According to Shakespeare, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. I must admit to not knowing a lot about flowers, but recall reading abouta row over whether the ‘Margaret Thatcher’ rose should be Japanese or German, and wondering about the politics of the gardeners who chose to plant it.
When it comes to food and drink, however, we don’t need to wonder. Huge amounts of money are spent every year by big companies finding new ways to name and describe everything from a chocolate bar or fish pie to a sparkling wine in an effort to make them sound more attractive.
In October, a challenge to those food manufacturers came in the shape of a healthy-eating programme pioneered by Stanford University in the US as part of something it calls SPARQ - Social Psychological Answers To Real-world Questions.
After extensive research by a team led by Bradley Turnwald who watched the way 600 students selected some 8,000 vegetable dishes over a 46-day period, it became clear that naming has a significant impact on choice.
So, for example, the same dish was offered on different occasions as ‘corn’ (the so-called ‘basic’ description); ‘Reduced-sodium corn’ (which was termed ‘healthy restrictive’)’ ; ‘Vitamin Rich Corn’ (‘healthy positive’) and ‘Rich buttery roasted sweet corn’ (‘indulgent’).
When the statistics were analysed, it was clear that telling people that a dish doesn’t include bad stuff is actually a turn off for them. Fewer diners selected the ‘healthy restrictive’ vegetables than the ones baldly described as ‘corn’, ‘carrots’ or ‘zucchini’ etc. Extolling the positively healthy aspects had a less negative effect on their choice, but any kind of ‘indulgent’ description such as ‘Twisted citrus-glazed carrots’ or ‘Slow-roasted caramelized zucchini bites’ resulted in 25% more students choosing the dish and 33% more consumption than the basic.
So, not only did the fancy description prompt more people to select the dish; it also seems to have influenced the enthusiasm with which they tucked into what was on their plate. The Stanford team used the results of this research to create what they called an Edgy Veggie Toolkit for caterers, packed with words and descriptions intended to help them increase the sale of healthier food.
It would be interesting to see how these findings apply to wine. ‘Zero SO2’ (healthy restrictive’) is obviously a thing now, but how does it match up against ’natural’ (‘healthy positive’)? And how do either of these compare with, ‘Grapes that were hand-picked at dawn’ or ‘With multi-layered flavours from wild fermentation)?
When it comes to more specific wine flavours, however, there is a problem, as Lewis Perdue of Wine Industry Insight pointed out in a couple of recent posts. On the one hand, there was a 20013 finding by Direct Wines suggesting that only 34% of wine drinkers find wine descriptions helpful while 45% thought them ‘pompous’. On the other was research done a decade revealing that when 189 people were genotyped, none had the same odour-receptive genes.
Wine professionals readily acknowledge that they or their colleagues are more or less ‘sensitive’ to cork taint, brettanomyces or reduction. They rarely pause to consider that their customers may also be variable in their ability to recognise the aromas of strawberries, lemon or leather, or whatever other descriptor they’ve attached to a wine.
As someone who spent over 20 years writing and publishing thousands of such descriptions, I have to admit that I never gave it enough thought. But I do recall an event organised in London by the late Tony Keys (whose death after a long illness, at the age of 64, I unforgivably failed to mark).
Keys, who was always a mischievous soul, invited a group of customers of Ostlers, his wine business, to blind taste a set of wines and to try to associate them with a range of items laid out on the tables. These included, I think, grass, lemon, orange, honey, tobacco, pepper and vanilla.
To add spice to the event, another wine critic and I were in the room taking part in the same exercise, unbeknownst to us, retasting wines we’d described in print.
When the consumers’ and our descriptions were compared with what we’d previously said, some of our adjectives proved to have been well chosen. But only some. And our defensive claims that the grass and tobacco we’d been given by Keys weren’t the kinds of grass and tobacco we’d had in mind, evidently didn’t convince all of the people around us.
Putting all of this together suggests to me that, yes, if we want to encourage people to buy our wines, the Stanford findings confirm that we should take advantage of the linguistic arrows at our disposal.
But, we have to bear in mind that many of these arrows are being aimed at a variety of targets that they may fail to penetrate.
Maybe we need some Stanford-style research into the kinds of descriptors that consumers find most useful (or least unhelpful/pompous) in each of the world’s key wine markets.