Girl power: Are 'chick wines' smart or just silly?

Can Little Black Dress, the Wine Sisterhood, Skinnygirl and other brands command the attention of casual woman drinkers?

A woman recently approached Joanne Newborn, field-marketing manager at Excelsior Wines, at a wine event in Arizona to tell her a little story.

The woman said that when her husband asked for a divorce after a long marriage, her friends told her to go out and buy a little black dress. Instead, she bought a bottle of Little Black Dress Wine, the "woman’s brand" in the Excelsior portfolio, and she said she’ll forever associate her newfound freedom with that line of wines.

Women and wine have a long and illustrious relationship. So it seems natural that some brands, like Little Black Dress, the Wine Sisterhood, Girl’s Night Out and Skinnygirl unabashedly woo female audiences, with womanly names, graphics and marketing.

Some critics find chick wines patronizing to wine connoisseurs of both sexes and off-putting to men. But do male wine drinkers and wine snobs even matter?

Women make up more than half of America's core wine drinkers, defined as those who drink wine at least once a week, according to International Wine and Spirit Research. Specifically, 55% of American wine consumers are women, and 45% are men, according to Liz Thach, professor of management and wine business at Sonoma State University in California.

Moscato, a sweet, light wine favored by casual woman drinkers, has been booming in the U.S. for the past few years. Sales of Moscato wines from E&J Gallo, the nation’s largest winery, skyrocketed 109% in 2014, compared to previous year.

Little Black Dress is revving up its marketing to catch that trend. Owned by 132-year-old Viña Concha y Toro, Latin America’s leading wine company, the California winery produced 150,000 cases in 2014 and saw sales grow by a modest 5%. The brand, named after the iconic outfit that women wear in all kinds of settings, is supposed to represent the idea that Little Black Dress Wines "also go with every occasion," said Newborn.

In February it partnered with rising country music star Adley Stump to reach Millennial country music fans. Stump co-wrote and recorded a song named after the wine, which is available on iTunes and via social media contests. She also appears in a video on the Eat Travel Rock site highlighting her favorite branded wine and food pairings.

Little Black Dress Wines also works with a palette of women's organizations, including the National Breast Cancer Foundation and Avon Romance Books.

Not just for women
But does being a girly brand inherently lessen its ability to attract male buyers? Not in the way you’d think, Newborn said. "We know that men purchase our brand to impress or get into the good graces of a woman," she notes.

Experts on marketing to women say gender-based marketing is far from patronizing. "Wine brands that actively court women are smart and forward-thinking," said Andrea Van Dam, CEO of Women’s Marketing. "Walk down the aisles of your local wine shop or supermarket and you’ll see all kinds of fanciful branding, from Gnarly Dudes to Cupcake Vineyards. Weird wine labels have their own Pinterest pages!"

But wine industry expert Jeremy Benson, president of Benson Marketing Group, sees trouble in that approach.

"Wine brands have had a very difficult time appealing to specific demographic groups" such as young women. "It often comes across as heavy handed. The industry has more success segmenting the market based on usage, such as single-serve cans for sporting events." Benson opts for more subtlety in attracting female drinkers. "A wine’s packaging doesn’t need to market itself overtly to women to appeal to women. Many wine bottles and marketing could be described as feminine yet, from a marketers perspective, aren’t limiting," he said.

Gallo is taking that safer route to the women’s market in the U.K. with its Gallo Family Vineyards Moscato. The brand recently began targeting trendy young British women by offering exclusive content from fashion blogger Lily Melrose, backed by a social media marketing campaign and ads in women’s fashion and lifestyle magazines.

"We realize that women are key players in wine purchasing," said Stephanie Gallo, vice president of marketing. "Our communications around Gallo Family Vineyards Moscato resonate with women via channels that are most relevant to them."

But is chick wine branding a little too personal for such a major winery?

"The key for us is to be targeted without being exclusive," Gallo noted.

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