Jewell vision: OLN profiles Wine Australia's UK head Laura Jewell MW
Laura Jewell has amassed a rare bank of knowledge over a 25-year career that has spanned wholesale to convenience and, of course, the mighty Tesco.
And now she can add generic marketing to her repertoire after taking the top job at Wine Australia in March.
A Master of Wine since 1997, she spent the past four years in arguably the UK’s most commercial machine, overseeing Tesco’s product development with a focus on own-label and exclusives.
Her departure raised some eyebrows when it was announced last November, but in many ways it was a natural progression for someone with her passion to explore a different area of the wine business as range cuts loomed and the supermarket buying role changed.
Six months into the job, she seems to be relishing life on the other side of the fence, encountering new producers and collaborating with retailers of all shapes and sizes rather than viewing them as competitors.
“I think it’s a case [with retail] of I’ve been there, done that,” she says, adding with a smile: “And I can be nice to people.”
She admits missing elements of her buying career, such as the vast amount of tasting the job required, but has no regrets about closing that chapter.
She says: “It’s not about me being on the telly or in the Tesco magazine every month. Yes, I enjoyed that, but now it’s about this job. It’s fascinating being on this side and how much you learn from suppliers and importers.
“I’ve rediscovered how passionate people are. I don’t want that to sound negative about a retail job, but sometimes you can get bogged down in it.”
Jewell stepped into the role at a time of healthy growth for Australia. The country continues to lead the charge in the off- trade, notching up sales of more than £1 billion and growing at 12.3% – compared to the total market’s 4.1% (Kantar Worldpanel 52 weeks to April 26, 2015).
It is also showing signs of making strong inroads into the premium sector, with sales of wines above AU$10 up 37% on last year.
Jewell says: “Australia is still number one in the off-trade so we are operating from a point of strength, even if the price is lower than I would like. Winemakers aren’t coming over as they did 20 years ago and saying ‘we are going to conquer this market’. But there is a lot of interest in Australia at the moment and they are being welcomed with open arms.”
As Jewell acknowledges, Australia still has challenges ahead but, with exchange rates tipping in sterling’s favour, its export appeal has inspired renewed focus on what it can offer.
Independents are a key channel Jewell is keen to exploit, especially as the generic body aims to ramp up its presence in the premium price tiers.
She says: “Lots of independents are very supportive of Australia. There aren’t that many of them, but when you round them up they are an important group. We know that California and New Zealand have been working with independents for a long time, so it’s not about us walking in there and saying all these listings need to be Australian. We need to have a strategy.” Jewell also highlights the on-trade as a target. “The number of pubs you walk into and there isn’t an Australian wine on the list is disappointing. It’s great that Matthew Clark is looking to expand its Australia portfolio and also Bibendum.”
She believes there is a wealth of new wines waiting to come to these shores to satisfy both channels. “There are a lot of producers wanting to come back or start here for the first time,” she says. “The exchange rate and realising that the domestic market is shrinking means they need to increase their footprint.”
But, as Jewell knows too well, landing a large supermarket listing is beyond most producers’ reach and Australia has taken a hit as a result of the ongoing range rationalisations, just like everywhere else.
She says: “With the big guys they’ve already done their changes in Australia or they are about to. It’s down to commercial decisions that we can’t influence. If retailers have decided they don’t want anything above £10 on their shelves then obviously they are going to miss out on some interesting wines. And if retailers decide to limit the number of suppliers, producers will go somewhere else.
“It’s not just about margin, volume and value – it’s also about customer satisfaction.”
Jewell hopes to apply the consumer insights she learned in her retail years to Wine Australia’s remit and, like her predecessor Yvonne May, believes strong educational initiatives are vital to generic marketing efforts.
She says: “I like the fact that one of our core areas is education. We aren’t the Wine & Spirit Education Trust or an exam board, but we believe in furthering consumers’ understanding. We have moved some of that education activity into our core budget rather than user pay.”
Jewell is taking that message on the road, adding Edinburgh and Dublin to the route of the Australia Day Tastings in January.
She explains: “We are trying not to forget the regions and this will be like a road show. A few years ago I would have agreed with the voices saying there was no place for generic tastings, but the Australia Day Tasting was so busy and vibrant and a lot of business was done. Not necessarily major retailers, but listings were agreed so it gave producers value.”
To build on its swelling popularity in the premium sector, Wine Australia is also launching its inaugural Premium Australia Tasting in London on September 29. More than 500 wines will be on taste to highlight the diversity of Australia’s 65 wine regions.
She says: “The premium tasting, where everything is over £10, is something new for us. Given that the average bottle price is £5.50. I thought ‘why not?’ I want to show what Australia can do.”
It’s just one of the approaches Jewell hopes will help transform Australia’s image and keep it in the top spot, a challenge she embraced with trademark tenacity at Tesco.
And, although the two jobs call for very different skills and levels of diplomacy, Jewell indicates the roles might be less different than they first seem.
“At Tesco we would say ‘we aren’t your brand builder, we are the supplier of space’. And it’s the same for Wine Australia. We will market Australia and we will do it for the likes of McGuigan as much as for any other producer doing interesting things.”