Digital Marketing Redux   //   January 24, 2024

Josh Cellars receives boost following viral wine meme

New life has been breathed into Josh Cellars, a staple of the supermarket wine aisle, thanks to recent internet virality.

Earlier this month, Josh Cellars unexpectedly gained online traction thanks to a viral meme featuring its mass market wine line. Many of the jokes referenced the brand’s reputation as a cheap grocery wine, while also placing Josh atop the cheap wines hierarchy. Now the cycle has nearly died down, but the winemaker is still reaping the benefits from the viral boost.  

The popular wine brand was created by Joseph Carr in 2007, and named after his dad as a tribute. Josh Cellars has become known for its affordable bottles, namely its California Cabernet Sauvignon, which are all priced at under $25. But that didn’t stop the internet from ascribing its own story on the mass-produced line. It began on January 6 with a poster on X calling Josh’s Merlot the grown-up version of downmarket brands like Stella Rosa and Barefoot. In the following days, more people across social media platforms like X and TikTok began posting their own jokes about drinking fancy Josh wine. 

It’s difficult to say precisely how much of an impact the meme had on overall retail sales. But anecdotal reports from over the weekend show that liquor stores are selling more Josh bottles than usual, especially among people in their 20s — even if some people are purely purchasing purely for the bit. And the company tells Modern Retail that it saw a huge boost in brand awareness and expects to see sales spike.

For companies that go viral online, the trick is to convert this type of fleeting attention into longterm brand affinity. 

Dan Kleinman, chief brand officer at Josh Cellars, told Modern Retail the company is still awaiting weekly sales figures to assess the spike, but Kleinman confirmed “we do expect to see a spike in volumes for the brand.” For now, the Josh team is basking in the social media attention. 

“Outside of sales specifically, we have seen a 79% uptick in our Instagram followers versus the same week the year prior, as well as a significant spike in google searches for the brand,” Kleinman said. Moreover, the meme cycle also reinvigorated Josh Cellars’ social media presence, with the brand’s account posting on X for the first time since 2019. “This has been a great opportunity to bring even more folks into the Josh Cellars family, as well as a way to engage with our loyal Josh followers in a new and fun way,” Kleinman said. 

The Josh Cellars meme comes at a time when the wine category is having a particularly hard time growing among Gen Z and younger millennials, who are drinking less than their predecessors. While the premium wine business is growing steadily, the latest Silicon Valley Bank report shows demand for bottles under $12 has turned negative — in turn, pulling the entire category down with it. 

But could this moment usher in a renewed interest in the lagging category?  

Miles Marmo, co-founder of Agency Squid, which works with alcohol brands like White Claw and Libby Wines, said the Josh meme can give the wine category a much-needed boost among young Americans. “Historically, I don’t think wine producers have done a good job reaching young people,” Marmo said, with the industry typically highlighting varieties and awards, which can overcomplicate the messaging. This makes the Josh meme a fun contrast to that snobbish positioning. “It also shows that marketing is a two-way street, and that audiences are finding their own odd interpretation of what a brand means to them,” Marmo said.

One unique challenge the wine industry faces is that it’s much harder to brand than lifestyle-driven spirits, or even beer. Marmo said that with thousands of wine labels being produced annually, it can be nearly impossible for brands to stand out — which makes moments like the Josh wine memes a major opportunity to lean into. Indeed, a major reason the Josh Cellars memes are resonating with a large subset of social media is the brand name’s simplicity, a contrast to Italian and French labels found at many wine shops and on restaurant menus. “The fact that it’s a basic guy’s name is juxtaposed with the perceived snootiness of wine,” Marmo said. 

To date, there have been a handful of examples of wine makers that have done a good job of branding themselves through digital marketing and collaborations, Marmo said. “What 19 Crimes is trying to do is interesting, for example,” he said. Whispering Angel rosé is another example of a supermarket wine brand that was able to become more of a household name. 

This isn’t the first time a mainstream brand is organically catapulted into the spotlight by social media. A few years back, cranberry juice maker Ocean Spray found itself at the center of a viral meme featuring its popular juice blend. But it’s a delicate balance the brand has to strike: participating by getting in on the joke, but not aggressively enough to come off as cheesy and kill the bit. In fact, some online users quickly predicted Josh’s elated marketing department would hop on the trend. 

For Josh Cellars, the unforeseen virality is breathing new life into its digital strategy.  

Kleinman said that despite having grown considerably in the past two decades, this newfound spotlight is a chance to introduce more people to the Josh wine collection for the first time. “That’s the fun of social media — you never know what might be next or what people will hook onto.”

Meanwhile, marketers would welcome more wine memes to boost vino’s awareness. “Hopefully Kim Crawford is next,” Marmo joked. “That has the potential to spur a wealth of memes.”