[Interview] Benjamin Sonet, Co-founder of My Balthazar, the digital consultancy specialising in wine
"If you don’t speak about your winery on social media, you run the risk of tarnishing your image"
« My Balthazar gives you the tools for enhancing the effectiveness of your internet communications”. The young company's promise on its website is clear. Founded in 2018 by Bernard Camu and Benjamin Sonet, My Balthazar aims to support wineries as they develop digital technologies. There is no doubt that compared with other branches of the luxury goods industry, wineries have been late adopters of social media.
Gabrielle Vizzavona: What services does My Balthazar provide?
Benjamin Sonet: We provide wineries with two services. The first is customised support for their digital strategies. The second is the use of our platform for benchmarking and monitoring performance on social media using the algorithm we developed. We have around forty clients in France and overseas. More broadly speaking, we are positioning ourselves as a research and conference agency aimed at developing digital technologies within the wine ecosystem.
Why has the wine industry been slower than other sectors to adopt digital technologies?
There is a lack of proficiency regarding the issues at stake – understanding how important digital technologies are and will become – and a shortage of communication professionals within wineries, so the topic has not raised much interest. Also, because French wines are market leaders, some have probably felt they could do without social media to secure their status. Bordeaux is a case in point: the greater a chateau’s reputation and level of sales, the later they adopt digital technology. Other less established regions, such as Languedoc, have been more creative.
When did the wine industry start investing in digital technologies?
A minority of properties took the subject seriously a few years ago – they are the trailblazers. Another wave of adopters came on board in 2018 and 2020. Finally, the need for adoption became even more pressing during the first lockdown. Some wineries started giving it thought when they had no choice.
Why did wineries become more willing to do so at that point?
The winegrowing calendar follows a similar pattern year on year: once the wines are made, producers embark on a series of trips to present their wines. As this was no longer possible, the whole system ground to a halt. Winegrowers realised that the tools offered by digital technology were the only remaining communication levers. Remote relations with friends and family, staff and customers sparked new habits, such as communicating through videoconferences and greater familiarity with social media. Even the most reluctant producers realised that this was unavoidable.
In practice, how did this pan out?
Every year, we rank the digital performances of the top Bordeaux chateaux as well as the leading brands of Champagne. Our latest ranking was downloaded three times more! This is not just about greater interest, people are trying to make sense of digital technologies and see how they can be used as part of a strategy and not just be a gimmick.
Which social media have become more significant?
We conducted research into growth in the number of followers. Instagram and YouTube are the most promising platforms. Although wineries amass more followers on Facebook, because the media is older, the global trend favours Instagram.
What kind of strategy is successful on Instagram?
It depends on the objectives and the issues at stake. You need interesting content that sets you apart and is geared to your target audience. It also needs to use the platform’s mechanics to generate engagement, such as sponsoring your messages intelligently so that they get read. Digital tastings and live sessions are not an end in themselves, but rather part of a long-term toolkit promoting a holistic strategy. Social networking will continue to gain traction, but wineries will think about strategies that make sense, rather than just taking random actions to secure a presence.
Can social media be reconciled with the communications strategies of the most prestigious properties, which are primarily based on keeping a low profile?
Iconic wine brands should look to other sectors for inspiration, jewellery for example, which uses social media but in a very carefully considered way. Social media now function as search engines where consumers are looking for answers. If you don’t provide them yourself, you run the risk of tarnishing your brand image. The aim is not to get an instant sale, you have to be able to tell your story to a younger audience who will become tomorrow’s consumers. This involves image-building, which is essential for igniting interest in your brand rather than another. This is what Hennessy did with its advert directed by Ridley Scott. People don't suddenly wake up and discover they’re Cognac consumers – you have to create an aspirational image over several years to attract customers to your brand.