Michael Houlihan and Bonnie Harvey know a little bit about
starting a business and marketing it into a success. In 1986, they founded
Barefoot Cellars, the California winery known for its reasonably priced,
quality wines that have often received high marks from graders such as Wine Enthusiast.
With little financing, they built a brand that in 2004 was
selling about 580,000 cases annually. Then, in 2005, they sold the company to E
& J Gallo. The brand continues to be among the top-selling table wines in
the country today.
Since the sale, Houlihan has worked as an adviser to
start-up businesses and corporations, offering advice on how to improve profitability
and how to grow brands. Houlihan and Harvey also spent the last three years
co-authoring the book The Barefoot
Spirit: How Hardship, Hustle, and Heart Built a Bestselling Wine, which
will be available in May.
The book details how Houlihan and Harvey, who knew almost
nothing about winemaking or the business, started Barefoot Cellars in the laundry
room of a rented Sonoma farmhouse.
Jo Diaz, who worked at Barefoot Cellars under Houlihan and
Harvey, praised those times in a recent blog posting. "So what was it about their marketing strategies that made them so successful? It's everything the wine industry doesn't do. It didn't use pretentious ideologies or advertising, it was down home friendly. It was all about fun and wine being part of an easy lifestyle. It was way ahead of labels being cutesy, applying a non-vintage to the bottles and appealing to a younger demographic."
What Houlihan didn't know about winemaking at the beginning,
he more than made up for with solid instincts for customer service-a lesson he
maintains is important in these days of social media shortcuts.
"Social media and technology do have their place, but they
are not, and never will be, a substitute for in-person interaction," Houlihan
says. "Your physical presence, or at least the sound of your voice, builds
trust you can't even approach with a keyboard, screen or profile image."
Barefoot Cellars and the type of management Houlihan and
Harvey instilled in the company before it was sold to Gallo may have been an
anomaly, but the duo is out there today offering up reasons why they believe it
was a success.
Barefoot Cellars was founded and grew during a period when
the Internet was essentially a non-factor, at least through the 1980s and â€˜90s.
And the power of social media via digital platforms that every business is
jumping into today was also not part of corporate thinking back then.
So it might be hard for some in the advertising and
marketing world to totally embrace the principles that Houlihan and Harvey are
touting. But he insists on their relevancy, and believes that the seemingly
old-school approach is a powerful social tool today.
"I can't tell you how many retailers, suppliers and
potential customers I visited in person during those early years," Houlihan
says. "What I can tell you is that I would never have gotten satisfactory
results if I had tried to build those relationships via email and social media.
The Barefoot brand would never have become a national bestseller without meetings,
phone calls and recurring personal visits that kept relationships all over the
country healthy and up-to-date. People don't just buy your product, they buy
Houlihan also believes dependence on virtual communications
stunts social skills needed to attract customers. And while he knows that face-to-face
meetings with vendors and employees on the other side of the world are
expensive, and it's not economically feasible to hop on a plane every time a
meeting it's needed, where there's a will, there's still a way. "Skype is the
next best thing to being there," he says.
"Live video streams allow you to do just about everything
short of shaking hands," he adds. "You can accomplish so much more when you
become more than just an email address or a disembodied voice to one another."
Here are some of the reasons why Houlihan feels real-time,
in-person, face-to-face relationship building is advantageous for marketers and
- The time investment shows you really care.
- You're better able to give personalized attention.
- You're generally more effective.
- Facial expressions help get your message across.
- Body language also helps get your message across.
- Tonality helps get your message across.
- Your vulnerability shows and that's a good thing.
"Always meet in person if you can," Houlihan says. "When an
important client or critical team member is on the other side of the globe, a
face-to-face meeting once or twice a year can often be a smart investment."
While email and texting may be great ways to communicate,
Houlihan says they can fail at relationship building.
"When spoken, the same words used in a text or email can
have a very different meaning based on the tone, inflection and the emphasis
that the speaker gives," he says. "It's much easier to get intentions behind
the spoken word."
Regarding showing vulnerability, Houlihan says, "Imperfections
make you appear more believable and sincere. Most people will overlook minor
foibles in appearance and speech because you are literally there for them. This
can be a big advantage in the long run."
Houlihan adds that as communications technology developed in
his Barefoot Cellars days, he did not avoid it, but he did not let it become a
"A relationship can start through text, email or
social media, but in order to be lasting and dependable, a business
relationship has to grow in person."