A group of wine producers and students gathered at the WSET’s London offices this month to learn from the team behind the successful I Heart brand.

The brand has enjoyed 42% off-trade sales growth to reach the £74.7 million mark this year (IRI, year to September 2018). That makes it the 13th largest wine brand in the UK and it is now exported to 46 different countries too.

That has enabled parent company Copestick Murray to become one of the leading lights in the trade, but back in 2010 its situation was looking a lot less rosy. “Good ideas are often formed when a business is in crisis,” said managing director Robin Copestick.

The firm had enjoyed a strong five years, creating many brands for other people, but it had nothing to call its own and it was suddenly plunged into a perilous situation where the management feared for its future. They called every member of staff in for a crisis meeting and asked everyone to come up with concepts for a new brand.

“All ideas were welcome, no ideas were stupid and we asked everybody what they thought,” said Copestick. “The team came in, about 13 or 14 people, and there were some silly ideas and some very good ideas, but nothing really inspired.

“Then right at the end one of the people working for me [Rachel Archer] said, ‘this is terrible, you’re going to hate it, but it’s an idea I came up with’. I looked at it and I just thought, ‘that it what we are looking for’. I often say it’s the quiet people that have the best ideas.”

The idea was I Heart and the next day Copestick took it to his label designer in Soho. “He looked at it and said, ‘that is genius, why didn’t I think of that?’ We quickly took it to market, commercialised it and here we are now.”

It has evolved into a behemoth containing all manner of SKUs and it is now the fastest growing top 20 wine brand in the UK, while exports are surging. But at the start of the journey, Copestick struggled to win over some of the wine trade’s leading buyers.

The team conducted extensive consumer research and believed it was a strong proposition, but buyers were unconvinced. The first major buyer to take a punt on it was Alex Green of Sainsbury’s, who now works for Copestick Murray as its national off-trade manager. His account of his decision to list the brand is entertaining and enlightening.

“When I was at Sainsbury’s and Robin came to me and put the I Heart brand to me in its initial concept, with a Pinot Grigio, a Merlot and a White Zinfandel from California, I knew nothing about wine, and that’s probably why I decided it was a good idea,” he said. “I had come straight from the Sainsbury’s graduate scheme and decided I wanted to be a buyer and the next available job in head office happened to be in wine. I replaced Julian Dyer, who went on to be the managing director of Australian Vintage, and I was probably the first junior buyer that was not a wine person. Robin showed me the brand and it made sense.

“I had just been on a commercial course and spent three days being taught how to negotiate, and in this meeting with Robin I had a maximum price I would accept, a price I was going to go in at. It was my first ever negotiation.

“I said I really like it, but I need you to get to €1.50 a bottle, and Robin just said, yep, fine, done. So at that point I realised that the negotiation course hadn’t worked.

“I went upstairs and our wine buyers, who all know about wine – Michelle Smith, who has now gone back to South Africa; Julie Buckley, who is now in a senior position at Majestic; David Peak, who has gone on to run his own company and also worked for Copestick Murray for a time – they all looked at me and said, ‘what are you doing? Robin Copestick was in last week showing us the exact same wine and we all told him to go away, because this is not wine’.

“It went in eventually, after several weeks of a constant barrage of people telling me I had made a mistake, and in its first week I Heart Pinot Grigio sold £100,000. At the time that was a big deal. It would probably have ranked in the top 20 products immediately, and they all sort of went, ‘oh, actually, it’s not so bad, we’ll see how it continues to go’.”

It continued to go great guns and it is now listed in all the big four UK retailers and many convenience chains. It has just become the UK’s third best-selling sparkling brand after Freixenet and Moët & Chandon and still wine sales are surging too, while it is getting into cans, bag in box and personalised bottles.

“The wine market had a problem in selling to the 95% of consumers who don’t know anything about wine, and I Heart is one of the answers to that,” said Green. “Wine is made by people that know about wine, for people that know about wine, and it’s bought by people that think they know a lot about wine. And actually the consumer at the end is at best an afterthought.

“It’s coming at it from a different angle, approaching a consumer that didn’t have a voice in the world of wine. That still exists in 2018, although other brands are trying to do a similar job to I Heart.”

Green believes that one of the main reasons behind I Heart’s success is its elasticity as a brand. “Brancott Estate is synonymous with New Zealand, Campo Viejo is Spanish, Blossom Hill comes from the USA,” he said. “I Heart breaks those moulds. It has a glass elevator. It goes across varietals, it goes across categories into sparkling, it goes up the tiers, with the regional range, and now we have different formats, with cans and bag in box.”

Before taking the product to market, Copestick Murray’s consumer research delved into the reasons why shoppers buy wine. “People said they think about where they’re going to drink it and who they’re going to drink it with,” said Copestick. “Then it’s price, then it’s colour, then it’s style, then a couple of other things, and then it’s country. We were all taught about noble grapes and country of origin, but actually in most consumers’ minds, that’s so far back, so we had the confidence to go to companies like Sainsbury’s because consumers were saying these were the important things for them, and I knew that a supermarket consumer would like something like I Heart Pinot Grigio or I Heart Prosecco. It was exactly what they were looking for on a Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday night.”

Green added: “When I started buying they gave me a test and I thought Rioja was a grape. It doesn’t actually matter if it’s not a grape – it’s a brand. Pinot Grigio is a brand. These are the reasons I Heart Pinot Grigio works so well: Pinot Grigio is a brand and I Heart is a brand and they work together. I Heart Prosecco is two brands coming together. Prosecco is a force that nobody can stop.

“Other brands are trying to do a similar job to I Heart. Most Wanted does a very similar job: it’s varietal-led, it puts the consumer first, it’s drinking wine that people want to drink. Marlborough Sauvignon, Rioja, Malbec, all the things that people actually are drinking and are popular and growing at the moment.”

The flexibility of the brand allows the team to maintain a continued pipeline of innovation and move in an agile fashion to respond to consumer demand. It can source Pinot Grigio from Romania or wherever offers the best price per quality ratio at the time, for example.

“We keep asking, is there a problem to be solved?” said Green. “If there isn’t a problem, move on. But wine has a plethora of issues and there is lots of space to solve problems. The three biggest success stories in wine at the moment from a branded perspective are Yellow Tail, Barefoot and I Heart, talking to consumers in slightly different ways but doing a very similar thing: talking to the 95% of consumers that don’t know much about wine.”

The brand name itself works well, because it evokes an emotion in consumers, as they are able to declare a love of a region or grape varietal. Senior graphic designer Jodie Newman works on a range of concepts and tries to think outside the box when creating the labels. “We look outside the category,” she said. “We look at chocolate for example, which has similar cues: it’s elegant, it tells a story. Look at where the gaps are. Look at your competitors. Designers create the logo that will allow the brand to stand out and tell a story.”

Some of its lines legally must be bottled at source, like I Heart Rioja, I Heart Prosecco and I Heart Cava, but it is able to ship the rest in bulk and bottle it in the UK. Parent company Henkell & Co also has a packaging facility in northern Germany and it produces its varietal wine there. “It makes a lot more sense, especially if it’s long-haul, to stick it in a massive tank, 24,000 litres at a time, and bring it over and bottle it at somewhere like Greencroft or Kingsland,” said Green.

It uses platforms like Instagram to build up the brand’s following, and hires celebrity advocates from shows like Love Island, while maintaining the pipeline of new product development.

“We look at retail pricing and where it sits in the market,” said Green. “What’s the brand leader doing and what is this doing differently that the brand leader can’t do? Within I Heart and Mionetto [another Copestick Murray brand] we talk a lot about the tone of voice. Who is buying it, who is drinking it, what problem do they have that we are solving?

“Even though I Heart is a massive success, you have to spend a lot of money. We are spending with retailers this year nearly £1 million just talking to customers directly, just to keep this going. What we spend is a fraction of what is spent on Echo Falls, Hardys and Yellow Tail and Barefoot. If you’re not spending money, you’re not going to get seen, it’s share of voice.”

On January 1, Copestick Murray will merge with Freixenet UK to create one of the UK’s largest wine suppliers, called Freixenet-Copestick. It comes after parent company Henkell & Co tied up a deal to buy Freixenet and create the world’s largest sparkling wine company, Henkell Freixenet. As a result, the I Heart brand will enjoy the heaviest marketing backing it has ever received in 2019 and its growth is likely to continue. “We are in a big league in terms of global brands and it has been good fun to get to where we are now,” said Copestick.

I Heart has been designed for shoppers that do not know much about wine, but he insists that a thorough wine education is important for everyone in the trade. “I Heart is the start of somebody’s wine journey,” he said. “The consumer who wants to learn about wine has got to start somewhere and they’re not going to start with Mouton-Rothschild or Grand Cru.

“They need to get interested in the product. We want to make a product that’s very good and true to its varietal and style and that is a great place to start. A consumer will then move up and into different categories and then they will acquire an education. We have just employed a guy called Barry Dick, who is a Master of Wine and who used to work for Sainsbury’s and Accolade, and he makes sure the wine is good and correct.

“That is as important as the branding, pricing and marketing. No matter how little knowledge the consumer has, they have a palate and if the wine is disgusting they will never come back. Education is important. In our company we are looking for people who have knowledge of wine and interest in it.”

* The WSET runs a series of career events, helping attendees get into various jobs such as wine writing, winemaking, wine education, wine supply and more. On January 29, David Gleave MW of Liberty Wines and Martin Gamman MW of Champagne Joseph Perrier will present a session on the role of a wine distributor and supplier: https://www.wsetglobal.com/wset-school-london/tastings-and-events/201819/care1904-wine-importerdistributor/