I was born in 1965 in Winnipeg, Manitoba. That sentence reads like a dual confession and I have one more to share before this is over but we will get to that shortly. Any how, from the 1960’s to 1990’s, wine took a backseat to beer and spirits in Canada. In Manitoba, Old Vienna beer and any rye brand dominated for decades. When wine did grace the table or flowed at a party, invariably it was Black Tower, Blue Nun, or Baby Duck.
Black Tower suggested Teutonic dominance with its once clay bottles. Blue Nun had a pleasing name and label that implied organized religion had blessed your choice. Baby Duck was hugely successful. It sold 8 million bottles in 1973 alone. The name prompted many imitators. In the 1970’s, you could buy Canada Duck, Love-A-Duck, Kool Duck, Daddy Duck, and Fuddle Duck (say this last one three times fast). One brand even tried a poorly thought-out deviation and went by the name of Cold Turkey.
With all due deference to Black Tower, Blue Nun, and Baby Duck, they were outclassed by a fourth powerhouse. Do me a favour. Close your eyes. Now picture a wine bottle unlike the standard. In this one, the 750ml of wine was contained in a squat teardrop shape. Remember it? I am speaking of Mateus. Following consumption that bottle often housed a succession of candles in its tapered neck. Waxes of different colours would run together in pleasing collages. In Manitoba, drinking Mateus and displaying the empty bottle as part of your household decorating suggested European refinement at its best (I am not joking).
Now take a break and allow yourself an eye-roll or laugh. Everyone pokes fun at Mateus. They attack the quality of the wine and claim in a self-deprecating way just how silly they were to ever drink it in the first place. Still, this indicates a fond nostalgia that the brand has never capitalized on. In its heyday, Mateus sold 4 million cases annually in the United States alone. The wine’s owner, Sogrape, now makes less than 2 million cases a year in total. This, to me, is a huge opportunity.
W. Blake Gray, a leading wine blogger and wine judge, took exception with the longstanding indictment of quality. He wrote an impassioned piece suggesting Mateus Rosé was worthy of a top prize in any competition. Gray describes a funny scene in Portugal where he was invited to a fancy event hosted by Antonio Oliveira Bessa, CEO of Sogrape, the largest wine producing company in Portugal. Finer wines were offered but Gray asked for Sogrape’s Mateus Rosé.
Here is how he described the wine, “It’s a medium-light pink, very slightly fizzy, with good freshness and balance. There’s a nice aroma of rosehip, and the wine is mostly dry but not bone dry. It is more floral than fruity, with dried raspberry notes coming out more with food.” That is a lovely description that recommends drinking Mateus on its own or with a meal. High praise indeed and Gray points out how amazingly cheap it is to alternatives. And you would be surprised to know that for the last three years, Mateus Rosé has received the accolade of being one of the 50 most admired wine brands in the world and the only Portuguese one on the list.
Gray lays blame for Mateus’ relevance and sales decline not on its 1970’s roots or debated taste but rather to a 30 year-old business decision. In the 1980’s, Sogrape sued their American distributor to gain control but lost in court. Gray makes the point that the resulting animus did not help move cases of wine. What is fascinating with this rich and choppy past is the surprising lack of Mateus stories, old ads, and other historic assets. Googling “Mateus” leads to slim pickings.
I did come across a 1979 advertising campaign and there is some lore albeit light. Queen Elizabeth has been a fan, Jimi Hendrix drank it straight from the bottle, and Saddam Hussein stockpiled cases in his many palaces and redoubts. Elton John’s 1973 song, Social Disease, has this lyric, “I get juiced on Mateus and just hang loose.” That same year a bottle can be seen on the album cover of Graham Nash’s Wild Tales. In the 1978 film Animal House, a Mateus bottle is seen being used as a candle-holder at the home of English Professor Dave Jennings played by Donald Sutherland. The original Frontier Airlines once featured complimentary Mateus and advertised this fact as an amazing differentiator.
In 2002, Mateus underwent a rebranding campaign to introduce it to a new generation of British wine drinkers. This featured a dryer formula to fit modern preferences. There have been other innovations and variations. A new variety has been marketed as “Mateus Rosé Tempranillo” and is produced in Spain. It features a deeper shade of pink with a clear bottle and silver foil. This product is marketed to women in their twenties. In 2014, the company launched “Expressions” comprising three rosé wines and one white wine. Gone is the distinctive bottle for these four new entries which suggests Sogrape is testing the market on other changes.
That is all good background and now leads to my third confession. I bought Mateus Rosé and White in large amounts this summer. My wife refused to drink it. I think it reminds her of getting hammered in her teens or she has bought into the hype around Kim Crawford. It doesn’t matter. I just enjoy having the wine all to myself. I agree with W. Blake Gray. It is a solid product. I also love the price point but I most enjoy the conversations that result when I bring out a bottle.
People recognize it instantly. It is akin to a Heinz Ketchup bottle. You cannot buy that recognition, emotional connection, and brand conversation. Sogrape is sitting on a dormant brand that should rock their balance sheet in all the right ways. So as a fun exercise, I put myself in the role of Mateus brand manager who is compensated in cases sold.
I first thought, don’t hide from the heritage. If anything, leverage and celebrate it. My first creative idea was a humorous self-deprecation. This included a print campaign whereby a 70’s looking person was enjoying the wine in a modern setting. There are countless juxtapositions that could be run out using this idea. It would work in the short-term. Canadian Club did an outstanding campaign in this vein about eight years ago but there was no longevity to it. I also thought that poor Mateus had been made fun of enough.
This led me to think about the value of nostalgia, overcoming the quality complaint, and playing up the product’s cost-value equation. We all know that good marketing tells a story and the best ones allow consumers to picture themselves in the narrative. This means it must strike a personal and emotional chord (or two).
At the time, I was sitting with my wife binge watching Netflix. It was a Tuesday evening. We try not to drink Monday through Thursday. I stress the “try”. On that particular night I opened a bottle of Mateus Rosé because I had had a great day. I mean a fantastic day. I did a mountain run, got work done around the homestead, landed a new client, and secured a publishing contract for my book on marketing. That was a damn fine day and I wanted to celebrate.
My wife jokingly called me out on it, “Hey, what happened to not drinking during the week?” This response just came out of me, “But it’s a Mateusday.” We both laughed but then I sat there and thought about it. I had vocalized the play on words between “Tuesday” and “Mateusday” but there was something grander in the idea. A Matuesday could be any day of the week and what constituted such a day could be left to the individual. A Mateusday can meet the definition of anyone’s damn fine day.
What follows below is a fun attempt at a campaign to leverage this notion. It can go in a multitude of directions and have double meanings as you will see. As we like to say in the industry, it has legs. This creative idea could invite Mateus drinkers to share real examples of their good days. And, yes, it will also solicit ridicule and satire but such is our world.
I would love to see this brand flourish again. So if this idea happens to make it to the desktop of Antonio Oliveira Bessa, CEO of Sogrape, I have a proposition. Feel free to use it but please compensate me in a lifetime supply of Mateus. I enjoy the wine and love the nostalgia so would be pleased to see you create a new future for the brand. Some people have made lamps out of old Mateus bottles, I will make a few chandeliers out the bottles I would surely empty. Cheers, Jeff Swystun.