2017 Conference blogs – ‘Brands and the role of reputation in the nineteenth-century British wine trade’

Graham Harding, University of Oxford

Brands and the role of reputation in the nineteenth-century British wine trade

From the mid nineteenth century on, the wine and spirits trade was recognised as both innovative and brand conscious. The trade magazine, Ridley’s Wine and Spirit Trade Circular wrote in 1868 that ‘in no branch of commerce are brands so firmly established as in the Wine and Spirit trade’.[1]  Much of this marketing and branding impulse came from the dramatic rise in the sale of wine in the 1860s after a series of Gladstone budgets reduced the tariffs on what contemporaries called light wine. This essentially meant natural French wines that were not fortified with added alcohol as port and sherry were. So many new retailers flooded into the market that Ridley’s compared it to the Californian gold rush. Sales of French champagne and French claret to newly prosperous middle-class households quintupled in less than a decade, driven up by a stream of wine books and a flood of advertisements.

In the first half of the century most wine was sold under the names of British merchants. In the second half of the century brands became more important. From the 1860s onwards, merchants’ advertisements were significantly more likely to refer to the brands they stocked rather than to appeal to their own reputation or that of their wines.

Harding figure 1

‘Reputation’ v ‘brand’ in 19th century press advertising for wine. Source: British Newspaper Archive analysis conducted 2 May 2017.


When we look at specific wines we can see how powerful the brand effect was. As sales of claret and champagne rose so the brands of the French producers and shippers became steadily more important.

Harding figure 2

Incidence of branded wines in press advertising. Source: Analysis of advertising in British provincial press, 1850-1905. British Newspaper Archive analysis conducted 20 November 2016.


In the fifteen years from 1850 to 1865 most advertising for sparkling wine from the Champagne region still featured names such as ‘Sillery Mousseux’. Sillery was the best known ‘commune’, whilst Mousseux simply indicated it was strongly carbonated with lots of ‘mousse’ or foam. Wines with less sparkle were called ‘Crémant’ or ‘creaming’. Then, from the late 1860s onwards such terms fell out of use and were replaced by shipper names – names such as Moët and Chandon, Veuve Clicquot and Pommery. In the following forty years, advertisements which did not refer to a named shipper brand became increasingly rare.

These shipper brands used advertising extensively. The wine writer and wine merchant Charles Tovey vividly described the all-pervasive nature of champagne advertising:

Advertisements cunningly worded […] bribes to hotel-keepers and proprietors of steam-boats, the same to the managers of public establishments, paragraphs in newspapers […] fees to waiters at hotel, and gratuities to stewards and butlers in the service of the nobility. Neither Norwich nor Bridgewater can surpass in bribery and corruption the attempts to give currency to a brand of Champagne.[2]

This was an expensive process. In 1892, a Ridley’s editorial claimed that ‘it is beyond doubt that hundreds of pounds are paid by certain shippers of Champagne for the sole privilege of hanging up show cards in public places, to get the public accustomed to the mere sound of a name’.

Harding figure 3

Tablets in public places


Such tablets were hung in the offices of merchants, in hotels and in what an 1891 article called ‘certain small apartments’. As a later prospectus clarified they meant lavatories and they claimed for their system that it meant that the brand name would be ‘directly in front of the client’ at a time when he or she had nothing else to read.[3] The names of the champagne houses consequently became ‘as familiar in the mouths of their customers as household words’.

What the champagne shippers were doing was building what the contemporary press called reputation. We would now call it brand awareness. They rarely advertised specific products from their range. Nor did they try to communicate the attributes of their champagne. The name of the house was positioned as the guarantee of quality. As a merchant in the port trade commented in an exchange of letters to the Morning Post in 1883 on the subject of ‘What Is There in a Brand?’, ‘the principal Oporto shippers are gentlemen who would not trifle with their good name, and their brand is their name’.

Wine merchants attempted to create their own brands to counter the competition from the shipper brands. In this, they were following the advice of the wine trade press. In 1870, Charles Tovey counselled ‘have nothing to do with the brand of the foreigner. Get the best possible wine you can but insist upon your own brand on the cork, and your own name on the label.’ His argument to fellow merchants was:

you are responsible for the quality to your customer the consumer; it is to you that the reputation and credit of the selection belongs. Why should you pay a premium to others for advertising their names and thus encourage a monopoly prejudicial to your own interests.’[4]

But reputation was not enough to succeed. None of the attempts by the independent wine merchants to create their own brands worked – either under their own name or a fake French name. Merchants became worried that the growth of proprietary brands would reduce them to the level of what one noted firm – Corney & Barrow – called ‘penny-in-the-slot machines’. They feared that consumers would increasingly opt for the reassurance and quality guarantee of a known brand – even if it cost them more money – rather than trust the merchant’s claim to provide a wine of equivalent quality at a lower price. The merchants simply could not afford match the spending of the major brands. All they could do was to communicate by letter or printed circular or price list to their own private ‘connection’. They had no hope of achieving the national name recognition of distributors such as Gilbey’s with stores on every High Street and ubiquitous advertising in newspapers and station walls.

And the merchants were right to fear. Even Gilbey’s had to change their own brand strategy in the 1880s. Though they never abandoned their own very successful Castle brand they increasingly downplayed it in favour of product brands such as Martell’s Cognac, Perrier Jouët champagne and their own brand of ‘Invalid Port’. In particular they switched from the Castle brand of champagne to what Gilbey’s called the ‘Celebrated Brands’ of champagne.

Harding figure 4

Gilbey’s ‘Celebrated Brands’


Yet, the Castle brand had precisely the attributes that retailers claimed when they spoke of reputation: low price, extensive stock and good quality – backed up by smart buying, massive sales and overwhelming physical presence in thousands of British High Streets.

The power of reputation is usually defined by modern marketeers as the sum of the experience of the brand or company. It takes in advertising, product quality, service experience as well as what other people say about the company of brand. Lipton’s, one of the few nineteenth-century service organisations with a national presence and national advertising, failed in the last decades of the nineteenth century to translate their famous own brands and their reputation for value in cheese, ham and tea into a viable wine business, despite significant investment. By the 1880s and 1890s the power of brands in the wine and spirit market was simply too great. Reputation had met its limit.

Harding figure 5

Late 19th century Lipton’s Tea advertisement



[1] Ridley’s Wine and Spirit Trade Circular, 10 March 1868, p. 8.

[2] Ibid., pp. 101-2.

[3] Ibid., 12 June 1882, p. 194; 12 December 1891, p. xx.

[4] Charles Tovey, Champagne: Its History, Properties, and Manufacture (London: J. C. Hotten, 1870), pp. 102-3.


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