Accolade Wines' Caroline Thompson-Hill on innovation, sustainability and the future of hard seltzers - Interview

A woman in a white shirt holding a glass of red wine

Caroline Thompson-Hill took the role of Accolade Wines’ regional managing director for Europe last July. Now, with her feet firmly under the table, she talks to Drinks Retailing about product innovation, sustainability and the future of hard seltzers

“It’s been a very interesting time to take the reins,” Thompson[1]Hill says of her near-18-month tenure. In line with the times, we’re chatting over Teams, but we met by chance a few weeks earlier at the Vintners’ Company awards lunch, where Thompson[1]Hill told me about her ambitions to make the wine trade a more sustainable and diverse environment.

But more on that later.

First, we’re heading back to July 2020 and the press release announcing Thompson-Hill’s appointment. In it, she talked about Accolade’s “customer and consumer-centric approach” to business.

What exactly does this mean and how has the regional MD implemented this approach? Thompson-Hill outlines the company’s investment in insights, which includes work to “understand consumers… different segments, different attitudes”, in order to help with “the innovation pipeline, and also how we communicate”, she explains.

Take Thompson-Hill’s big focus – sustainability – for example. She says that when Accolade did research about what resonates with consumers, they said they want to see carbon neutrality on brands. Not only that, they want to see it communicated clearly. “We’ve got that on pack, which is our major real estate in terms of communication,” she adds. “We’re always looking into how we can make that clearer and share more information without overwhelming people.”

Innovation around Accolade’s Jam Shed brand also demonstrates Thompson-Hill’s point. She says consumer loyalty and social media interaction is very high, with “different groups springing up to talk amongst themselves”.

She adds: “We work with them to see what sort of innovations they would be keen to have. We’ve expanded the range based on some of those insights.”

Accolade has also used these insights to make what Thompson-Hill calls some more “bread-and-butter changes”, especially when it comes to making messaging clearer. She offers the example of Echo Falls: “We’ve called out some of the key messages that are relevant to our retailers a bit more clearly,” including abvs.

Thompson-Hill also points out that her customers want insights across the whole wine category, not just her own business. The company uses many data sources as well as its own research to offer up such information. “We are a major player, we’re a leading wine supplier, we have a responsibility to help with the growth of the overall category for customers,” she explains.

NEW PRODUCT DEVELOPMENT

“Wine needs to do a better job of innovating” – that’s one of the key messages from Thompson-Hill’s customer-centric research. “And wine, as a category needs to do a better job of recruiting new consumers,” she adds. In terms of what that means for the business, Thompson-Hill says Accolade has been “taking more risks” with innovation. “We know that not all innovation succeeds, that’s basically the point of it – you’re trying to push boundaries to see what’s going to work and we don’t mind taking those risks to really try to drive the category forward.”

Jam Shed, she says, has not only moved into different countries of origin and different varietals but also different formats. “We’ve also launched a really successful 1.5-litre,” she adds. “That’s quite an exciting innovation.”

NPD is influenced by many wider trends, with health and wellbeing a major factor. On that, Thompson-Hill hints at “quite a lot” of innovation around low and no-alcohol in the 2022 pipeline. She also references work on the technical side to improve the quality of low/no wines, though exact details are still under wraps.

HARD ENOUGH?

Staying on the topic of trends and hard seltzers garner a mention. Thompson-Hill, who lived in the US for a number of years, has some interesting views on the category’s trajectory.

“I saw it absolutely explode, which is really exciting,” she says of her time in the US. “Expectations [in the UK] have been huge and I think there’s maybe been an impatience to see it actually happen.

“Some of the initial expectations probably didn’t realise it takes a while for people to understand what the category is. I’m quietly confident that it’s the category that will grow over the next few years,” she says, adding that a couple of decent summers and a few festivals should play into its success.

“We’ve got the Echo Falls seltzer, then we’ve also got Nine Yards, which is really trying to take the category and spin it on its head – it’s something really colourful, really vibrant.”

SUSTAINABILITE APPROACH

Throughout our chat, Thompson-Hill keeps coming back to sustainability – an important trend and one close to her heart. In terms of product innovation, she highlights the flat PET bottle created in collaboration with Garçon Wines.

Thompson-Hill also emphasises the many faces of sustainability. “As an organisation, and maybe even in my own mind, we think about sustainability a lot,” she says. She talks not only about carbon footprints, for example, but also about diversity and inclusion and the wellbeing of employees. “More and more we’re putting together a sort of a global environmental, social and governance strategy, because to pull them apart feels a bit false.”

She mentions a recent project to work with the WSET and hospitality career specialist Springboard to get more people into wine education. As part of the initiative, called Vinspire, Thompson-Hill says: “We’ll continue to look at further ways Vinspire can support the industry as part of our wider diversity and inclusion initiative.”

Accolade has also been working with Community Alcohol Partnerships and, for Thompson-Hill, sustainability includes responsible drinking. “As a supplier of alcohol, you can’t do good in one sense and then ignore some of the other things. You really do have to look at it holistically.”

From a holistic approach to sustainability to colourful hard seltzers and NPD based on social chatter, you can bet Thompson-Hill is just getting started.

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