Posted by: David Kiley on May 8, 2008
Much is being made of “The Wine Trials,” to be published this month by Fearless Critic Media, along with recent studies about consumer psychology that says we consumers are nothing but rubes and idiots when it comes to packaging and ads.
The controversy, as tackled this week by The New York Times Eric Asimov, surrounds how the Wine Trials book reports (and picked up Newsweek in its April 7 issue) that a $10 bottle of sparkling wine from Washington state outscored Dom Pérignon, which sells for $150 a bottle, while the El-Cheapo Charles Shaw California cabernet sauvignon, topped a $55 bottle of Napa Valley cabernet.
This from Asimov’s article: “…In recent months American wine drinkers have taken their turn as pop culture’s punching bags. In press accounts of two studies on wine psychology, consumers have been portrayed as dupes and twits, subject to the manipulations of marketers, critics and charlatan producers who have cloaked wine in mystique and sham sophistication in hopes of better separating the public from its money.”
“One of the studies was devised by Robin Goldstein, a food writer, to try to isolate consumers from outside influence so they could simply judge wine by what’s in the glass. He had 500 volunteers sample and rate 540 unidentified wines priced from $1.50 to $150 a bottle.”
Here’s my problem with all this discussion. Separating the image of a product from the product itself may be interesting in an academic way, but it is like trying to cut into the apple without breaking the skin.
Some of the same researchers who say those who spend $150.00 for a bottle of Dom instead of $10 the American stuff surely have brand preferences of their own. Aren’t there brands that these researchers and writers “wouldn’t be caught dead wearing or driving?”
It’s good sport to point out that a confirmed Absolut vodka drinker can’t tell their martini apart from one made with Popov in a blind taste (as a forthcoming story of mine will do).
The result of such research may be to get a few consumers to trade down in their wine purchases. But my guess is that the number will be few.
People buy the brands they do because they make them feel good. Sometimes it is for taste or efficacy too. I hate Bud Lite. I buy more expensive beer, because I like it better. It’s usually small batch beer from small breweries. But I also buy Guinness. One of the reasons I buy Guinness is that it reaffirms my Irish heritage. If I were to choose a Michigan stout over Guinness in a blind taste, I still wouldn’t buy the Michigan brew, because it doesn’t stroke my Irishness.
Many people are anti-brand to a point. They relentlessly buy generic products. They skip every TV commercial they can. They also say that they don't vote based on ads they see.
I'm not buying it.
The story around a brand, even if it is manufactured by Madison Ave., matters. Volkswagen, at least for a time, polled as having twice the quality of Chevrolet, even though Chevy's quality was actually twice as good as VW's. It was that whole German engineering image that paid off for VW.
I don't know a lot of VW buyers who were interested in buying Chevys, even after a bad experience with VW. Why? They like the way the German car makes them feel.
Brand matters. And a product's image, and the story a consumer absorbs or even weaves for themselves around a brand is not trivial or the stuff of rubes. I buy Necco wafers sometimes because it reminds me of going out with my Dad when I was a kid. I keep a bottle of Dom Perignon in my wine cellar because it reminds me of a fabulous trip to France that I took. When I open it, that trip all comes flooding back.
Brand and product go hand in hand for most of us. Whether we like to admit it or not. And there is nothing wrong or stupid about that if the choices we make...make us feel good.