Interview – ‘We’re not just a wine brand, we’re offering an entire experience for consumers,” says Penfolds’ Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson: “Our vision is to become a global luxury icon”

Introduction: Appointed as Global Director – Global Travel at leading wine brand Penfolds in September, Michael Jackson sees a channel bursting with opportunity in terms of elevating the category and redefining the travel shopping experience.

Expanding the brand beyond the traditional constraints of wine in travel retail and into the luxury realm, enhancing digital engagement, and creating memorable consumer engagement all form strands of an exciting narrative as Martin Moodie discovered during last month’s TFWA World Exhibition in Cannes.

Michael Jackson’s life and career journey reads like the stuff of an adventure yarn. Born and raised in Porto Alegre, the capital of Rio Grande do Sul in southern Brazil, he started his own flair bartending business as a young adult, creating cocktails and entertainment in equal measure to corporate and private functions.

The enterprise was successful but at 25 Jackson craved overseas experience. “I always wanted to live abroad and learn how to speak another language so I thought I would sell my business and go live offshore for a period of time,” he recalls, speaking to The Moodie Davitt Report onboard the Penfolds yacht at the TFWA World Exhibition in Cannes.

Fortune favours the brave, runs the old Latin proverb and certainly Jackson didn’t lack courage. So offshore it was, though not to his original choice of destination. “I was planning to go to London, but after learning more about New Zealand, I decided to take a different route and ended up in Auckland in 2005.”

He began working at an upscale restaurant in Ponsonby, Auckland, bringing his home-grown skills and enthusiasm for the hospitality business to the forefront, before joining a brand marketing and consumer engagement agency working with multiple clients including the Foster’s and Coca-Cola portfolios.

From August 2008 duty free beckoned, in the form of a travel retail Brand Ambassador role for the New Zealand vodka brand, 42 Below.

In 2012, Jackson landed a job based in Hong Kong, leading the advocacy initiatives for a team of Bacardi Brand Ambassadors across Asia Pacific.

After a year, the by now truly globetrotting Brazilian moved to Singapore with Bacardi to lead travel retail for the Singapore and Indochina markets, this included the key Changi Airport (then a DFS stronghold). Next up in November 2014 came a move to Moët Hennessy, again looking after travel retail in Singapore and Vietnam.

By now married, Jackson took the opportunity to move to Sydney, Australia in November 2016, this time as Travel Retail Manager – Australia and New Zealand for Brown-Forman, a company he stayed with for almost five years across multiple roles, before moving to Penfolds in Sydney, initially as Head of On Premise ANZ.

Michael Jackson and Martin Moodie onboard the Penfolds boat in Cannes during TFWA World Exhibition
Penfolds Grange and Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz, two of the great names in Australian and world winemaking

His latest role brings him full circle back into travel retail, a channel he particularly enjoys, especially working with a category and brand that inspire his special affection. So what does he make of the wine opportunity in travel retail generally and for Penfolds in particular?

“When we separated Penfolds as its own entity from Treasury Premium Brands two years ago, travel retail became a priority channel,” he responds. “We’re doing a lot of work across portfolio innovation, so I feel like it’s a very exciting time for us to be in global travel.”

Penfolds boasts an enviable portfolio from the revered, ultra-premium Grange and Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz (affectionately known as ‘Baby Grange) to more accessibly priced wines. Each plays a distinct role, Jackson says, reflecting the innate diversity of airport consumer demographics.

“We segment our consumers into two different groups,” he explains. “We have the ‘New Luxurian’, someone who identifies with wine as part of their luxury lifestyle. They are less interested in the detail behind the process of sourcing and making the wine, and more interested in how the wine adds to their occasion. Penfolds traditionally does this very well with products such as Grange and Bin 389 that are famous for making moments.

“Then we’ve got The Connoisseur consumer, with whom Penfolds is very strong, those who are more interested in the details of the winemaking process. They are likely to be collectors of wine, and probably have their own cellars.”

Penfolds is unveiling an impressive body of creative work to drive recruitment in the channel, including enhanced digital communication, an expanded travel retail-exclusive offering, and some fascinating collaborations. Earlier this year, for example, the company struck a multi-year relationship with acclaimed fashion designer Nigo (Founder of the Human Made label) to lead the creative vision for selected Penfolds projects.

This began with the global release of One by Penfolds – a range of wines celebrating ‘Oneness’. Using his signature style, Nigo designed four animal motifs – a crocodile, rooster, panda, and bear – which feature on the wine labels. The designs represent the four winemaking regions where One by Penfolds wines are sourced – Australia, France, China and America.

“We’re planning further collaborations in packaging and plenty of other exciting innovations,” says Jackson. “Much of the Penfolds strategy is around being a culturally led proposition. We’re doing a lot of work around the portfolio, around consumer experience, and how we show up as a product, including in travel retail.”

One by Penfolds, designed in partnership with Human Made Founder NIGO is a curated collection of wines from Australia, California and France

As travel retail emerges from the most prolonged crisis in its history, Jackson is upbeat about prospects. “We’re confident and optimistic. Most markets are back at near or full pre-pandemic numbers with China now reopened or reopening to multiple countries. We resonate a lot with the consumer, and the team domestically did an incredible job of maintaining the brand equity and desirability of the brand during the pandemic.

“In terms of the category, we see some important trends. For example, consumers are still into premium wine, and premium and luxury wine remain in strong growth. That’s where we play really well with our retail partners, and I think when we look at Penfolds compared to other wine brands, it has such big brand equity. So you see us really focused on visibility, for example, in driving luxury spend and spend per pax.

“We feel we have a responsibility for the brand and for the category to be the flagship Australian wine that can put Penfolds and Australian wines on the map around the world.”

Three-pillar strategy

Jackson says his priority since assuming the travel retail role has been to reconnect with customers. “It’s great to be back in the channel and see many familiar faces and meet new ones. Number two is to execute and evolve our global travel strategy, which is very exciting and we’re just into year one.

“Our strategy is built on three key pillars. The first is our portfolio. We are striving to position ourselves as a luxury brand that extends beyond wine. Our vision is to become a global luxury icon, not just in the Asia Pacific market but also in regions like Europe & US.

“Our teams have been doing a fantastic job in domestic markets, particularly in Europe and the US, where we’ve been building a strong community of connoisseurs. As for our portfolio, we’re expanding our offerings to include wines from different countries and regions, including China, France and California, in addition to our Australian wines. There’s a lot of development around that.

“The second pillar is around visibility and activation. We really want to showcase Penfolds at the airports the way that luxury brands showcase themselves. Permanent visibility is important to us as it is a proven concept to accelerate sales of luxury goods. We worked with some partners and convinced them to put in wall bays for Penfolds products, and we’re exciding expected results. We position ourselves more like some of the leading Champagne brands, for example.

“In the activation space, we really want to bring the traveller experience to life. When you look at the consumer luxury codes and what’s driving luxury, they want something beyond the product. They want something they can actually engage with, either digitally or when they’re at the airport.

“So we’re coming up with a lot of digital initiatives such as QR codes where you can send a digital card when you purchase one of our bottles, or our Digital Sommelier. If you’re not as familiar with wine, you can navigate through Penfolds and get a recommendation based on your preferences.”

Penfolds unveiled the Digital Sommelier programme, designed to simplify the wine discovery experience in T Galleria by DFS, Macau, Shoppes at Four Seasons in June, subsequently rolling it out with Lotte Duty Free at Melbourne Airport.

The Penfolds Digital Sommelier streamlines the wine selection process for shoppers, allowing them to explore the house’s offer. This includes wines from Penfolds Bins, the travel-exclusive Cellar Reserve, plus Superblend and Grange.

Through a questionnaire, the Digital Sommelier helps travellers choose wines tailored to their individual palate and budget. Each wine in the Digital Sommelier programme also has a dedicated page offering insights into the wine varietal, region and peak drinking window.

The Digital Sommelier programme, shown here in T Galleria by DFS, Macau, Shoppes at Four Seasons, is designed to simplify the wine discovery experience

The third pillar continues the digital refrain, a critical focus for Penfolds in the channel, Jackson says. “I think consumers who look for premium luxury products want to live in the brand’s universe,” he comments.

“It’s about how we can participate in the consumer journey from when they pre-plan their trip, to when they’re going to the airport, to when they get there. We’re looking at partnering with airlines, airport stores and others to create that full journey. A lot of people are working on that and we don’t have the perfect solution yet, but we want to find partnerships where we create digital boutiques and other innovations where people feel they can connect with the brand.”

Jackson believes the growing convergence between airport retail and food & beverage – as evidenced by the Dufry/Autogrill evolution into Avolta – offers interesting opportunities to enrich the passenger journey, for example with tastings in F&B outlets that encourage subsequent in-store purchase.

“We want to reward a consumer who is purchasing a product. The limitation has always been on how to execute that because of different channels operating within these sectors. So how can retailers create that experience?”

In May, Penfolds launched its latest Chardonnay blend, Penfolds V, in collaboration with Heinemann Australia. Penfolds V is a one-of-a-kind, multi-vintage Chardonnay that combines five of Yattarna’s most exceptional vintages: 2011, 2012, 2014, 2016, and 2021.

Travel retail-exclusives to the fore

Penfolds Grenache Shiraz Mataro is sourced from McLaren Vale in South Australia where the maritime climate is considered ideal for ripening these three varietals

Travel retail-exclusive bottlings are increasingly key to the Penfolds approach in the channel. In 2022 the company launched three such products under its Cellar Reserve range (a Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache Shiraz Mataro/GSM), an initiative designed to recruit wine drinkers into the premium category.

Each has an RSP of A$50 (US$31.60), positioned around the level of the Penfolds Bin series (Bin 28 and 311), a key mid-tier price point that helps drive up consumer spend, Jackson says.

“We’re also focusing on exclusive packaging, with the thematic theme ‘Dive into Penfolds’ [see sidebar below] this year,” he comments. “This ‘Venture Beyond’ traditional wine packaging is a creative platform for Penfolds to bring to life our brand DNA of pushing boundaries and exploring possibilities.

“This year we are exploring the depths of the ocean with our underwater theme. That’s why you see the corals and everything else on the design and packaging, created by 3D motion graphics artist Mikaela Stafford from Melbourne. It’s all about venturing beyond, exploring the unexplored.

“We’re also launching packaging that’s exclusive to travel retail as we understand it’s important for the consumer to find something that’s special and giftable as well. Gifting is in the top two reasons that consumers enter the luxury wine category.” {Main story continues below sidebar}

Venture Beyond

Last month Penfolds teamed up with Heinemann Australia to unveil a three-month, underwater-themed activation called ‘Venture Beyond 2023’ at Sydney Airport.

The pop-up marks the second instalment in Penfolds’ Venture Beyond series. It promises to ‘submerge’ travellers into the depths of Penfolds’ wine heritage and terroir inspired by the travel retail-exclusive blue colourway of the Penfolds Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz.

The limited-edition packaging was designed by Melbourne-based interdisciplinary digital artist Mikaela Stafford.

The thematic activation takes travellers on a visually compelling journey into the depths of the sea, with scuba diving visuals and coral-inspired display shelves featuring prominently throughout the space.

A digital personalised gifting programme is a standout element. At the pop-up, travellers can purchase a Penfolds thematic gift pack and scan a QR code to create a digital greeting card which can be personalised with a written or video message.

The greeting cards also offer important wine information and give travellers the option to sign up to Penfolds’ CRM system.

“This immersive activation elevates the exclusive Penfolds offerings and aligns seamlessly with our commitment to offering unforgettable experiences to travellers,” said Heinemann Asia Pacific Director for Purchasing Beauty and Liquor, Tobacco & Confectionery Ranjith Menon.

“We look forward to seeing travellers engage with the pop-up and dive deeper to explore the Penfolds range in global travel.”

Taking a deep dive into wine with Penfolds and Heinemann at Sydney Airport

Following its run at Sydney Airport, Venture Beyond 2023 will roll out in key travel retail destination such as Melbourne, Singapore, Vietnam, Dubai and Hong Kong.

“Driven by self-belief and pioneers by nature, Penfolds continues to journey into the unknown, to push boundaries and explore new possibilities,” said Penfolds Chief Marketing Officer Kristy Keyte.

“Our latest venture into the deep sea is a testament to this, allowing us to activate our brand values and DNA in unexpected, creative, and consistent ways across global platforms.”

Not just a wine brand

So what does the ultimate Trinity or brand/retailer partnership look like? What does a house such as Penfolds need from fellow stakeholders to create the kind of consumer experience, Jackson describes? And how can retailers and brands collaborate more effectively to drive growth?

“The wine category has struggled with its perception and treatment in travel retail. However, we have demonstrated that when Penfolds is showcased and activated effectively, it can drive revenue and average spend up for our partners,” he replies.

“Our product has significant brand equity. Retailers should build trust in our innovations, have confidence in our Country of Origin wines, and value the partnerships we’ve formed with creative directors. They should see Penfolds not just as a wine brand but as a flagship product that attracts consumers to the category, creating excitement and enthusiasm.”

Trade shows such as TFWA World Exhibition play a key role in accelerating the Penfolds three-pillar strategy, Jackson says. “Our objectives for this show [Cannes] are twofold. Firstly, it’s an excellent platform to showcase our brand alongside other luxury brands, which aligns with our vision.

(Left to right) Michael Jackson; then-Foreo Global Travel Retail Director (now independent consultant) Gary Leong and his wife, model & artist Lilith Yu; and Martin Moodie enjoy a drop (or two) of the very good stuff on the Penfolds boat in the evening at the Cannes show

“Secondly, we want to convey our strategy to the customers. We have our Chief Marketing Officer Kristy Keyte here and her engagement with senior leaders in our business is invaluable. I can reiterate the message many times, but hearing from one another and having top-to-top meetings enables them to better understand our strategy and what we’re trying to do with the brand, including how we aim to recruit new consumers and bring excitement to the wine category.”

Our interview draws to a close (though an engaging and pleasant encounter will kick start again that evening during a social evening on the Penfolds boat featuring some outstanding wines) with Jackson offering a final message to the travel retail community.

“I’d like to reiterate our commitment to positioning ourselves in the luxury space. We’re not just a wine brand – we’re offering an entire experience for consumers.

“We’re confident that we a leader in the category and are making substantial investments in consumer insights. We’re keen to showcase how well we understand our customers and how we can collaborate and partner more to strengthen the category in the channel.

“We’ve made considerable progress, and we’re eager to see the channel grow while playing an active role. We believe Penfolds can put wine on the map in a more powerful way across markets. If there’s one brand that can do it, we feel confident it’s Penfolds.” ✈

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