-17, Calendar year 2015 & 2016, Volume Sales Ch. Vs YA, UP+ Table Wine by Region.
  7. California Travel Impacts by County, 1992-2016p, May 2017 prepared by Dean Runyan and Associates for Visit California: A Joint Marketing Venture of Visit California and the Governor’s Office of Business Development.