Ads Urge Wineries to Stick a Cork in It
Published: September 7, 2010
The Portuguese cork industry, backed by the Portuguese government, is undertaking an American-style campaign with a green twist.
The campaign promotes cork by playing up what are proclaimed as its significant advantages over alternatives on environmental and sustainability grounds.
Actually, “twist” might be the wrong word, because the campaign seeks to encourage wineries to use cork stoppers rather than aluminum twist-off caps or stoppers made of plastic and other synthetic materials. The campaign includes advertising, public relations, a Web site, events and a presence in social media like Facebook and Twitter.
The campaign promotes cork by playing up what are proclaimed as its significant advantages over alternatives on environmental and sustainability grounds. That separates it from other efforts that have sold the use of cork for bottles on the issue of taste.
To underline that message, the campaign refers to cork as “natural cork” and carries the theme “Approved by nature.”
There are also some unconventional elements to the campaign like coasters made of cork that will proclaim “Put a cork in climate change.”
The campaign is being handled by the Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco offices of Sitrick & Company, the public relations and communications agency, which has brought in the Citizen Group in San Francisco, a shop that specializes in what its founder, Robin Raj, calls pro-social marketing and “building citizen brands.”
The budget is estimated at $3 million, about a third of which is being devoted to advertising.
The campaign is another example of the growth of green marketing, particularly as it expands beyond its initial stages of expected pitches like ads from soft-drink makers devoted to recycling. Younger consumers seem to especially be interested in ecological entreaties.
Still, there are risks when marketers bring up sustainability or the environment, given how closely consumers scrutinize such claims. Pity the poor advertiser that gets accused of “greenwashing,” or falsely presenting its practices as environmentally correct; the blogosphere is filled with examples of companies that wind up green only because they have been slimed as wrongdoers.
The campaign seeking to paint cork green as well as brown was commissioned by the government of Portugal, which considers cork to be the country’s most important export, in partnership with an organization known as Apcor, for the Portuguese Cork Association. An American-based association, the Cork Quality Council, is pitching in, too.
“Most of our members have European partners who are part of Apcor,” says Peter Weber, executive director of the cork council, which is based in Forestville, Calif., in the Sonoma County wine country.
“This is a great opportunity for us,” Mr. Weber says of the campaign, because “we’ve never had the funding to go after consumer education” before.
“We have a huge awareness as a product,” he adds, “but not a very good understanding.”
“If you talk to people, you find a lot of affection for cork, but also a lot of misinformation,” Mr. Weber says. “We think it’s vital to clear up some of the misconceptions with people who like cork, because they would like it even more.”
Among the goals are to “get people to realize it’s a renewable resource,” he adds, and that “we don’t cut down the trees” to harvest cork bark.
“I’ve heard people in taste rooms say it comes from the Brazilian rainforest or it grows from a sponge in the ocean,” Mr. Weber says of visits to wineries. “As soon as they see a piece of bark with cork punched out of it, it’s simple to grasp.”
And “we think if we do a good job with consumers,” he adds, “the trade will take note of it.”
The process that led to the campaign began last year, when Apcor and the Portuguese government hired Sitrick. Initiatives that are sponsored by trade organizations can be challenging, Mr. Weber acknowledges, in that they require the assent of executives who otherwise “compete with each other all day long.”
“There are few things everyone agrees on immediately,” he says of the members of the cork council. “It’s sort of a tough crowd sometimes.” But, he adds, they all like the “Approved by nature” approach.
Aaron Curtiss, a member of the Sitrick firm based in the Los Angeles office, calls it “amazing” to watch “the ark of understanding” among consumers who start off making remarks like “ ‘I love cork, but it’s a shame the tree comes down’ ” after “we explain that the bark is pulled off every 10 years” and the trees in the cork oak forests of Portugal are not felled.
Mr. Curtiss likens the tack the campaign is taking to others that try to inform consumers of the ecological aspects of everyday products.
“When I was a kid, people didn’t know you should want dolphin-safe tuna,” he says. “Now, it’s assumed.”
The 100PercentCork.org Web site features a section that explains why consumers should insist on “100 percent cork,” offering reasons like the fossil fuels consumed to produce “artificial plastic stoppers and aluminum screw caps.”
(Note that as often as cork is heralded as “natural,” the competition is dismissed as “artificial.”)
The Web site also offers factoids about the Portuguese cork forests (“the second largest bio-gem after the Amazon rainforest”), the harvesting process (“Cork oak trees are not harmed or cut down to produce corks; the bark of the tree is sustainably harvested”) and other advantages to cork (“Cork preserves local Portuguese tradition and provides jobs for thousands of skilled workers”).
The Web site also asks visitors to sign “the 100 percent cork petition” and “tell wineries you won’t purchase wines with artificial stoppers.”
“Cork is not only a better closure for wine,” the site declares, “it is the only organic, biodegradable and renewable choice.”
The coasters also hawk green benefits. They are inscribed thusly: “It may seem like a little thing but if we all choose natural cork in our wine bottles over plastic and aluminum closures, we could remove 12 million tons of carbon from the atmosphere each year. Join the movement at 100PercentCork.org.”
Mr. Raj, who is also the executive creative director at the Citizen Group, says the campaign is intended to “start a conversation about something that people may take for granted or never think about.”
“That little cork is a role-player in sustainability because it’s hand-harvested and sustainably harvested,” Mr. Raj says. “What we want to do is tell that story, targeted to conscious consumers, and particularly a younger generation that doesn’t have its wine behavior fully formed.”
“Even with a $6, $9 bottle of wine,” he adds, summarizing the appeal, “buy natural.”
“We recognize we’re not going to get there all at once,” Mr. Raj says of the campaign’s goals, but “when the sensitivity is heightened” about cork, drinkers “might think twice about” buying wine without it.
The social media elements of the campaign are already under way. So, too, are some events, with more to come, especially, Mr. Raj says, at “green drink events, where people network around sustainability.”
(What would be served at green drink events, crème de menthe and Chartreuse?)
The advertising is to be introduced in the fall, including print ads in publications like The New York Times and Wine Spectator and sponsored spots on NPR (formerly National Public Radio).
“A sustainably harvested cork oak tree can live 300 years,” says the headline of one print ad, which depicts a tree and corks. Underneath are these words: “Unfortunately, a plastic stopper can last even longer.”
Another print ad depicts an empty wine bottle with a cork, out of which a green shoot grows. “I am sustainable, organic and renewable,” the headline says. “Plastic and aluminum stoppers, what do you do?”
A third ad is to be more pointed. “Warning,” the headline begins. “Wine with plastic or metal closures may present a choking hazard when you run out of clean air to breathe.”
Plans call for the campaign to continue with video clips and other “bottom-up media,” Mr. Raj says, with “a lot more activity in social media and grass-roots media.”