Vincor’s Steve Bolliger thrives on launches

It's an old category, but Steve Bolliger sees plenty of room for innovation in wine. From launching Rotting Grape and Mike's Hard Lemonade for Vancouver-based Mark Anthony Cellars to unleashing Naked Grape and Vex for Mississauga, Ont.-based vino giant Vincor Canada, he's always careful not to coast.

It’s an old category, but Steve Bolliger sees plenty of room for innovation in wine. From launching Rotting Grape and Mike’s Hard Lemonade for Vancouver-based Mark Anthony Cellars to unleashing Naked Grape and Vex for Mississauga, Ont.-based vino giant Vincor Canada, he’s always careful not to coast.

‘I find sometimes when you’re number one, you tend to look backwards instead of forward,’ says Bolliger, Vincor’s SVP marketing. ‘Staying current is so important.’ Aside from the aforementioned launches, Bolliger has also boosted Vincor’s currency with the introduction of Hydra, a vodka water to beef up the company’s cooler roster; Sola Nero sparkling wines; and See Ya Later Ranch, a boutique wine for the Western Canadian market.

‘He’s launched and developed many great brands…he’s brought a ton of things to Vincor,’ comments Jay Wright, president of Vincor Canada, on Bolliger’s eight years with the company. ‘He really checks things out with the consumer, and has a great gut instinct about what will work.’

The Naked Grape launch in fall 2005, which Wright deems ‘a big success,’ is a prime example. At trade shows and focus groups, Bolliger kept encountering consumers who asked for oak-free wines. While at first he found such requests unusual, he began getting enough inquiries to justify the launch of an oak-free wine, prompting the birth of Naked Grape. ‘Wine’s pretty tough to differentiate…now we have a product point of difference,’ says Bolliger. Bos Toronto handled the launch campaign, and came up with the tag ‘it takes confidence to go unoaked.’ Cheeky ads feature grapes making bold statements like ‘I’m new in town, but I’m sure I’ll make friends fast.’

Bob Blumer, better known as The Surreal Gourmet, serves as a spokesperson for Naked Grape, doing everything from cooking demos at wine trade shows (for meals complemented by Naked Grape, of course) to consumer contests, to sponsored vignettes on the Food Network. So far, the launch has exceeded internal expectations by about 75%.

When Bolliger joined Vincor in 1998 to lead its marketing, his first order of business was to flatten the department and have everyone report to him. He also instilled his five core pillars of marketing – ‘focus on innovation; increased media support; consumer understanding; superior quality and execution, execution, execution’ – into the company’s organizational structure, from mandates through to bonus evaluations. ‘We’ve now added a sixth,’ he says. ‘Listen to your customer.’

In the mid-’90s, listening to disenfranchised Gen X consumers paid off nicely for Bolliger during his time at Mark Anthony Cellars. He launched Rotting Grape wine in 1995, and positioned it as an inexpensive, unpretentious option. The bold, copy-driven packaging, which won the Financial Post design effectiveness award in 1996, told the story of some guy making wine in his basement. ‘We had a [fake] story to tell, and didn’t have a huge label. We needed somewhere to put the story,’ recalls Bolliger. ‘It was amazing how many people read it.’

Bolliger took this design concept and applied it to the 1996 launch of Mike’s Hard Lemonade (a 6.9% cooler for guys) with packaging that told the story of a marketing guy named Mike. ‘Nobody really thought there was a Mike, but it was a nice story,’ says Bolliger, adding that much of the remarkable success of Mike’s was due to luck. ‘There was a magic that happened behind that launch – that kind of phenomenon doesn’t happen every day.’ Part of the magic he’s talking about is the unexpectedly passionate response consumers and bar owners alike had to the beverage. Bolliger recalls incidents like bar owners gluing Mike’s boxes together to create ‘chandeliers,’ and one bar in Cobourg buying up all of the Mike’s in the city to have an exclusive ‘Mike’s night.’ While the ‘magic’ aspect was out of Bolliger’s hands, he credits the risk-taking, entrepreneurial environment Mark Anthony had created for the success of both Rotting Grape and Mike’s. ‘I was able to take risks, able to innovate,’ he says.

Bolliger took a personal risk following his four-year run at Mark Anthony: He left the client side to join longtime agency collaborator Don Chisholm as a partner at Chisholm’s Vancouver-based design firm M5 Design (now called Dossier). ‘We had an amazing year, but realized it was the wrong thing for both of us,’ says Bolliger, adding that, while he enjoys design, he ultimately prefers being on the client side. During his brief one-year tenure at M5, Bolliger worked on the Dairyworld account and was instrumental in the launch of Milk2Go. He and Chisholm still collaborate today on Vincor work.

Bolliger points to his three-year stint as marketing manager at Vancouver-based Nabob Coffee Company in the early ’90s (pre-Kraft buyout) as sparking his appreciation for innovation. ‘I realized just how much I love creating things from scratch – finding a hole in the market and filling it,’ he says, referring to his experience launching premium coffee blends like Nabob Safari, South Pacific and espresso. ‘We embraced the coffee culture we saw coming out of Starbucks. We wanted to bring some of that mystique to the grocery store.’ He worked with agency Harrod & Mirlin on developing packaging and campaigns featuring rich imagery of animals and tropical scenes for the exotic new blends. ‘What I’m most proud of, career-wise, is having been a part of creating products that are still in existence today,’ says Bolliger.

And now Vincor is certainly enjoying the fruits of Bolliger’s passion for innovation. This past summer, Bolliger’s Vex, which he launched to challenge his own Mike’s Hard Lemonade, just passed Mike’s to become the number three cooler in Canada (number two in Ontario), now trailing only Smirnoff Ice and Bacardi Breezer. ‘Vincor at the time [Bolliger joined the company] had a hard lemonade called ‘Joe’s Hard Lemonade.’ That frightened me,’ recalls Bolliger, adding that he noticed that the cooler category was missing a value brand, so he and his team decided to launch a six-pack to differentiate from the standard cooler four-packs.

This past summer, Bolliger and company added another cooler to Vincor’s refreshment portfolio, Hydra vodka water. ‘We wanted to see whether we could launch a premium product. [And] everyone knows water is a trend,’ he says, adding that it looks like it just might survive its first summer, the key test for new alcoholic beverages. A racy print campaign by Toronto-based GJP, including executions with a naughty nurse and a kickin’ ninja, supported the launch.

This fall, Vincor is releasing two of its most popular wines, Kumala and Sawmill Creek, in Tetra Paks. While Bolliger is a bit sheepish about being so late to enter the Tetra market (which comprises 2% of the wine market in Canada right now), he says it’s better late than never. He’s also test marketing a new wine set to hit the market in 2007, but he’s keeping details about that carefully guarded.

Despite his impressive launches, Wright points to Bolliger’s work on Vincor’s key Jackson Triggs brand as perhaps his greatest accomplishment to date for the company. ‘Jackson Triggs, which was launched only 10 years ago, is now Canada’s number one wine – the brand has had a very consistent approach and marketing strategy,’ says Wright, adding that it’s Bolliger’s positioning as ‘whatever it takes to make great wine’ as helping the brand attain its top status.

Bolliger is currently busy figuring out how to capitalize on Fairport, N.Y.-based Constellation Brands’ recent purchase of Vincor. ‘It gives us access to this unbelievable portfolio of products and research,’ he says, adding that he’s brainstorming ways to exploit the portfolio, mulling over which brands will work in Canada. Given his solid track record, it will be interesting to see what Bolliger does with his new resources.

FUN QUESTIONS

Favourite movie

Alien. It’s fun to be scared sometimes, and Alien scared the crap out of me when I first saw it. I watched it again recently and it holds up well today.

Favourite book

I read Lord of the Rings when I was a teenager. It was a huge change from what I was reading at the time and it changed the way I thought about books and writing. The imagination at work in those books was mind-boggling.

Favourite TV commercial of all time

I loved the old Carlsberg Light spots with the ice carving and the payoff of the beer interacting with the ice somehow. It demonstrated craftsmanship and care, there was intrigue (what is he making) and refreshment, ice everywhere and the beer pouring over it. Made you want to run out and have one!

Last ad that inspired you to make a purchase

This will sound weird but the Tim Horton’s Chipotle Chicken sandwich. They do a great job of constantly featuring ‘limited time’ menu items and more importantly getting the message out there. Who can miss it when they decide to feature something… strawberry festival anyone?

First job

Dickie Dee Ice Cream when I was 15… you know the bike with the bells on it. It was a real ‘small’ business… the harder I worked and the smarter I worked the more I sold. It was an important lesson.