View from the boardroom: Virgin Wines should use PR to toast its business credentials

Jay Wright, CEO of online wine merchant Virgin Wines, says now is the time to use PR to shout about the business from the rooftops.

All of us are familiar with the Virgin brand, but did you know the group has its own wine business too?

Despite selling wine to half a million people in the UK in the past four years, Jay Wright, CEO and co-owner of Virgin Wines, says it is amazing how many people haven’t heard of the company. "We are one of the largest, if not the largest, wine business in the UK, but there still isn’t much recognition of us in the market," he claims.

The online wine retailer was launched in 2000 by Virgin Group and in 2005 was bought by corporate giant Direct Wines. Wright came on board in 2008 and five years later led a successful management buy-out of the business, after securing a £16m private equity deal.

Following the MBO the company brought in a PR agency but after failing to deliver, the contract was not renewed. With a new PR manager in place and a stronger story to tell, Wright feels that now is the time to begin looking again.

When the message got out that Virgin Wines was looking for PR support, the company received replies from 70 agencies. Wright says the process has been "pretty intense" – after speaking to around 20 firms, the list was whittled down to eight.

Learning from previous mistakes, the company made it clear it was not looking for "pretty presentations" and went for a more informal approach.

Wright’s main concern was seeing through the agency bullshit: "When an agency sticks 50 slides in front of me and talks about its ethos, it doesn’t tell me what it can do for us."

Wright is also adamant that his in-house PR team will be fully involved with any agency that comes on board, so much so that this has been included in the brief.

The aim is to recruit 100,000 new customers every year, so building a consumer base is key. "We don’t want a situation where we are just dealing with the trade press; we want to be better known in the consumer press," explains Wright.

For Wright, what’s most important in a PR agency is sharing the same ambitions of a growing, entrepreneurial business. Wright has big plans for the company, which saw turnover reach £40m at the end of the 2014/15 financial year, and net profit hit £3m. With a total of 160 staff, Virgin Wines is catching up quickly with its main rivals – the supermarkets.

Wright is not concerned about the rate of growth slowing any time soon. "Wine, particularly in the market that we sell, which is around the £7-12 a bottle mark, is growing considerably, as is the online market, so we are where the growth is," he says. With research pointing at this trend continuing, Virgin Wines looks to be in a good position. "As long as we keep doing a great job, making customers happy and letting people know about us, the business will grow," says Wright.

This year the company has been focusing on the corporate and b2b market, using wine as an incentive for companies to sell their products, including a recent deal with a retailer that sells wine fridges. Last October Virgin Wines launched a gift business to cater for special occasions such as birthdays, Christmas and Valentine’s Day.

"Wine can be a pretty snobby environment to work in," says Wright. "Having the Virgin brand is a massive help – it’s young, energetic and dynamic, which lets us break down some of those barriers and get away with doing things that other companies can’t."

While some CEOs remain cautious or even dismissive of PR, Wright says he has no reservations: "If you are confident in your business, the service you provide and the message you are sending out then you should want to tell as many people as possible – we want to shout from the rooftops."

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