How E. & J. Gallo Winery's Barefoot Wine is navigating huge spike in at-home drinking

E. & J. Gallo Winery VP Marketing Anna Bell
E. & J. Gallo Winery VP Marketing Anna Bell

Our alcohol consumption has changed. Here's what Barefoot is learning about consumer behavior and its own marketing strategy.

Quarantinis. Social-distancing daiquiris. Separation Sauvignon. And maybe even exile eggnog if we’re in this for the long haul.

However you’re doing it -- you’re doing it. A lot.

"Alcohol consumption is up ‘off-premise,’" confirmed Anna Bell, vice president marketing at E. & J. Gallo Winery, which looks after brands including Barefoot Wine, André Champaign and La Marca Prosecco. "And it’s not at any given price point -- sparkling, table wine, premium wine -- everything is growing."

There’s been a huge and sustained spike in the amount we’re drinking at home as restaurants and bars continue to take a battering amid COVID-19. 

Bell said that people pantry-loaded alcohol just like food before the world went into official isolation, but the uptick has persisted as we move the happy hours away from our favorite local to cyberspace. 

It’s been an eye-opening few weeks for the marketing chief, who’s challenged her team and agency partners to pivot and lean into this new cultural norm. 

"Barefoot has always been a mission-driven, purpose-driven brand, so our strategy hasn’t changed -- which is really to bring people together to create those memorable moments and celebrate cheer, but also by supporting local communities," said Bell, speaking about of E&J Gallo Winery’s crown jewel and America’s most awarded wine and bubbly brand. "There’s just been a little bit of a pivot to what’s current right now to those behaviors like virtual happy hours."

It’s meant a big change for Head Winemaker Jennifer Wall.  

"All of a sudden, we’ve had this opportunity to bring Jen to people, so she’s been hosting virtual happy hours," continued Bell. "I feel like she’s doing them daily. It’s great because in the previous world we thought this would be physically impossible -- you’d have to fly to a restaurant or grocery -- but now it’s Indiana today and New York tomorrow.

"That’s been a really meaningful pivot for us because, at Barefoot, we have great wine at a really approachable price point, and we really believe that by sharing and explaining wine people get more excited to try it."

The one-two punch of live events from a marketer’s lens is that real time data it harnesses. Barefoot is learning a lot about consumer behavior from the interaction -- too much to sacrifice ad spend at this time. She said "our plan is to stay the course," adding: "We do believe that we should be talking to consumers right now and hear from them. So our plan has not changed in terms of levels [of ad spend]."

Part of amping up cultural relevance means challenging the brand’s agency partners to be more creative than ever.  

Bell said: "As an organization, we embrace agile. We embrace the idea of being quick and entrepreneurial. And with our agencies that’s something we’ve been working with them on -- in this environment it’s an opportunity to demonstrate how agile they really are. We’ve asked them to evaluate every piece of creative to make sure it’s appropriate and if it isn’t, we’ve gone back and said we’re either going to pause it or how do we create something different. 

"Barefoot has a tremendous amount of loyal fans and they’re wonderful, so we want to be able to speak to them in this time and keep giving them that uplifting, positive ‘cheers’ moment, and we’re asking our agencies to really think about new and unique ways to do that. It’s been great for all of us to uncover creativity and entrepreneurialism not just throughout our own organization but our partners as well."

It’s true: Barefoot has an official cult following (in the best sense of the word). The success of fan growth is due, in part, to a carefully curated media strategy.

"We’ve always been a brand which has used the earned-first approach," explained Bell. "We want to talk about things people actually want to be talking about. So our media strategy hasn’t changed too much, we still very much believe that our loyal fans are our fans because we embrace them and really want to hear what they have to say, so our strategy follows that path."

At the end of March, Barefoot teamed up with Jimmy Kimmel Live for a special tasting episode and pledged $300,000 to Children of Restaurant Employees' (CORE). It nailed heavy media married with its mission and purpose-driven agenda. 

Now, as summer beckons, a big focus for E. & J. Gallo Winery lands on its entrance to the alcoholic seltzer world. At the start of this year, Barefoot unveiled what they believe to be the first nationally distributed hard seltzer made with real wine. It began selling in February, and only time will tell if another summer belongs White Claw and Spiked Seltzer or a new queen is crowned. 

Maybe some of the new ways of working discovered in this pandemic world can help fuel the hype needed to make us choose Barefoot Hard Seltzer.   

Bell added: "There’s been so many interesting nuggets where we’ve been like, ‘holy cow, why weren’t we doing this before?’ This whole approach to using video chat and connecting face-to-face with people across the country -- it’s not like this technology didn’t exist -- we just didn’t use it all the time. 

"What’s really shifted our thinking is the ability to have that flexibility. That piece is really different to when you’ve got a phone to your ear; the creativity is different, the engagement is different, so we’re absolutely going to be leaning into that. 

"Quite honestly, the agility and entrepeneurialship of the organization has really flourished right now -- people feel energized to act towards our mission and listen to consumers."

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