Lessons From The Little Oregon Winery That Could, And Other True Stories Of Differentiation

What can the proprietors of a tiny Oregon winery teach accounting firm leaders? More than you might think.

Consider the challenge faced by the family-run Bells Up Winery. With a nonexistent marketing budget, Dave and Sara Specter needed to position their winery as different among more than 500 competitors, while selling a product that is readily available. In a market environment similar to accounting, where hundreds of same-sounding firms sell same-sounding tax and audit products, the Specters needed to get creative.

The key to surviving, and thriving, is exceptional customer experience, they told a crowd of marketers at the annual Association for Accounting Marketing (AAM) Summit in Portland, Ore., May 16. AAM invited numerous accounting experts along with Portland marketing professionals to offer lessons learned on innovation and differentiation during the three-day conference.

The fully self-funded Bells Up Winery faced an uphill battle from the beginning. With no money, no employees and no time, the husband-and-wife team watched competitors flood the cool, grape-friendly Willamette Valley to make Pinot Noir, the wine that made the valley famous. While Oregon produces only 1% of the country’s wine, it captures 20% of Wine Spectator’s domestic 90+ ratings, according to the Oregon Wine Board.

The wine board also tracks how fast the market is growing. It says 1.8 million cases of Oregon wine were sold out of state in 2016, the vast majority of it Pinot Noir, compared with 888,000 cases 10 years earlier. Bells Up needed to compete against giants like Willamette Valley Vineyards that produces 132,000 cases a year. Small, artisan producers are those who make 5,000 cases per year. Bells Up Winery produces 400.

Too small to be called a boutique winery, the Specters decided to play up their personality and tiny size. They spent only $500 on Facebook ads in marketing, and asked college students to make them a promotional video, for free.

While Oregon wineries offer huge, fancy tasting rooms to bring in business, Bells Up calls itself a “micro-boutique” winery offering small-group tastings with Dave Specter, a former Big 4 tax accountant turned winemaker. These “meet the winemaker” excursions have proven to be the differentiator that fulfilled their strategy: “to turn every guest into an ambassador for our wines, our wine-tasting experience and our brand.” Social media shares of #bellsupmoment and online reviews contributed to the winery breaking even and paying for itself in less than 18 months, which is very rare in the industry.

Their experience in innovation – offering truly different, personalized customer experiences in their specialty niche – was echoed many times throughout the conference, where attendees were urged to let their personalities shine though, tell their own stories, and reject the fear that can accompany business disruption and the mandate to innovate.

Here are some examples:

Be a Green Apple in a Bushel of Red OnesJohn Garrett, a comedian and “recovering CPA,” mocked the often-used label of “trusted advisor,” saying that CPAs are in a “trust rut.” He says, “The more you talk, the more people are turned off by ‘me, me, me.’ ” People remember your hobbies more than your technical skills, he says. Promote yourself as a CPA and an actor in community theater, and show a genuine interest in your clients.

Get Personal – Tracey Segarra, a former New York reporter who is now an award-winning storyteller and marketing director for Margolin Winer & Evens, says sharing vulnerabilities can forge meaningful connections, and science backs this up. Studies have shown that hearing stories releases oxytocin, a hormone that feeds empathy and trust. “Be the storyteller that’s inside you.”

Involve Your Fans – Corey Dolich, senior vice president of business operations and marketing at the Portland Timbers, the city’s professional soccer club, says the Timbers aim to make an emotional connection with their fans that transcends individual players and even the performance of the team. Marketing, instead, is focused on Portland pride and fellow fans, reflected in a hugely successful, massive billboard campaign that featured city fans posing with axes, the symbol of the Timbers.

Take a Risk With Weird – Ajay Date, vice president of marketing at Travel Portland, says the city found its differentiator with “Dude,” created to promote Portland to Japanese tourists. “Dude” is a big blue furry mascot that appears at events in Tokyo. “It’s weird, but weird plays pretty well in Japan.” After three years, it’s working, Date says. Tourists from Japan have increased 16% while U.S. destinations overall are seeing a 9% decrease. Go boldly but not blindly. Take a leap anyway. You can’t let the data always dictate everything.”