Amanda Thomson is founder and CEO of B Corp-certified Thomson & Scott, which is creating an entirely new space for itself in the wine industry by focusing on alcohol-free, low sugar, healthier alternatives to regular sparkling wines. Formerly a BBC broadcaster, Amanda moved to Paris in 2010 to fulfil a life-long ambition to study for a wine and champagne diploma at Le Cordon Bleu, before setting up her own wine company. Alongside organic Prosecco, her company now offers an alcohol-free sparkling Chardonnay called Noughty that cuts unnecessary sugar, is organic, vegan and halal certified.
“…right from the outset, when the pandemic hit in March, we just said: “Let’s just get on the phone and see how everybody’s doing.” It was then a combination of making sure our business was secure and still growing in any way we could, while also making sure that our partners felt supported and able to reach out…”
From journalist to wine entrepreneur
I studied in Sheffield and I had a great time. I started as an arts journalist, and then I ended up in broadcasting at the BBC. I was in the arts space, where we would drink Champagne on red carpets, but wouldn’t be thinking really too much about what we were drinking.
However, I’d been brought up by a mother who was a health food entrepreneur and was very focused on good diet, which got me thinking that wine was the only consumable where there was no actual ingredients list. That’s what set me on the path to re-train in wine. I moved to Paris, completely changing my career and set to work on creating my own brand.
Knowing what’s in your bottle
The original launch of my brand, Thomson & Scott, was Champagne, and it was all about tasting incredible, being as pure as possible, cutting sugar where we could, and telling consumers we were vegan.
From the outset, the plan for the brand was to have incredible bottles. So, taste first and foremost; and then being as open, honest and transparent as we could be about what was going into the bottle.
I had no idea how hard it would be legislatively because each country has very strict labelling laws. Ironically, it’s very hard to actually say what the ingredients are in the wine business.
At the moment, you have no idea what you’re drinking: If you open a bottle, you don’t know what’s in there. So, usually people say: “Well, there are grapes and the grapes ferment.” But actually, there are other things: added sugar and all kinds of chemicals. I think it’s important for consumers to know what they’re drinking.
The perks of organic vegan wine
One of the main reasons for our wine to be organic is because, when it comes to wellness, people are realising that, even if they want a little alcohol, they still don’t want necessarily to have all the side effects that go with that.
Therefore, I think that to drink a bottle of organic wine is better, because at least it means that you’re lessening the nasties that you’re consuming.
The vegan element is another tick box for transparency. Sometimes animal products, including dairy products, are used when the wine is filtered. Therefore, for our vegan fans, it’s important to tell them that we don’t use any animal products in our filtration.
I think we were one of the first brands globally to start talking about that. Of course, for carnivores, it doesn’t necessarily matter. Yet, the vegan community obviously wants to know, and it’s a shame that so many brands have not been talking about it.
Being a pioneer in alcohol-free
We’ve recently launched Noughty, which is an organic, vegan, low-sugar, alcohol-free, sparkling Chardonnay. It’s also got halal certification. That means that anyone who chooses not to drink alcohol for religious reasons can also enjoy it.
We’ve been blown away by the reasons that people are choosing to drink Noughty. There are so many, whether it be to do with a health and fitness movement; the balance; sometimes they just don’t like the taste of alcohol.
Young people, who are a huge driver in the alcohol-free movement, are recognising that social media plays a large part of their lives and they don’t want to be captured on camera drunk, which is a really simple but obvious thing in the corporate world. I think everybody’s realising that it’s not appropriate in 2020 to be getting drunk in front of colleagues.
Therefore, the idea is that Noughty can ameliorate that situation, particularly for younger people coming into the industry, where they can get a seat at the table with a lovely drink in their hand.
It’s also about time that the Muslim community were catered for and included when it comes to anyone who sticks to a halal diet.
Historically, all that’s been offered in the alcohol-free world are alcohol-free beers. And a lot of people don’t like beer. Or very sugary drinks. So often, in a sort of social setting, anyone choosing not to drink would feel like they weren’t really welcome. And, for me, that’s the really important opportunity that Noughty brings.
The party without the hangover
I think the primary reason is that we’re all now recognising the importance consumption has on our health. I think even those who still choose to drink alcohol can’t escape its side effects, even if they drink good wine. And I say that as somebody who loves Champagne.
Therefore, I think the spotlight now is on balance. If you are having alcohol that perhaps might be a little better for you, or drink a little less of it and actually find something delicious that offers you that celebratory moment where you don’t get that hangover in the morning, you will take it. Actually, for many people, that’s the Holy Grail.
And that’s what Noughty does. We always say that Noughty brings the party without the hangover: It tastes amazing, you’ve got the pop of the cork, you’ve got that celebratory moment, you can party, and then you wake up and you feel fresh. And I think that’s such an important new focus for so many people.
Cheerleading for British brands
I became one of the Department for International Trade’s Export Champions because, from the very beginning, we wanted to be a brand that was British and started in London, but also was available in key cities around the world, because there are so many opportunities not just in London, but in New York, LA and Sydney for instance.
There were some key cities where we were really analysing the trends, and they were very similar to London. And of course, London’s quite famous for building trends. Actually, the opportunity for Noughty was surprisingly replicated in the cities we launched in, so we started to find export partners.
That was how we, I suppose, got the attention of the DIT; and how we were invited to be official export partners that are cheerleading the idea that British brands can grow their businesses through exports.
Building purpose at the heart of the business
B Corp is a movement that started in America about building purpose at the very heart of your business. So, not just profit, but building good ethics into every layer of our company. I became fascinated with B Corp because all of the businesses were really doing things the right way around.
That was why we set up Thomson & Scott – to encourage the wine business to be more transparent and open, and help the drinks industry recognise that organics were really important as well as recognising that we shouldn’t be consuming all this sugar and having all these chemicals.
B Corp status is a very hard status to achieve. There are not that many companies around the world that have it because they literally want every part of your business to be analysed and to be focused on ethics.
Therefore, if you have outside investors, you have to get your investor to agree that business growth won’t just be determined by chasing profit, but also that ethics will play a key part.
Now, of course, that sounds simple for people to agree to. But of course, behind the scenes, for businesses, that’s not always easy. We have got external investors, so we needed them to be on our side. So, it was a very proud moment when we got our certification last year.
Doubling down during lockdown
We’ve always been multi-channelled. We’ve always sold business to business, business to consumer, and also internationally to export partners. So, we’ve had a whole breadth of different ways to reach our customers, but recently because of the pandemic, we’ve had to double down on direct to consumer, and really build that side of the business out.
We’ve upgraded the way we interact with consumers, and we’ve really enhanced our delivery service. Now, we also do a lot more gifting, both private and corporate.
Supporting the hospitality sector
We also really focused hard on making sure our hospitality partners were okay and supported during the pandemic, because obviously, we’ve been lucky as a brand that can still sell throughout lockdown. For some of our partners in the food and drink trade, it’s not been easy and there have been some heart-breaking stories.
We talk with them regularly; we’ve offered staff support to see how we can help them with payment terms – really open communication at all times and just checking in and seeing what they might need.
My sales director is obsessed with customer service, putting that at the heart of our business, and with making sure that all of his partners are okay. So, right from the outset, when the pandemic hit in March, we just said: “Let’s just get on the phone and see how everybody’s doing.”
It was then a combination of making sure our business was secure and still growing in any way we could, while also making sure that our partners felt supported and able to reach out.
Advice for businesses to thrive under hard circumstances
I think open communication is the key and embracing all the opportunities that are available online, although it can be quite mentally exhausting.
I’ve now started streaming on LinkedIn live, which reaches our global B2B network, and I think there are many other opportunities for businesses online.
Sometimes I think people are nervous and they think: “Well, I’m not directly selling or directly furthering my business,” but I just think anything that raises your profile and brings you into contact with others is great anyway, because there’s an incredible opportunity for shared stories and commonality at the moment as everybody’s in the same boat. That’s where communication can be so powerful.
Therefore, I would suggest businesses should be open-minded about getting online, even if it’s not very comfortable for them, find a medium that suits them, whether it be Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, whatever it is, and just start to share stories and find people to talk to. What you’ll find is that there’ll often be conversations that start, and you may not see them as business opportunities, but you may then be surprised at how things develop.
I always say to my team that we never know where any opportunity to talk to anybody will lead. I think that being curious and open and having a growth mindset will really power people forward in this because everybody’s in it together.
Also, even though I think it’s a cliché, kindness is really everything. I think it’s so important to remember that, even if we’re having a good day, somebody else might not be and don’t take that personally, because there is tough stuff out there for people.
I think I’ve been blessed to be in an industry where I can still sell, but as I said at the beginning, others aren’t so lucky. And I think we have to be mindful of that.
We’re just about to launch with Waitrose any day now. Waitrose online this week, hopefully, and then in stores from January.
Then, we’ve got a rosé that we’re launching next year in the spring, Noughty alcohol-free rosé. And also, some alcohol-free ready-to-drink options. So, we’re really future-facing.
We’re also growing with our American partners in a very focused way. We’ve now got distributors in New York, California and Texas, which have three big populations. This is a big growth opportunity for us in 2021.
We’re in Australia and New Zealand as well; we’ve got global distribution in Asia; and we’re growing in Singapore and Dubai, so lots of opportunities.