Wine brands have been told to follow other grocery categories in putting the shopper first.

Speaking at wine debate ‘Fighting it out in France’ this week, Sainsbury’s senior wine buyer Michelle Smith said wine brands - particularly French ones - needed to engage more with customers.

“The big difference between French wine and other grocery brands is that most other categories will start with the consumer in mind,” she told the audience. “Others will look for a customer need then create a product to go with it by developing new flavours and taking advantage of trends.”

The issue with French - and some other wine industries - was that marketing and branding were focused too much on the product. “Some are quite creative but I have been to many presentations where the packaging and everything else but the customer gets mentioned,” she said.

French producers had to ensure their wines were understood and that they had a direct link with the consumer, agreed Dominique Vrigneau, buying director at wine distributor Thierry’s, which organised the debate.

While France is the third largest country in the off-trade, price hikes have driven a 2% rise to £732m and volume sales have fallen 4% over the past year [Nielsen 52w/e 4 February 2012]. It has been outpaced by Spain and Italy, which have reacted to consumer demands.

JP Chenet, the largest French brand in UK grocery, said it put shoppers first but believed smaller producers often focused only on the liquid. “France needs to be more focused on what it’s communicating to the consumer and think about why they would buy that wine as opposed to another,” said Tim North, UK director for the brand at exporter Les Grands Chais de France.