19 Crimes, the popular brand from Treasury Wine Estates, does everything wrong. It breaks all the “conventional wisdom” rules. It is everything that shouldn’t sell in the U.S. market. And yet it flies off the shelves. What’s going on?
19 Crimes is an Australian wine brand, which is the first problem. Sales of Aussie wines have been in decline here in the U.S. for years. The Australian section of my local upscale supermarket’s wine wall has shrunk to a shadow of its former self.
Sad and Doubly Cursed
Although 19 Crimes has evolved into a lineup of 7 different wines, including Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, the core grape variety is Shiraz, and that’s the second problem. American consumers drink plenty of Syrah and Shiraz in red blends, but they don’t seem to want to buy it as a varietal wine. Sales of Shiraz have been sinking right along with Australian wine in general — a double curse!
And then there is the branding. 19 Crimes — outlaw wine! The name comes Australian history (history wine — oh no!). Great Britain once expelled its most hardened criminals to Australia. Any of 19 crimes could get you sentenced to transportation to Australia — banished to the end of the earth. Who wants to buy a criminal wine?
And, each label, of the core brand features a photo of a sad man — the mug shot of a convicted criminal. Who wants to buy a sad man wine? Who wants to associate themselves with a loser? How in the world can a wine like this get on the shelf, much less sell more than a million cases?
Wine by Design
Well, the answer is that 19 Crimes seems to have been rather precisely engineered to appeal to an important demographic — millennial men, especially those who see themselves as a bit of a rogue. Outlaws, if you know what I mean, who identify with others who defy convention. Outlaw wine for self-styled renegades? Now you are beginning to see the 19 Crimes logic.
I bought a bottle of the red blend and, after I stared at the sad man for a while, I tasted it. Sweet and tannic, that was my reaction, and better chilled sangria-style than straight up. Not to my taste, but I am not the target audience.
Some of the most popular brands on the market today totally succeed with tannic sweet red blends pitched at a particular market segment. A friend who seems to have some inside information told me that the 19 Crimes flavor profile is no accident but rather the result of lots of careful research and consumer testing. No surprise there!
Every bit of the package is carefully linked to the brand identity and I’d encourage you to take a close look the next time you buy wine. But you will have to purchase and open the bottle to see my favorite part of the branding system — the cork!
The cork? Well, that breaks another stereotype, of course, since we sometimes think of Australia and New Zealand wines being topped by screwcaps. But there are many reasons why cork is so popular today and 19 Crimes cleverly adds a new advantage to the list: collectibility!
You see each cork is printed with one of the 19 crimes — my cork is #11: stealing roots, trees or plants or destroying them. That seems like a pretty petty crime to get my sad guy shipped to Australia, but it might be just the thing to start someone more into it to buy bottles and pull corks relentlessly until all 19 crime corks are captured.
19 Crimes is a story wine designed to appeal to a particular consumer category and Treasury has taken the next logical step by creating a virtual reality app that animates the sad men (and the sad woman on the Chardonnay label), so that they can tell their own sad stories.
Bringing the inanimate to life is a feat with a long artistic tradition — think Pygmalion, Pinocchio, or — especially relevant in this context — the scene in Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera “Ruddygore” where painted figures step out of their frames to deliver a stern warning.
The 19 Crimes figures tell their stories, humanizing their identities, and then step back onto the label. Art may be served by this, but marketing in the form of consumer engagement is the clear intent. If you want to hear all the stories, I suppose, you need to collect all seven wines in the lineup. It must work — I’ve heard that Treasury has expanded its virtual reality program.
19 Crimes provides many lessons for anyone trying to understand today’s wine market, but perhaps the most important is that it is dangerous to generalize about generations when it comes to specific products such as wine. Many have written that millennials seek authenticity in products and experiences — and this is an important trend. But one size doesn’t necessarily fit all and some millennials (and probably consumers in other generational categories, too) obviously see themselves in a different light.
Identity trumps authenticity. Outlaw! You don’t need no stinking badges. And now there is a wine for you.
Congratulations to Treasury and 19 Crimes for their remarkable success. What’s next? Arrr, Matey. I’m thinkin’ Pirate wine is a pretty good bet!
Here is that scene from Ruddygore. Enjoy!