When Amanda Thomson launched Skinny Champagne in 2010, she created an entirely new sector in the wine market — no mean feat in an industry that’s notoriously traditional and resistant to change. For Pass It On, we talked to her about what she’s learned on her remarkable journey from presenting for the BBC to heading up a hugely successful wine brand, about the importance of facing the risk of failure and getting out of your comfort zone.
A Studio of Our Own: Could you give us a brief bit of background on Thomson & Scott, when you started and how you identified the message you wanted to communicate?
Amanda Thomson: The company was officially started in 2013, though I had been working up to that behind the scenes with my wine studies in France since 2010. Our message is to lead the way in greater transparency in wine labelling for our brand and the wide industry. I am obsessed with cutting sugar and chemicals where they're simply not needed. And my company focuses on storytelling through our social channels and strategic publicity.
ASOOO: Amazing products aside, one of the things we love most about Thomson & Scott is the strength and disruptive nature of the brand. How strategic was this approach? Was it something you had planned all along?
AT: I call it politely disruptive. I'm married to a publicist so I've been taught to deliver a smile even in the face of rudeness! The wine business is so traditional, which is part of its charm, but it is in need of a major overhaul to stay relevant to the next generation of wine drinkers. We're showing them how it's done by connecting so effectively with young people interested in top quality sparkling wine but who also want to know exactly what they're drinking.
ASOOO: Your website and brand are gorgeous. How important do you think it is to have a strong visual identity?
AT: Massively. And we have been clear about that from the start. I think there's enough jargon in the business. We're all about clarity - both with our messaging and our design.
ASOOO: Skinny Prosecco has proven to be extremely popular — it seems absolutely crazy that no one had thought of it before, and yet you’ve said that many people told you it couldn’t be done, or worse that you wouldn’t be capable of doing it. Was there a point at which you knew you were onto something? When any doubts that you had were dispelled?
AT: I always knew I was onto something and I think as an entrepreneur it's pointless launching a venture unless you truly believe in it. I really knew I was onto something big when the media started to call our products "genius" and "a gift from God."! When I was invited to California to the Wine Vision conference as a speaker and Stephanie Gallo of the Gallo wine family invited me for a breakfast meeting, I got the sense they knew I had created a whole new sector in the wine business.
"I think as an entrepreneur it's pointless launching a venture unless you truly believe in it."
ASOOO: What have you found to be the most effective form of marketing for your brand? Has it changed since you first started?
AT: Word of mouth. Every conversation can lead to a bottle opening and a new customer who tells all their friends. We never really advertise. Instead, we talk and engage directly with our customers. Consumers are smart and can see a sales pitch a mile away. We let them know everything about our brand and let them make up their own mind if they want to experience our bottles or not.
"Consumers are smart and can see a sales pitch a mile away.
We let them know everything about our brand and let them make up their own mind if they want to experience our bottles or not."
ASOOO: Both Champagne and Prosecco are very much social products — how much of your success do you think is down to getting out there at events and letting the product speak for itself?
AT: Both, I would say. 50/50. If the bottles weren't as gorgeous as they are, they wouldn't be sold a second time but if customers don't know about your brand, you won't sell it.
ASOOO: For start-ups, what would your advice be for creating a strong brand identity?
AT: Be obsessed with what you do. Everything you do. And always trust your instincts. You know your brand better than anybody. But that doesn't mean you should ever be closed minded to advice when it comes from the right place. And some self-assessment is good.
ASOOO: We love that the Skinny range is suitable for vegans — do you feel brands have a requirement to be more responsible these days?
AT: Oh, unquestionably yes. And those that don't may end up in trouble as the landscape in all business is changing dramatically. People want to connect with trusted brands more than ever before.
ASOOO: Your brand is to some extent based on transparency and the idea that people should be better educated about what they’re consuming. Hundreds of products could benefit from the same kind of thinking. You've already moved into Champagne. What are your goals for the future?
AT: Global domination! Getting everyone to drink better — one beautiful bottle at a time.
ASOOO: What have you most enjoyed about the experience of running your own business?
AT: The control. The decision making. And the fact that I get to meet inspirational people and learn from them.
ASOOO: What gets you out of bed every day?
AT: The thought that my brand has the power through the trickle down effect to cut everyone's sugar and nasty additions to wine, while still bringing the party to the table.
ASOOO: It can be tempting to chase the next big opportunity to make money, which is sometimes to the detriment of the reason you got into business in the first place. How have you maintained focus as your business has grown?
AT: Actually I feel the opposite is true for me as the more powerful my brand becomes, the bigger my opportunity for my mission I believe.
"People who make fast decisions are perceived as being good decision makers. You've moved onto the next thing by the time others may want to look back..."
ASOOO: If you could give the entrepreneur you were when you started out some advice, what would it be?
AT: To only work with, and hire, energetic, positive people.
ASOOO: What was your biggest obstacle starting the business and how did you overcome it?
AT: The cynicism of others. I overcame it by focusing on my end goal and realising that the longer people thought my business idea was silly and irrelevant, the more I could quietly focus on building my empire — one bottle at a time! I think Warren Buffett calls it "compounding"!
ASOOO: Was the fear of failure an issue for you when starting out? Did it impact the decisions you made? If so, would you have acted differently if you had known then what you know now?
AT: I think fear of failure drives you as an entrepreneur. I never have had a Plan B. I was once discussing this with an accountant going into the start-up world — she was super capable though notably risk averse. I'm not sure the latter is a useful entrepreneurial trait. It could hold you back. I read that people who make fast decisions are perceived as being good decision makers. You've moved onto the next thing by the time others may want to look back at whether it was a good or bad choice — you've already forged ahead.
"As an entrepreneur, you'll be out of your comfort zone on an almost hourly basis so the sooner you make a start and get out there, the better.
You have to ask yourself what's the worst that can happen...?"
ASOOO: As an agency, we’re constantly talking about the need for bravery in business. You’ve said in the past that you’ve had to ‘fake confidence’. That’s easy to say, but harder to do. Do you have any tips for start-ups who have a great idea, but no experience of selling?
AT: Yes, a simple one. I remember years ago my mother gave me a book 'Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway'. As an entrepreneur, you'll be out of your comfort zone on an almost hourly basis so the sooner you make a start and get out there, the better. You have to ask yourself what's the worst that can happen and unless you're a surgeon or in a war zone, probably not too much.
ASOOO: What was your support network like when you started out? Where did you go when you needed advice?
AT: My husband, though I wouldn't always recommend this. A start-up is so all consuming — it's not great for relationships.
ASOOO: What has running your own business taught you about yourself? Are there new skills you had to learn and what would you say has been the most valuable?
AT: That I have grit and resilience and you can probably count on me to be calm in a crisis. Most importantly, that nothing counts more than sheer hard work. That believing in Karma will pay dividends if you surround yourself with the right people who encourage you.
"Most importantly... nothing counts more than sheer hard work."
ASOOO: We're big advocates of companies behaving in a way that's nice, brave and honest. How do you think being nice, honest and brave has helped you get to where you are?
AT: I don't know if nice is always true in business. Sometimes you have to make really tough decisions that don't always seem nice. What's more important to me than being nice or achieving financial success in business — is integrity. I'd rather my company lose money than lose its integrity. Honest and brave? Yes, absolutely. Though bravery is relative! I'm not saving the world... I'm bringing the party to the table and helping you feel better knowing exactly what's in the bottle you're drinking.