Virgin Wines’ Lawson Turns To Digital To Uncork Customers’ Stories

Virgin Wines is one of the leaders in the U.K.’s highly competitive online drinks retail sector. It has grown rapidly since the buyout by its management in 2013, and was recently named Online Drinks Retailer of the Year 2017 at the U.K’s Drinks Retailing Awards. Now it plans to double in size, and is looking to digital and social marketing as the driving force.

The man with the responsibility for making this happen is CMO Chris Lawson, who joined last November having worked in marketing at Inspired Gaming Group, Which?, Guardian News & Media, and Absolute Radio. As one of three executive board directors, his role brings together marketing and e-commerce, what he describes as “the powerhouses driving future growth.”

Chris Lawson: We’ve got a fantastically rated product and service, so the challenge for me is how we get more customers trying our products. Brand loyalty is very high. The wine is awesome, and the service is always striving to do better. Then you think: “Okay, if that’s the situation, where does the business require focus?”

A lot of it is about embracing new channels to market, a more digitally focused way of marketing, and also using smart marketing to ensure we’re targeting the right type of customer. Not everyone wants to buy wine direct—our job is to find the audience that does. And we need to make sure the adventurous Virgin spirit comes through in our marketing as well.

CMO.com: How is the marketing department structured?
Sometimes we, as marketers, lose sight of the fact that the customer is not thinking which channel they should use today, so every single person in my team is involved in digital—it’s part of the fabric of what we do. Then, as well as the marketing and e-commerce team, we have 35 passionate wine advisors and a customer team who live and breathe the brand and communicate with the customers in the way they want to interact.

It’s important the marketing team is focused on providing the right experience for the right channel. I do have some specialists in social, content, and email marketing, and I’m looking to build things up around content, journey optimisation, and social marketing, but the important part is that the marketing team is channel-agnostic and is looking at what are the most appropriate channels for our customers. And, therefore, I need them proficient in all types of channel marketing.

CMO.com: There seems to be a trend in bringing together sales and marketing, particularly in e-commerce businesses.
Our number-one goal is driving sales through e-commerce by ensuring the customer has the best experience they possibly can. Some customers know what they love, and it’s about getting the wine into their hands as quickly as possible. But there’s another group who like to browse the wine selection and understand more about it and the stories behind it, and it’s important we’re able to do both. So the e-commerce team has moved from being straight direct sales into thinking about how content is integrated into what we do.

CMO.com: What are your plans moving forward?
Everyone has a story about a wine—it creates conversation, and we want to bring that to life. What we need to do, in marketing, is to tell stories, and there are some great stories to be told about our wine. So that’s our focus over the next two to three years.

CMO.com: What will that look like?
You’ll see it in a couple of different ways. The first is that we want to make sure that this isn’t about us broadcasting, but about us engaging with our audience. Every one of our customers will have a good story about wine so we’re looking to bring that to life and facilitate our customers sharing their stories and memories.

The second is very much about getting behind the story of wine—the wine makers, where the wine comes from, different wine varieties. We’re investing a lot of time building up content which is engaging, entertaining, and also educational. And we’ll be looking at displaying that via video as well as words and pictures.

CMO.com: What does personalisation look like to Virgin Wines?
The important things about personalisation are relevance and timing. They go hand in hand with customisation. I want to continually understand where our customers are by creating a dialogue with them where we can provide them with products they want or products that are going to surprise them, and help further their wine knowledge.

Sometimes it’s as good to give someone a new experience and to surprise and delight them as it is to serve up something based on what they’ve done previously. And that’s the key for me. It’s about not being prescriptive but allowing that exploration, because our customers are Virgin customers, they see themselves as adventurous, as free spirits and explorers.

CMO.com: How do you strike that balance?
We have a strong analytical team, but the most important thing is that customers are asked to rate the wines they drink. And we incentivise that. If you rate a bottle in your order, then you receive a free bottle in your next order. We look at those customer ratings on a weekly basis, and that formulates the choice of wines we keep in the range—which we swap out and which we look to bring in. That dialogue with the customer has to be at the heart of what we do.

We also run a roadshow of over 25 wine-tasting events a year—we’re aiming to reach 13,000 customers over the next year. For an event in London, for example, we put 70 of our staff from Norwich on a coach to run the event. It’s not agency staff. We have everyone from warehouse staff to the CEO working these events. They want to do it, they believe in it, they love being able to talk directly to the customers. And that’s the most perfect focus group for us—the feedback from the events is absolutely fantastic, and it helps shape what we do.

CMO.com: How do these approaches scale? Because, obviously, as the business grows, the investment grows with it.
It can scale up to a point. Then content marketing also answers a lot of that, so we’re improving our social presence and our interactions. And then automation tools are an important part as well. We’re looking at trends in what customers are doing, both to help improve the selection we provide them with and to discover where we could do a better job. So it’s that balance of automation and the personal touch.

Then marketing at its best is a conversation, and the best people to have that conversation are our customers. They’re a passionate group, they’re happy with the product, they’re happy with the service. If anyone can persuade others to join our community, it’s them. So we need to embrace that and help our audience to evangelise and get the name of Virgin Wines out there to like-minded people.

The core infrastructure we need is in place already. We have a database of customers with good-quality data, both behavioural and transactional. We have a email engine which is integrated with that data, and we also have an optimisation layer on top of our website, which allows us to test and learn as we go along. And we are in the throes of launching a brand-new e-commerce structure as well, which will give us greater flexibility on the website. So we have the tools in place—it’s a case of using them and finding the right balance of automation and creativity, and not losing that interaction with our customers.

CMO.com: How does your relationship with the Virgin master-brand work?
We have a fantastic partnership network with some amazing Virgin brands. We know that a customer who buys across a number of Virgin brands is more engaged and more connected, so we work closely with other Virgin brands on how we can support them in their goals and how they can support us, but there is absolutely more that we can do.

CMO.com: We hear a lot about the importance of internal branding and engaged staff in terms of business preparedness for the future. How do you maintain the strength of your internal brand?
A lot of it comes from the personality you’ve evolved. For example, none of our customer services teams or our wine advisors work from a script. This isn’t a formulaic business—we want the personalities to shine through. And, therefore, that’s a very clear point at the interview stage, where you’re looking for people who can operate like that.

Then it’s about living and breathing the brand. We put everyone in the company through the Wine & Spirit Education Trust intermediate-level course. Whether you’re in the tech department, or a digital leader, or a wine advisor, that understanding, that passion for and knowledge of wine has to be there. We recognise that people are going to use that more or less in their jobs. But ensuring that everyone has that base of a great wine knowledge, of passion, and understanding as well as a personality that is going to shine and doesn’t work from a script are two ingredients that help you on that journey.

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