Somms: You are a Brand

How sommeliers can use social media to build their influence online

Working at a place like NIKE isn’t much different than going to school and getting a degree in branding. During eight years working there, I had the opportunity to look under the hood and learn how how a brand works from the inside out.

After leaving NIKE in 2003, I moved to Colorado and got a job with Charmer-Sunbelt despite having zero sales experience. The branding knowledge from NIKE translated nicely to the wine business—both shoes and wine bottles are lifestyle products, both were in a similar price point, and both provide enjoyment. By applying basic brand management philosophy (and by being naive enough to not know any better) I did pretty well as a sales rep.

When the rise of social media started to happen around 2007 something about it made sense as a branding platform. Personal brands like Martha Stewart, Oprah and even Robert Parker grew large audiences to influence entire industries based the simple idea of building influence as a personal brand. In a way, social media democratized that idea and made it possible for anyone to build their own brand with unlimited potential. It all comes down to reach and impressions.

More to the point, this is the exact formula needed to build influence as a personal brand: 

 influence = reach( trust + expertise + brand)

Reach (eyeballs) is a multiplier—that doesn’t mean your own following, Reach comes in various forms which is why people do things like contribute to blogs like Huffington Post or Mashable where there’s larger reach. I’ve applied this formula to my own life starting in early 2008 and can say it is an accurate approach. Time is a variable that can be substituted for Reach as it is also a multiplier.

Sommeliers earn trust through their interactions ..... Every brand needs a human element. Wine magazines have humanized with critics, which are their face and voice. NIKE humanized the brand with sponsored athletes. Restaurants have sommeliers and chefs. And wineries have winemakers or some other face to humanize who they are. We trust those professionals to provide sound guidance for us.

The role of the sommelier is changing. It’s no coincidence Wine Enthusiast’s Sommelier of the Year for 2012 is Mike Madrigale, is one of the first sommeliers who was early on using social media to connect with patrons. Mike is doing what you’re doing—he’s building trust. But what he’s doing that you probably aren’t (yet) is building his reach and impressions through social media sites.

Imagine how much impact the collective influence of all sommeliers would have on the world of wine if each somm started building their own brand right now. We’re only at the beginning of this new digital world. Now is the time to start thinking of yourself as a brand. The rise of the sommelier ‘brand’ is just beginning.

What Social Media Isn’t

It was only a matter of time before restaurant employers started putting a premium on sommeliers who are active on social media sites. According to some fellow sommeliers, restaurants in New York are looking for sommelier’s with large followings who can (or are required to) bring in a certain number of covers or whales every night, which is unrealistic.

If there’s one thing to take away from this article it’s one single point: Social Media is not meant to be a broadcast medium. The number of followers someone has is not indicative of their reach or influence. What’s more important is the number of quality interactions they have online, also known as True Reach.

If one winery has 600 acres of Pinot Noir planted, and another winery only has 18 acres planted it doesn’t mean the larger one is better, right? One of those wineries might be located outside Fresno and the other is in Burgundy. A sommelier with 225 followers on Twitter might actually be more influential and a better hire than a sommelier with 2,200 followers. A sommelier’s online brand isn’t just about Twitter or Facebook, it’s a holistic approach to all technology.

In 2013 the term, ‘social media’ won’t be referred to as something different from the internet or apps. Social media, app culture, mobile and the web are all converging into one thing—digital. To truly build a personal brand we need to be open to all things digital, not just one or two sites. Collectively a personal brand will have True Reach online and offline—the success or failure of that personal brand will depend on how well the formula above is followed.

And social media is not just a young person’s environment. Any person at any age has an equal chance of building their brand online. Some of the most successful social media personalities are all over the age of 40.

Return on Attention

We live in a world where we are overloaded with technology. According to ex-Google CEO, Eric Schmidt we create more content online every 48 hours than we did from the dawn of humans to 2003. Mind boggling statistics like that one really demonstrate how much technology has infiltrated our lives.

Because the audience we want to reach is probably feeling overwhelmed with all the emails, text messages, Facebook posts, direct messages, blog posts, instant messages, Instagram comments, tweets, friend requests, app updates, spam requests, analytics reports and all the other noise it’s becoming harder to cut through all that noise and get their attention.

In a way, Attention has become the new currency. Building a successful personal brand and influence is dependent on how well we can get someone’s attention. 

5 Tips for Building a Personal Brand Online

  1. @reply, @reply, @reply - Twitter has a subtle yet powerful little feature to point out. When someone sends a tweets that begins with someone else’s handle (ie.. @name) that tweet is invisible to everyone else except that person, but only when the tweet starts with the handle/name.

    For example, take a look at Master Sommelier Craig Collins’ tweets. His first tweet to @BillElsey was seen only by Craig and by Bill. None of Craig’s followers saw that tweet in their stream. Twitter made it invisible because none of Craig’s followers need to see what they are saying to one another. The one additional note here is any mutual followers of Craig and Bill will also see the tweet. His next tweet to @molliechen was seen only by him and her. Also, Craig used a hash tag to make that subject searchable.

    (side note: A hashtag “#” is a way to highlight or tag an idea, an “@” symbol is a way to highlight or tag a person)

    Why would Twitter intentionally make tweets invisible to everyone except the person listed in the tweet? Because that’s the entire point of Twitter. They want people to tweet directly to one another and they were smart enough to make it so you aren’t junking up your stream with a bunch of one to one conversations that your followers don’t need to see.

    On the other hand any other character in from of @name will make the tweet visible to followers. If that tweet started with .@BillElsey all of Craig’s followers would’ve seen it. It’s only when the tweet starts with a handle.

    Master Collins is a good person to watch on Twitter as his Twitter stream looks the way every sommelier’s stream should look which is to say it’s full of @ replies. There are few actions that will capture Attention and build True Reach more than @ replying to people and having one to one dialog. The next step is to take that one to one mentality and apply it to all social media sites.

  2. Be consistent with your brand Think of your avatar as a logo like swoosh or UPS shield. Use the same avatar everywhere, and make it a close up legible photo because it’ll be viewed at a small size on mobile phones. Use the same color schemes and background images. People are going to see your brand in various digital formats, so present a consistent brand image.

    There’s a saying in the social media world, “real time isn’t fast enough.” The way I interpret that is you need to be visible and active often. Lapses of not being on are exaggerated online. A brand gains equity through repetition—you want your brand image to be fresh in people’s minds. In the design world they call it a ‘graphic language’ which is all the colors, shapes, fonts and logos that communicate a brand.

  3. Each social site is like a vineyard - If you sign onto Twitter today for the first time, think of it as planting a vineyard. You won’t see any “fruit” for a while. You have to keep nurturing your vines (ie.. followers) organically by @ replying. Eventually, over time your social sites will produce “fruit” which is influence. Other social sites would be new vineyards—don’t start one unless you can keep up on it.

  4. Google+ - Google+ is NOT a social network, it’s a social layer over search. And since Google practically is the internet, Google is making it impossible to ignore Google+ as they integrate it into all things Google from YouTube and Maps to ZAGAT and Gmail.

    One of the biggest criticisms of Google+ is how it stacks up against Facebook. If Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and Google+ all started on the same day, Google+ would win by a landslide, but those other sites had a 5-year head start to build user base and features. Facebook is making is making it increasingly more difficult to get people’s attention online with the tweaks to their Edge Rank algorithm. Some studies suggest only 12 percent of one’s Facebook Friends or Fans can see updates. On the other hand, 100 percent of your Google+ followers/friends can see Google+ updates.

    I’d suggest somms search their own restaurant on Google today to see how ZAGAT reviews and user profiles from G+ are linked to their location. Then, I’d suggest being part of those interactions.

  5. Engage the Right Audience - It seems sommeliers have a game online of trying to one up each other by posting or selling the geekiest wine. We take pride in discovering the next esoteric gem that’ll impress fellow somms with good reason because small producers who make good wine deserve to be highlighted. On the other hand, this behavior is the very thing that perpetuates the perceptions of somms being snooty. We aren’t really engaging the average wine drinker when we just geek out amongst each other. 

A better way to roll out the red carpet and engage a wider audience of wine lovers is to think of the online audience as a ‘knowledge pyramid where three separate levels of wine appreciation are broken out:

The top of the pyramid is the smallest online audience where the most knowledgable people are. Master Sommeliers, Masters of Wine and other highly knowledgable folks make up a small audience. Not the biggest area of growth for a personal brand. 

The middle level of the pyramid consists of many wine industry people and wine enthusiasts who have some working knowledge of adult beverages. It’s a larger audience online in which to engage and grow a personal brand.

The bottom of the pyramid is the largest opportunity for personal brand growth. The largest audience online is also the one that knows the least about wine. These are folks who may only know a few descriptors about wine like, “Chardonnay is buttery,” or, “Merlot is smooth”. The layperson doesn’t speak our language (yet) and maybe they don’t want to. But to engage with them and grow our brand(s) we need to meet them on their turf and speak their language online.

I’ve found asking lots of questions online to be very engaging. Sometimes I’ll put out a tweet that’s as simple as, “Cabernet or Merlot?” It’s not about what I think, it’s about what they think. The responses are all over the place ranging from someone who likes Chocolate wine (not my preference) to someone who’s drinking an older Chinon or a wine that has both. The point is it engages the bottom of the pyramid so they have a voice in the conversation.

If sommeliers collectively engaged the audience in the bottom of the pyramid it might just be the biggest thing we could do to raise the level of influence and reach as a community.

We're Early

In the past fifteen years we’ve all had a front row seat to the largest shift in human communication in the history of mankind. We’ve quickly transitioned from an analog world to a digital world, and it’s only the beginning. According the IBM, 90% of the world’s data was created in the past two years. We’re still so early on in the game, so the time is right for wine professionals and sommeliers to not only think of their own personal brand online, but the Sommelier brand in general.

We are the ones who will set the stage for future generations of wine professionals. I suspect future sommelier job descriptions will include some sort of verbiage that makes digital communication part of the role.

We are curating a digital time capsule of our society online with every tweet, blog, check in or photo we post. In the future, historians won’t have to go dig up bones to study human beings, they’ll be able to just go online and search. They’ll be able to know who did what, where and with whom. We might not be able to see or hear what Benedictine Monk, Dom Perignon was thinking back when he was trying to figure out why bottles were exploding in his cellar but if he were alive today, he could create a YouTube video of his work. How cool would that be if we could just go look it up? He can’t do that, but you can. The more each somm builds their own brand, the more they’ll leave a footprint on history.

It’s not too late to get started. The biggest advice I can give is to be consistent. Use the same avatar, the same URL, the same colors or background image and use the same online “voice”. A brand is an outward sign of an inward belief. Breath life into your brand every day and keep nurturing your “vines” organically with lots of replies and questions.