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Zan Lazarevic

Rodney Strong: Sustainability Efforts Engage Consumers and Cultivate Emotional Loyalty

Rodney Strong Vineyards was founded in 1959 when Rodney Strong chose Sonoma County in California as the ideal place to produce some of the best-known wines in the world. Three decades after its founding, Rodney Strong Vineyards’ management shifted to the Klein family, and today, their leadership continues the tradition of developing premium wines while prioritizing sustainability efforts.   

Vineyard location is critical, and land is carefully selected. At present, the brand owns 12 estate vineyards in Sonoma County, and Rodney Strong itself is right in the middle of the Russian River Valley.

The marketing team at Rodney Strong Vineyards is involved in everything from advertising to strategy to social media, packaging, and brand creation. Marketing also works closely with sales and hospitality. Initiatives not only include luxury events drawing wine lovers to Sonoma but also promotions designed to highlight Rodney Strong’s commitment to sustainability.

Mark Johnson, CEO of Loyalty360, spoke with Erica Odden, VP of Marketing for Rodney Strong, about the brand’s sustainability sweepstakes, meaningful customer engagement, and creating an environment for emotional loyalty to flourish.

Sustainability Sweepstakes

Rodney Strong is making a significant impact with its second annual sustainability sweepstakes, which runs until May 31, 2024. Last year, the winery’s first sweepstakes awarded $60,000 for the purchase of an electric vehicle, a testament to its commitment to environmentally conscious choices. This year’s offering is another prize centering around sustainability initiatives. Rodney Strong will award 15 winners each $2,500 to buy an electric bicycle.

“It went beautifully last year with the e-car, so we adapted a bit in order to award more winners,” says Odden. “With the e-bike, we can get more people engaged in the sweepstakes and in the process. Also, e-bikes are pretty fun.”

At the time of Loyalty360’s interview with Odden, Rodney Strong’s sweepstakes had drawn close to 11,000 entrants—good numbers in terms of consumer uptake. However, this is only one sustainability initiative that Rodney Strong embraces. Rodney Strong counts 12 estate vineyards on nearly 1,158 acres. They’re 100% certified sustainable, which is certainly a sizeable initiative as recertification is necessary every two to three years.

“We believe in being stewards of the land,” says Odden. “We just replanted a significant portion of our vineyards to improve water savings.”

Rodney Strong employed a system called deficit irrigation, which means less water goes to the vine. The focus is placed on the fruit—and not on the leaves—which allows the vine to become healthier over time. As those vineyards come online, about 50% of the water usage will be saved. The brand also harnesses the power of solar, with 4,200 panels in its solar array located on its cellars. This provides around 50% of the electricity used by Rodney Strong.  

Estate Vineyards and Expansion

Rodney Strong recently bought a vineyard called River West, consisting of around 300 acres. The brand farms that estate, which means Rodney Strong controls everything from how it’s irrigated to how it’s planted to what is on that vineyard and what happens throughout the growing cycle. In sum, the brand controls every aspect of the process all the way through bringing the grapes to the winery.

“That’s what is called an estate vineyard,” clarifies Odden. “It is fully controlled by us.”

This oversight is vitally important, as it allows the brand to monitor and maintain sustainability measures throughout the winemaking process.

Meaningful Promotions Encourages Meaningful Customer Engagement

Rodney Strong’s promotions—like its second annual sustainability sweepstakes—not only highlight the brand’s commitment to corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts but also create opportunities to engage customers and Wine Club Family members.

“[This sweepstakes] speaks to our consumers on a couple of levels,” explains Odden. “It speaks to them around sustainability—which matters to us and our consumers.”

Odden observes that consumers are attracted to brands based on their own beliefs, which helps form an emotional connection. Offering the sustainability sweepstakes reiterates what Rodney Strong authentically believes in, and again, it ties back to an emotional connection with the consumer.

“We know from research that consumers purchase brands like ours based on what they believe in,” adds Odden. “Prioritizing sustainability initiatives is the way we connect that back to how we value our consumers. We want to do what makes them more interested in engaging with our brand.”

In addition to showcasing its sustainability efforts, Rodney Strong has a proven history of supporting community organizations and institutions, such as the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts and Sonoma State University. A commitment to corporate social responsibility is a part of Rodney Strong’s DNA, and a focus on the community has been a priority since the brand’s inception in 1959.

“For us, sustainability is not just green efforts,” says Odden. “It is also about the community. It means operating holistically and giving back.”

Leveraging that dedication to supporting the community, Rodney Strong looks for opportunities to build its “family.” The emotional connection to the brand is about being a part of something—a community. The brand seeks to build connections with consumers to make them feel welcome and a part of something—making the community where they live as positive and as good as possible.

“Corporate social responsibility definitely fits in with giving back to the community,” continues Odden. “It could be something like supporting the Luther Burbank Center or education at Sonoma State. It could also involve celebrating the arts with the San Francisco Ballet or supporting CORE, an organization that provides financial assistance to food and beverage operations employees with children during significant family crises, such as serious illness or even death.”

Rodney Strong’s supportive efforts, while concentrated in California—and specifically in Sonoma County—also focus on “the community” across the country.

Wine Club Family

Rodney Strong invites customers to join its Wine Club Family to receive special offers and access exclusive wines only available directly from the winery, as well as to enjoy perks like advance invitations to special events with exclusive member pricing and free shipping. 

Customers are inspired to join the Wine Club because they want to be a part of the Rodney Strong family—a wine brand that is welcoming and authentic.

“We are Sonoma County, and we believe in Sonoma County,” shares Odden. “That relaxed, welcoming feeling is what we want Wine Club Family members to take with them. We have three different clubs (Elevation SocietySymmetry Collection, and Davis Bynum), and we also offer beautiful events to deepen the connection to the brand.”

Odden sees the Wine Club as setting the tone—and the stage—for increased engagement. The brand has witnessed more engagement when people feel like they’re part of something and connected to Rodney Strong.

Sparking and Cultivating Emotional Loyalty

Many brands prioritize emotional loyalty, yet it can be challenging to drive a deeper level of engagement. Rodney Strong leverages the power of its Wine Club.

“Katie Turner is our personal concierge and has built personal relationships with people,” says Odden. “She’s been with Rodney Strong for so long, people come just to see her. We even named a wine after her. It’s called Katie’s Red Blend.”

It’s this type of unique intimacy that allows the brand to connect more fully with consumers, building loyalty and engagement. The other side of building emotional loyalty is a bit broader in that, nationally, Rodney Strong wants to meet consumers where they are. Digital marketing and digital advertising campaigns are targeted to key markets, allowing the brand to convey its stories and messages that help it connect with those consumers, too. Rodney Strong will also hold luxury events, bringing them to the consumer.

“We want to take the feeling of Sonoma and bring that to the consumer,” enthuses Odden. “Although we do a lot of storytelling through social media, we’re also going to the New Orleans Food and Wine Experience in June, and we’re bringing Sonoma to the consumer as much as we can.”

Meeting consumers where they live and showcasing authentic values ultimately engages them because Rodney Strong’s values match those of its consumers. The brand has given a name to this valued customer: the Conscious Connector.

“We know a decent amount about them. One thing that’s important to them is their values around sustainability, being part of something meaningful, and connecting with other people,” adds Odden. “We leverage that.”

Next Generation Customer Loyalty

For Odden, the wine industry—like others—wants to engage the “Next Generation,” the younger consumer. She sees this as a matter of doing things that they’re interested in and finding ways to reach them. At Rodney Strong, it’s about making emotional connections and increasing its digital footprint, such as producing more videos.

“It’s showcasing who we are and sharing our family,” says Odden. “We have lots of wonderful and amazing people here at Rodney Strong. We want to show consumers who they are. We’re not just a family-owned company. We are a family.”

With a greater emphasis on the digital space, Rodney Strong endeavors to share its stories through social media to bring that information to the consumer while connecting to the next generation, which the brand understands is much more digitally focused.

In tandem with digital engagement, Rodney Strong also works to bring its “family” experience to consumers through events. When the brand holds events across the U.S., it wants to reach Wine Club Family members, engage other consumers, and facilitate an emotional connection.

“Engagement, for us, definitely comes out of storytelling and creating that emotional connection,” affirms Odden.

Adapting for the Future

Every customer loyalty program and membership vehicle leveraged to engage consumers will find opportunities to improve offerings but will also face potential challenges. Odden agrees it can be difficult to adapt, but it’s something that needs to happen. In fact, it’s the key to success.

“We have to ask, ‘What are the next steps?’ We do as much research as we can,” says Odden. “With the Wine Club, we send out a survey. We ask questions to learn what is most important to our members. We need to know what they might want to see changed or what they want in terms of benefits.”

Asking consumers what they want and listening to the consumer is vital. Odden notes that research is at the basis of everything at Rodney Strong. Understanding and using data informs the brand before changes are made to its outreach and programs. Odden also points out that the wine industry is a challenging environment in terms of competition.

“It’s super competitive. There are a lot of brands on those shelves,” admits Odden.

This means Rodney Strong must stand out. Analyzing the data it’s collected is one way the brand can understand what its consumers truly want. Leveraging those insights will help the brand continue to adapt.

“That is what the wine industry needs to do,” says Odden. “We have to adapt digitally, socially, and in terms of meeting those consumers where they live.”

Letting Consumers Know They’ve Made a Difference

Showing consumers or program members how their patronage makes a positive impact matters. Odden nods to a loyalty program she belongs to as a consumer and how the environmentally-minded brand keeps her informed of how she’s contributed to its sustainability efforts.

“I like that my engagement matters,” says Odden. “It has an impact.”

Odden envisions Rodney Strong embracing this strategy: taking insights from how the brand gives back to the community and sharing that information with Wine Club Family members and consumers.

“We can say, ‘Hey, this is what we did, and here’s the impact.’ Like me, consumers want to see that they’re doing good through their actual purchases,” finishes Odden.

This article was originally published by Loyalty360 on 29 April 2024. View original.

Photo by Zan Lazarevic on Unsplash.

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