As Hanukkah draws to an end, we can begin to reflect on another Festival of Lights during this particularly dark year. Lighting the candles, spinning dreidels, learning Smokey Robinson doesn’t know how to pronounce Hanukkah, and eating latkes and lots of other fried foods filled eight nights with a sense of familiarity and comfort that has been so lacking this.
Maybe, if you were looking to have some kosher wine as a part of your celebrations, you reached for a bottle of Manischewitz and its overly sweet, syrupy classic, Concord Grape. Despite the fact that it contains high fructose corn syrup and is not considered to be kosher by some Jews, Manischewitz is the name most American Jews have in mind when it comes to kosher wine for Hanukkah, and especially for Passover.
In the kosher food world, Manischewitz is a category king, the end stage of a successfully implemented category design strategy. While they started out in a strictly defined category that was thousands of years old, what Manischewitz was able to do was create a new category: mass-market kosher wine. They defined themselves as affordable and readily available, as opposed to the small batch, handmade kosher wines Jews had drank for generations.
Building in an Existing Category
To look at how Manischewitz became a category king, it is first interesting to note that they were already working within a long-established and strictly-defined category, kosher foods. What is and what is not kosher is very specific, and because the rules were so strict, it led to a very diverse market for kosher foods, since people believed the only way to prepare kosher foods was by hand. What Manischewitz did by creating the category of mass-market kosher food redefined their own business model and drastically increased their potential reach. And they had to fight some religious authorities to be able to do it.
Let this be a lesson that just because a category has already been created, and might be very well defined, that you can still think creatively and find ways to differentiate yourself and create a new category to gain an advantage in the market.
While it is currently the season of Hanukkah, Manischewitz is probably best known for making matzah for Passover. In fact, Manischewitz is the largest matzah maker in the entire world, and was exporting it from the United States in the 1920s. How did they do this? It went against the grain and the traditional interpretations of what made matzah kosher. It mass produced it.
This was not without controversy at the time. Some rabbis claimed that the matzah made by machine could not be used religiously. Of course, when the rules for what is and is not kosher were written down, there was no machinery or automation, and everything had to have been made by hand. Some of the critical rabbis felt that handmade matzah was the only acceptable product for religious uses because of this. Manischewitz countered that their production methods strictly adhered to all of the written rules about the preparation of kosher foods.
This is really something, to go against the grain with a group of people who could theoretically turn your entire target market against you. But Manischewitz was successful, and now you would be hard-pressed to find a seder table in the spring with some other brand of matzah on it.
Creating a Category King
So Manischewitz became a category king for matzah by breaking with tradition and mass producing it, making it cheaper and more readily available to consumers all over America. And they did the exact same thing with wine.
Kosher wine has also been around for thousands of years, and like matzah has very strict rules defining if it is kosher or not. Rabbis supervise the entire production process of kosher wines to ensure that no animal products are used (some more modern wine production methods use gelatin to help with color and texture, for example).
Even with these strict guidelines, Manischewitz found ways to expand its market audience for its kosher wine. Perhaps most important is its price. Today, a standard 750ml bottle of Manischewitz Concord Grape costs $3.99 on Wine.com. The other top results when searching for budget kosher wines on the site hover closer to $12 or $15. When your product is three times less expensive than your competitors, you have a marked advantage over them, even if some think your product is of a lower quality.
Manischewitz’s can offer wine at their lower price for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the company uses vitis labrusca grapes, which produce aptly named “slip-skin” grapes, which allow for easy separation of the skin and pulp, cutting out a step in the normal wine making process because the skins can easily be removed before crushing. Secondly, the wine is made with is the use of corn-syrup, which adds the distinctive sweet flavor and helps fill out the volume of the bottle a bit while being very cheap. There are different kosher rules during Passover, and so Manischewitz does use pure cane sugar during that time of the year.
On top of the price, Manischewitz wine is readily available around the United States because there is a historical reason for the preference for sweet kosher wines. When Jews first emigrated to the Americas, they had to make wine for religious celebrations following the strict rules of production we have talked about. With limited grape varieties capable of growing in their new climate, they were often left with very bitter wine as a final product. To make it more drinkable they started to add sugar.
Because sweet wine was what American Jews had come to expect from the kosher vintages, Manischewitz was easily able to step up and fill that expectation with a cheaper and widely-available product. It started selling wine in the 1940s to New York City’s large Jewish population. That exposure meant that as time went on, people all over the country began to associate Manischewitz with the category of kosher wine.
Category Design for Success
The category design process isn’t always easy. It requires thinking outside the box, maybe in ways that might make others find you counterintuitive at first. But if you persist, and have strong marketing to back up your efforts, you can grow bigger and faster than relying on a more traditional advertising and growth strategy.
Manischewitz was recently bought by another kosher food company, Kayco, but its name will be remaining on the products they produce, because that name is still synonymous with kosher food, even if their market share has slowly dwindled. That is the power of category design. Becoming a category king gives you staying power, even as the market starts to move in other directions. And that is an incredibly powerful thing, both for ensuring the long term viability of your company and its potential future sale value (if that is an avenue you plan to travel down). But it also means that even on your way out you will have the power to define the market and shape it. It means you get to be the centerpiece of nostalgia and memory and live on forever, even when you aren’t the category king anymore.
From the Category Design Advisors family to yours – Happy Holidays!
And please – a legendary 2021!