“Come on. ..you know sex sells wine.. even if it doesn’t.”
This week’s wine news: Wine ads are missing the point by emphasizing sex. Plus, a wine country fire update and expensive wine foolishness
• Sex doesn’t sell: A new study, published in the academic journal Sex Roles, casts doubt on whether sex actually sells products. This result should be especially important for wine marketers, who rely on sex almost as often as they do snobbery to sell wine. The Italian study found that women were less likely to find a product attractive and were less likely to purchase it if the product used sexual female models than if the ad was neutral. Men, even more surprisingly, were unaffected by ads’ sexualization. Said the authors: “The present study has practical implications for marketers because it suggests that ‘sex does not sell.’ In addition, considering both the psychological damage and practical inefficacy of sexualized ads, our findings have important implications for public policy.”
• Scorched vines: The Wine Spectator does a fine job recapping this fall’s California wine country wild fires, “More than 200 wineries are in evacuation zones. A few vintners have managed to return to their properties to assess damage in recent days. But evacuation orders remain in place for much of the area, keeping many out.” I did a Napa radio show a couple of weeks ago, and it looked like the worst of the fire season was over. But then the Glass Fire sprang up last week.
• Betting on wine: We’ve written several times about the Kafka-esque reality of Liv-Ex, a stock exchange for the world’s most expensive wines. I mention it again to show one should drink wine instead of investing in it. A smart investor, according to the Liv-Ex article, would have seen a 20 percent return in a decade by investing in specific Robert Parker-favorited wines. Wow — two percent a year? Can’t I get that with a bank CD and then drink the wine?
“Hmmm. How can I write about the same wine this year that I wrote about last year?”
It hasn’t been easy for wine producers, marketers, and PR types during the pandemic
Yes, we’re buying more wine over the Internet than ever before, but that doesn’t mean the wine business is healthy. Ask anyone at the biggest distributors who was laid off in the past eight weeks. So how else is the wine business cutting costs and drumming up business during the duration?
This is what I have seen:
• Using Styrofoam inserts for packing wine samples. I really haven’t seen any in a couple of years, given Styrofoam’s environmental evil. Most shippers have switched to cardboard liners or plastic bubble bags. But during the duration, Styrofoam appeared again, since it was probably sitting in a back room and has already been paid for.
• Samples from producers who wouldn’t normally speak to me, let alone send me wine. I’m not the only who has had this happen; several of my colleagues have reported the same thing. Said one: “What am I going to do, writing about heavy Napa cabernet, in the middle of summer?”
• Old samples, as in the same samples I got last year. I’ve never had this happen before, but one producer sent me the same rose they sent in 2019. This speaks to how much wine is sitting in warehouses, unsold and unloved.
• Emails every two or three months offering me the same wines they just sent me. This has happened two or three times this year, where a PR firm offered me wine at the end of last year and the same wine a couple of months later. And then a couple of months later. Once again, this speaks to how much wine is sitting in warehouses, unsold and unloved.
• Virtual tastings, where I have to try and find the wine to taste with the producer. I don’t mind buying the wine, since I do so much of that anyway. But what’s the point of inviting me to a virtual tasting when I can’t find the wine to taste?
• Pleas for money. I’ve never seen this. Ever. But I one email I got from a wine trade association asked to help them find money to expand their marketing efforts during the duration. We’ll ignore the fact that my job isn’t to help them sell wine, but doesn’t asking for money from complete strangers smack of quiet desperation (to paraphrase Henry David Thoreau)?
The idea, apparently, is to push the product to younger consumers who normally drink cocktails. The website is even more focused on that, featuring some of the best looking men and women I’ve ever seen in wine marketing. It’s all beaches and bikinis and hanging out, about as far from traditional wine as possible. In fact, these are the kinds of models that appear in fashion magazines, not on websites plugging flavored wine.
And this begs the question of why the product is called Friends Fun Wine, since it goes out of its way to be everything that “real” wine isn’t – younger, very informal, and featuring flavors like coconut chardonnay. My guess? That as beleaguered as the wine category is these days, there is still a certain cachet to it. And the company behind Friends Fun Wine wants to take advantage of that cachet: “Look, here is fun wine you can drink that tastes good but isn’t that old fashioned stuff that your parents like.”
The point here is not that people shouldn’t drink coconut chardonnay wine. The only rule in wine is to drink what you want, but to be willing to try something else. Rather, why isn’t the traditional wine business marketing wine to younger consumers, using the same – but coconut chardonnay-less – approach? That wine can be fun, and that it isn’t necessarily old fashioned.
Video courtesy of Advantis via YouTube, using a Creative Commons license
More examples showing that wine marketing lacks imagination and doesn’t focus on why people drink wine
Last week’s podcast with Sonoma wine marketing guru Paul Tincknell elicited a fair amount of comment, especially since it ran at the end of the summer when most people have other things to do besides listen to podcasts about the decades-long failure of wine marketing.
As one reader emailed me: “Commercials showing people drinking grocery store wine at swank parties? People get paid for coming up with that stuff?”
Paul received some feedback, too. A colleague shared data with him about a 2009 wine consumption survey: “The results,” Paul emailed me, “are fascinating and confirm that – guess what! – people drink wine with family and friends at meals or in casual situations.” The colleague told Paul that the survey results were given to almost every important wine marketing and trade group in the country, but that, “of course, the industry immediately ignored their work.”
In other words, the business has known for at least a decade how U.S. consumers enjoy wine and the best way to market to them: Show people drinking wine at dinner with their friends and family. That hardly seems like a creative reach. (And we’re not the only ones who have seen this — check out this rant from Paul Mabray, who is generally regarded as one of best wine and consumer experts in the country).
In fact, Kim Crawford (owned by Big Wine’s Constellation Brands) seems to go out of its way to show up in these kinds of analyses. Paul sent me two especially foolish commercials; the one that made me giggle the most is at the top of this post, called “Make it Amazing.” Who knew I had sway my butt just so to be a cool, sophisticated wine drinker? The other, called “Elevate the Moment,” looks like something from a short-lived 1990s PBS series about rich people.
Is it any wonder I worry about the future of the wine business?
Wine marketing guru Paul Tincknell says wine marketing lacks imagination and doesn’t focus on why people drink wine. Which is why we get foolishness like Yellow Tail’s Roo
Paul Tincknell, a partner in the Sonoma marketing consultancy of Tincknell & Tincknell, has watched wine market itself every which way but well in his two-plus decades in the business.
The problem, he says, is simple: People drink wine with dinner, but when’s the last time you saw wine sell itself that way? Instead, we get stupid humor or faux sophistication, none of which appeals to the younger consumers who see wine as something that their parents and grandparents drink.
We talked about why this is and how to solve it, as well as how to to market wine in the face of the neo-Prohibitionists. Click here to download or stream the podcast, which is about 10 minutes long and takes up 3.6 megabytes. The sound quality is almost excellent, despite several problems during the recording (and my inability to remember that the Mexican beer we talk about is Corona).
This week’s wine news: The booze business has discovered it doesn’t want tariffs, either, plus wine writing’s unique demographics and expensive wine doesn’t guarantee quality
• No tariffs, please: The Wine Curmudgeon is not the only one who understands that tariffs are a mug’s game. Most of the booze business’ leading trade groups, including the Wine Institute, have asked the federal government to drop plans to tax European Union products. The story, from Shanken News Daily, is a bit convoluted, but the gist is that even people who never agree about anything else agree about this: “Entry level, everyday products are going to be affected just as much as high-end imported products,” said the CEO of the group that represents wine and spirits wholesalers.
• An exclusive club: Tom Natan, writing on the First Vine blog, discovers one of the wine business’ underlying truths, “the uniform racial makeup of the wine writing world. … at least the part I experience at meetings and conferences — seems to be populated almost exclusively by White people like me.” He parses some intriguing numbers, including that almost one-quarter of U.S. business owners and bosses are women, but that only 4 percent of wine and spirits businesses are owned or run by women. And only one-fifth of those 4 percent are women of color. This is in marked contrast to food writing, he writes, which is much more diverse. Natan looks for reasons why this is true, but misses something else: Does this lack of diversity explain why the wine business is so obsessed with expensive wines – the kind that are preferred by its older, wealthier demographics?
• Not so fast, expensive wine: Dan Berger, writing in the Santa Rosa Pres-Democrat (in the heart of wine country, no less), warns us that “wine buyers willingly accept being fed a diet of misinformation — or no information at all. They continue to buy wines based on marketers’ fictions, accepting lies or faux facts, and believing high prices indicate high quality.” And, just to be sure we understand, Berger asks: “Can you imagine buying a car without first gaining specific details about its specifications, and without taking a test-drive? How about buying furniture off the web that doesn’t give measurements or the material from which it was made?” But, and as been mentioned here many times, wine drinkers do that regularly, because we assume that wine is different than cars or furniture.
A Northwestern University study says the most successful producers focus on wine status and image, and not necessarily quality
Quality matters to most wine producers. But the status and image of their product may matter more in the U.S. market, says a study by two Northwestern University professors. The report, completed last fall in association with the Wine Market Council, found that the most successful wine companies focused on their products’ status before anything else.
In other words, when you’re staring at the grocery store Great Wall of Wine, the producers aren’t trying to sell you on how good their wine is; they’re trying to sell you on how special it is. This is especially true for wines costing more than $15 – the sweet spot for premiumization.
“We found that the most profitable producers, and those with the biggest margins, for them it’s a status game,” says Ashlee Humphreys, PhD, who co-authored “Status Games: Market Driving Through Social Influence in the U.S. Wine Industry” with Northwestern colleague Gregory S. Carpenter. “They don’t care so much about what consumers think as they want to lead the way, so the consumer will follow.”
In one respect, the study’s findings are not new. Those of us who focus on value and quality have always assumed neither was as important as toasty and oaky when it came to marketing wine. But this may be the first time that someone has actually investigated the question and found it to be true in a peer-reviewed academic journal. My favorite line from the study? “Embracing a wine-as-art approach, winemakers’ choices often contradict market-based logic.”
Producers sell their status message by focusing on wine’s so-called gatekeepers – the critics, sommeliers, and wine magazines that shape public opinion. The producers educate the gatekeepers about what makes their wine special, whether it’s a certain style like ripe fruit or a specific appellation like Napa Valley or a superstar winemaker. The gatekeepers then tell consumers the wine is worth buying because it is special, and that “special-ness” gives it a status that other wines don’t have. The consumer, given how confusing wine is, accepts the gatekeepers’ word as gospel and buys the wine. Call it wine’s trickle down effect.
Hence the foolishness in so much wine writing
Which explains the pretentious adjectives in wine reviews, which are so pretentious that they aren’t adjectives but “descriptors;” the schmaltzy travel writing that gushes over wine regions, regardless of what they are; and the snotty restaurant wine lists, which don’t explain as much as they intimidate.
Note that this isn’t exactly fibbing. Napa Valley is a top-notch appellation. Rather, says Humphreys, the idea of status comes from “creating a difference for their wine that sets it apart from everyone else’s wine, and then selling that difference to the gatekeepers. They tell the gatekeepers, ‘We craft a beautiful wine,” and that’s what the gatekeepers report.”
This approach isn’t common for wines costing less than $15, where the reverse is mostly true, says the study. Producers hold focus groups to find out what consumers want, and then make the wines according to those results. Cheap grocery store wine is smooth and boring because that’s what the focus groups say they want. (Whether we actually want smooth and boring, or it’s a failing of the focus groups, is a discussion for another day).
So what’s a wine drinker to do who wants value and quality? Humphreys, who was a casual wine drinker before the study and is more serious now, laughed when I asked her. “I’ve never really thought about that,” she says. “Wine is a social experience, isn’t it? So shouldn’t you ask your friends what they like, and go from there?”
Perhaps. It couldn’t be any less effective than depending on the gatekeepers, could it?