Mike Paul: don't judge wines on how well they taste but what they mean to consumers

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The wine industry has more in common with The X Factor than it does with The Voice. For those of you who watched any of The Voice last year, I wonder if you were struck - as I was - by the similarity between the programme and the process of blind tasting which plays such an important role in our industry.

 

If you are unfamiliar with the series, all you need to know is that it was an attempt to judge contestants' voices in isolation from their appearance. I thought the intention laudable: after all, there must be great singers out there who fail to realise their potential because they don't look the part.

 

But in the end, as the series unfolded and the judges and the viewers became familiar with the contestants, the actual voices of the singers inevitably became just one element of the mix by which they were judged.

 

Which was hardly a surprise. While it is sometimes quite possible to be hit by the sheer quality of a voice, isn't it generally the piece of music itself that either appeals or doesn't? And that encompasses the instrumentation, the words and the melody.

 

And if that isn't enough to diminish the importance of the voice alone, one may also have preconceptions about the piece of music, or the musicians. This may be due to some prior knowledge, or be based on the image of the performers. Either way it will further influence one's opinion.

 

Now I'm not arguing that blind tasting has no place in our business. In terms of benchmarking one's wine against its competitive set, it clearly has a role to play for the retailer, the producer and even the consumer. My concern is that we have things out of balance.

 

It's as if in the wine business we have believed all along that The Voice was the reality, and are only now beginning to realise that actually it's the far less purist X Factor which is closer to how things actually work in the real world.

 

Singers and entertainers are judged by the consumer holistically. To single out individual elements and judge them separately may be an interesting and even useful thing to do if you are an expert in a particular field. But I find it difficult to believe that in the music business there are many who fail to understand that it's not really relevant to how the vast majority of consumers make their purchase decisions.

 

As the X Factor format also demonstrates, albeit in an exaggerated way, the way brands are judged is often not that rational. Brands can be caught up in the moment and swept along on a wave of euphoria, only to be deposited on the sand and left high and dry as the wave recedes. Or, at the other end of the spectrum, they can somehow survive, and become the equivalent of national treasures.

 

Marketing people may control a brand's make-up and decide on the launch plans, but after that they are on somewhat of a rollercoaster ride. Future twists and turns are not often evident in advance. And throughout the process, although the best brands have real substance to them, substance alone is rarely ever enough.

 

Branding is for everyone

One of the reasons we are not that good at branding in the wine business is the combination of our production orientation, our fragmentation and our small-company, artisanal ethos.

 

This has many positives. For a start, it helps give wine its basic aspirational values. But it means we are having, in effect, to create a marketing culture from scratch - and place it within a framework of companies still trapped (often pleasantly and successfully) in an era when wine drinking was not a mainstream pursuit.

 

It is more than a little significant - as well as ironic - that almost the only really successful brands in the industry, those in the fine wine sector, are often not even acknowledged as brands by those that produce them. The process of branding is still considered, subconsciously at least, to be for the mainstream sector; downstairs as opposed to upstairs, as one might say.

 

We still seem rather uncomfortable with the fact that style and substance are not mutually exclusive in terms of how consumers make purchasing decisions, at every price level. Too often we focus a disproportionate amount of our efforts on getting the substance (the wine) right and then, almost as an afterthought, think about tackling the presentation, the communication and the route to market.

 

We need to start looking at the process holistically and, as a key part of this change in mindset, understand that this does not somehow diminish the quality of the wine itself.

 

And perhaps as a start, as a small step, we could break away from our almost exclusive focus on giving out awards to winemakers and wines (after blind tastings) and start giving them out in equal measure to designers, communicators and those expanding our knowledge of consumer behaviour.

 

This would be an acknowledgement at least that not only are we getting closer to understanding how consumers make purchase decisions, but also that if you hope to create a real consumer success in the wine business, just as in any other business, it's a team effort.

 

* You can read more from Mike Paul at his new blog, www.mikeakpaul.com.

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