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Brand Matters: The Whining About Wine Is Intoxicating

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.

Reader Comments

blur thunder

May 10, 2008 5:02 AM

Here's to the hot brand, unless you have a very specific need, very astute senses, and very wide experience, and then in that case product rears it's ugly head. Where there is large product differentiation, as everyone can discriminate a bit however, product is still important, as you do have to have something to build on, but in areas where there is no discernable difference, Brand rules. OK, the above seems to indicate that there are one or two sparkling wines that taste better than the generally regarded better champagnes, but in my experience, that is wholly rare, so it's really a combination of product and brand targeting a particular kind of customer need, which in the end is overall satisfaction, and when there is very little to distinguish one competitor from the other in a particular market, for instance dare I say it, in the appeal to the web searcher, as opposed to the web advertiser, you really are needing very very astute and with it brand management, in my opinion. They go on about click throughs, but when the technologies should really be indistinguishable, or someone should have a prod applied somewhere, what matters is the effect of the branding.

blur thuunder


May 11, 2008 11:33 PM

Consumers are not as stupid as we think they are.

They often purchase a more expensive brand simply because the aura of the brand includes a stronger guarantee of a positive experience. In simpler terms, they assume that a well advertised product, with an appearance of quality, is going to be better than any unknown counterpart.

Why plunk down money for something that can't, or doesn't, offer a similar guarantee? This is a simple equation of "What will my dollar buy me?" Consumers are not likely to try new, less well known products, simply because it makes their purchase more of a wager than a fair trade.

People want some assurance that their expenditure will actually return a positive experience and effective advertising and marketing does that. It implicitly guarantees a "good buy" and therefore reduces a consumer's concern about buying something less than worthy.

So consumers are ignorant fools for spending $150 for Dom instead of $10 for some no name brand that beat out Dom in a blind taste test? I couldn't disagree more. Dom made the case that their product is better and the price premium is as much about status as it is a confirmation of their taste superiority.

Had the $10 bottle made the case they were better than Dom, thereby ensuring a positive financial transaction for the consumer, they might be the top of bunch without any blind taste tests necessary.

People see well advertised and marketed products as having a greater guarantee of value. It's not about how it makes them feel, per se, but rather includes a huge component of "What will I get (literally) for my money?"

Brand matters? Yes it does but not nearly as much as the real value of the product and no marketer or brander can fool the consumer for very long if the product is sub par.


May 12, 2008 2:09 PM

I totally agree with the point of view of the author. Brands are like style statements, they show a person's attitude. Even if I were to choose a particular brand of a product (maybe the cheapest) in a blind-sample, I would not purchase it since it would not give me a high like a great branded product will do. Its all about the packaging. Would you like to wrap a gift for your friend in a plain paper or prefer a glittering one. If you do not mind the plain paper at all, brands are not for you and you probably do not carry a attitude at all.


May 13, 2008 6:42 AM

One thing to remember is there is no universal palate. IE a wine that excites me might leave you cold. many of my friends are glad their wallets allow them to enjoy fine wines and champagnes - as there are an equal number that are pleased they don't like the expensive stuff as their wallets are more restrictive. ~Personal preference and the fact we all have different mouths cannot be engineered out of the experiments.

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News, opinions, inflammatory meanderings and occasional ravings about the world of advertising, marketing and media. By marketing editor Burt Helm, Innovation Editor Helen Walters, and senior correspondent Michael Arndt.

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