No more consumers

Wednesday, 31. January 2018 - 14:30

Vinmonopolet store/Bjorn Erik Pedersen

Every weekday morning, listeners in the UK to BBC Radio’s Today programme are offered a brief Thought for the Day usually from a speaker with some form of religious credentials. Most of these homilies are, as John Humphrys, the programme’s longest-standing and best-known presenter, recently acknowledged, “deeply boring”, but one recent effort caught my attention. The subject was the word ‘consumer’ and its - in the speaker’s opinion - overuse nowadays. Students, he said, do not ‘consume’ education; and audiences don’t ‘consume’ a play or a musical performance.

At first sight, wine drinkers are far more self-evidently consumers than either of these groups. After all, what is the process of pouring a liquid down one’s throat if it is not ‘consumption’?

But this way of thinking is dangerously supportive of the widely-held notion that the only factors that matter when judging the saleability of a wine are its quality and price. That, I must admit, is how I used to think, just as I once firmly believed that what was important about a restaurant was the tastiness of its food and wine, the deft friendliness of its service and, yes, the value for money it offered.

Restaurant customers are, however, remarkably honest when it comes to listing the principal reasons for choosing one establishment over another. While most cite style and quality of cuisine, proximity to their home, and decor run those a very close second and, for many, are apparently actually a bigger draw. The percentage who select a restaurant on the basis of its wine list is seemingly too small for any non wine-focused researcher to have bothered to question.

The parallel with wine is all too clear: only the keenest of enthusiasts will take the trouble to walk out of a shop because it doesn’t have a red or white that’s good enough. Most customers will pick up a Chablis, a Merlot or a Chianti - or any other name that strikes a familiar bell - and be perfectly happy with their purchase.

Crucially too, there is the fact that, once you exclude inexpensive bottles and bag-in-box wines that are routinely purchased with the groceries to wash down the midweek pizza, most wine is bought to be drunk with other people or handed to them as a gift.

The rustically-labeled, screwcap-sealed, Vin de Pays recommended by a well-known critic may indeed be a brilliant example of its style, but there’s no getting round the fact that when you present the bottle to a friend who doesn’t read wine columns, she may well think you deliberately bought the cheapest red in the shop.

The fourth dimension has a role to play too. Even if you accept the spurious but oft-quoted statistic that 80% (or whatever) of all bottles of wine are opened and emptied within an hour of being purchased, there is an anticipatory quality that is very hard to quantify. Whether you are looking forward to carrying a prized bottle out the cellar in a decade or so, or simply to getting a glassful of the Chardonnay or Chinese Cabernet sitting obstinately at the other end of your host’s table, you don’t have to have any deep knowledge of - or interest in - wine to experience at least a little frisson. And that, inevitably, is intrinsically bound up in the reputation and/or aesthetic or intellectual appeal of the label.

The fact that an Argentine Malbec, for example, is in a ludicrously overweight glass container may outrage an environmentalist, but for others its air of luxury will more than likely whet their appetite. 

Finally, and especially in an age of Big Data, there’s the lack of precision that’s implicit in the word ‘consumer’. The person who casually puts a bottle of supermarket own-label Pinot Grigio into their basket is probably not the woman who chose a cloudy Slovenian ‘natural’ wine, or the man who, after lengthy deliberation, decided which of the Burgundy grands crus he was going to take home. When teaching students about wine marketing, I have used examples like these to introduce the concept of segmentation and ‘target consumers’. As my friend the highly successful label designer, Kevin Shaw, always says, he can’t even begin to think about how to package anything before he has a clear idea of who is going to buy it, and how and when they are going to use it.

In other words, just as those students and playgoers are buying more than education and the chance to spend 90 minutes watching a play, we need to give more thought to what our end-users are consciously or unconsciously purchasing beyond the alcoholic liquid. Do they want to make an impression on someone? And if so, what kind of impression? Wealth? Generosity? Sophistication? Frugality? Greenness? Are they looking to increase their vinous knowledge? Or lay down future treasure? It is hard to encapsulate all of these emotions and aspirations, but I know that wrapping it all up under the heading of ‘consumption’ is not very helpful.

So, what I going to call all these wine buyers and drinkers if they are to stop being ‘consumers’? To be honest, I’m not certain yet, but I’m grateful to that momentarily-heard voice on the radio for making me think about it. Maybe you can offer some suggestions?
Robert Joseph