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When quality isn’t enough: the “lightbulb of recognition”



The standard meme for marketing wine is: Ours is better than theirs. In just about every wine advertisement you read, this quality argument is there, whether implicit or explicit. Producers claim that their wine is rounder, smoother, more mellow, more delicious, better balanced, cleaner, more fulfilling, more [fill in the adjective] than the competition. The hope is that consumers will be swayed, for, after all, when you’re spending money on a product, you want the highest quality, right?

As it turns out, the quality factor may not be the best way of promoting wine anymore. From ProWein, the big international wine trade event held last month in Germany, came mixed messages concerning the value of using quality claims to sell wine.

The reporter asked attendees from different countries (Russia, Brazil, South Africa, Italy, China, etc.) what they thought of the pushing-quality approach to selling wine. The answers were remarkably similar: “the excuse that your wine is top quality does not work anymore.” “Quality is not a competitive advantage anymore.” “Far too many wineries appear to rely on wine quality alone.”

Ouch. So if quality isn’t the message to be sending consumers, what is?

Well, let’s begin to answer this by assuming that the 50 people queried were all on the young side; they are described as “students from the Masters programme at the School of Wine & Spirits in Burgundy,” so they’re probably Millennials. The question therefore becomes, What are Millennials looking for in wine marketing?

For starters, they’re not “looking for” anything, if by the action verb “looking for” you mean a pro-active search. Marketing and its hand-maiden, advertising, are by their nature insidious: they come at you from the sidelines, entering your consciousness by osmosis at a time when your guard is down. That’s why marketing works [when it does]: it captures your imagination.

How it does so is complicated. Here are some of the things the students said wineries should be doing to market their products, instead of stressing quality:


“start telling a different story.” We know all about “the importance of the story line.” It’s easy, however, for an outsider to say this to a winery, but much harder for the winery to actually do it. What “story” should the winery tell?

“producers need to ensure that their brand’s representative is up to scratch.” This comment, by a South African student, referred to the actual employees who represented the various brands at ProWein. It was echoed by an Italian student who asked for representatives “with an easier and friendlier outlook,” by a Russian who found many representatives “simply boring,” and by a Brit who complained of “too many [representatives] sitting on stools behind their stands using wine bottles as a barrier.” An Italian was positively scathing in his critique of reps, particularly from his own country. “Everyone was thinking just for themselves—creating a sense of fragmentation and confusion.”

Clearly, what these young students were looking for was engagement. They wanted to feel like they were interacting with representatives who were fully human and alive, not a bunch of bored-stiff zombies giving off the vibe that “If it’s March, it must be ProWein.”

We all can relate to this. I was chatting with a friend the other day about how, when I take a cab ride, I like to have a little conversation with my driver. (This is why my friend recommended Lyft and Uber.) But I’ve been on the representative side of the table at wine events and know that it can be hard to always be chipper and put on a good face. You get tired, bored, cranky, especially at multi-day events when you’re expected to be “onstage” all day long and into the night.

This sort of bravura performance requires a certain type of personality—outgoing, extroverted, friendly. This may not have much mattered in decades past. But clearly, the rules have changed. Younger consumers understand that 99% of all the world’s wines are now faultless and drinkable. They also suspect that too much has been made of the famous “cult” wines their fathers and grandfathers worshipped; they feel no need to genuflect at that altar. But they are, after all, consumers; and nowadays consumers want to feel some sort of personal connection to a company whose brands they buy.

I sometimes think that wineries don’t pay enough attention to these rules of the road: When you send someone out to represent you, that person needs to have certain skills of charm and engagement. A winery’s representative, after all, is part of its “story.” If this hasn’t been immediately obvious until now to marketing managers and sales directors, it long has been to those of us on the receiving end of pitches. Just yesterday, Forbes’ food & drink columnist, Cathy Huyghe, in a piece called What Makes a Wine Sell, and What Doesn’t, wrote that “a producer’s story trumps any detail about a wine’s technical profile or even their numerical rating,” arguing that “tablestakes”—the technical details of the wine—“aren’t a point of differentiation” because “Everyone has them.” Huyghe described her interviewing approach to winemakers: after “the preliminaries—the…logistical data—are over with,” she looks for “the lightbulb of recognition…that illuminates what it is that makes that particular wine and that particular producer unique and different…”.

That “lightbulb of recognition” is something wine marketers hope to ignite in the minds of consumers. Wine itself, unidentified and without a human connection, cannot do that; the winery’s frontline representative is the spark that lights the bulb.

  1. great phrase… the lightbulb of recognition – nice post Steve – the discussion continues in America

  2. Great, thought provoking post.

    It seems that terms like ‘balance’ and ‘terroir’ have been worn out as well.

  3. STEVE!

    How many wine marketers does it take to screw in a “lightbulb of recognition?”

    Six. One to hold the bulb, five to make shit up.

  4. Dear Hosemaster, I would say it takes 7 people to screw in a lightbulb: One to hold the bulb, five to make shit up, and one blogger to drink and chill while everyone else is losing their minds!

  5. Bob Henry says:


    Regarding your statement . . .

    “Marketing and its hand-maiden, advertising, are by their nature insidious: they come at you from the sidelines, entering your consciousness by osmosis at a time when your guard is down. That’s why marketing works [when it does]: it captures your imagination.”

    . . . I demur.

    “Insidious” (defined): proceeding in a gradual, subtle way, but with harmful effects.

    “Osmosis” (defined): the process of gradual or unconscious assimilation of ideas, knowledge, etc.

    The implication of your twin assertions is that every ad is “harmful,” and every ad message is assimilated unconsciously. (Better choice of words?: “subconsciously.”)

    Tell that to the millions of folks who willfully watch the Super Bowl game expressly for the creativity of the televised ads. Nothing unconscious/subsconscious about their very conscious “lean in” activities.

    Here’s a bibliography on “how advertising works”:

    ~~ Bob

  6. Damien Wilson says:

    Dear Steve,

    Thanks for bringing this article into the light. As the Masters programme coordinator for those students you refer to, it was particularly interesting to have a regular debrief with them throughout Prowein as well.

    Some of the welcomes and interactions they had with the trade were amazing, while others were appalling. Sadly, there was a common theme along New v Old-world lines. However, even when the welcome was positive, the engagement was frequently ‘quality/terroir/uniqueness’ lines (just like everyone else at the show…), even when queries were about ‘communication strategy’, ‘e-business metrics’, ‘distribution innovations’ or any other non-product related issue. Were the producers not listening, or did they just have little respect for such questions?

    Unfortunately, we in the wine sector have learned to almost exclusively put product quality and authenticity importance above any other element of wine business.

    Why is that unfortunate? Because almost all growth in the wine market in the past 30 years has been in the number of wine drinkers (paradoxically, while global consumption volume has fallen). Put simply, this means that we’ve attracted a disproportionately high number of new consumers into wine.

    Why is this such an issue?

    New consumers don’t use terroir/uniqueness/authenticity as buying cues. That’s the sort of message to use on high involvement wine consumers (ie. A tiny proportion of the market)


    Adapt your message, wine producers!

  7. Dear Damien, thanks for writing. While I largely agree with what you say, I would not throw the baby out with the bathwater by suggesting that quality/terroir doesn’t matter, or that matters of quality should not be communicated to consumers. The quality message may not be enough–but it certainly must be part of the message!

  8. Damien Wilson says:

    Dear Steve,

    Thanks for the feedback. I agree entirely.

    I think your statement echoes the concerns of just about everyone in the wine sector, including me.

    There seems to be this underlying fear by wine enthusiasts that to not mention quality or terroir in a communication is to ignore its value to wine buyers. I never said that those issues don’t matter, because they do. The difference is in the interpretation of quality according to the consumer’s level of involvement.

    If I wasn’t clear in the above message, I’ll try and reiterate here: Authenticity, terroir, barrel treatments, blending components, AVAs/AOCs etc.. are integral, and valued as instruments for communicating wine quality, but only for a very small portion of the market (ie. wine enthusiasts and experts).

    My point above was that the only growth area in the past 30 years for the global wine market* has been the number of wine consumers (thus, an influx of new consumers), at the expense of heavy wine consumers (ie. those with more consumption experiences, and more regular consumption).

    Experienced wine consumers place a greater value on a number of more complex wine descriptions as a way of evaluating a wine’s quality.

    New consumers need to receive different, clearer messages, based on the way they experience and enjoy wine.

    So, by all means keep the complex, and detailed message for the enthusiast. But when growth has come from new consumers, a producer needs to have an adapted message so as to attract, and engage that new consumer (exactly what you said above).

    The two approaches are not mutually exclusive. Both preach quality, but one is simply an extended, detailed version of the other.

    Producers just need to become better at adapting their message to each market.

    Thanks again for your interest in this topic.

    *Before jumping at the statement above: yes I realise that the US market has grown in number and volume of wine consumed, as have many other markets. However, global wine consumption has fallen by almost 30% in volume since 1980.

  9. redmond barry says:

    Would those Masters candidates be largely in the sales and promotions part of the biz? Should their interests and views as business persons be taken with that in mind? Over the years the people who’ve influenced my wine buying have usually been retailers I”ve gotten to know,the IWC and Burghound, and a small number of bloggers , including Fredrick Koeppel STEVE! and even Hosemaster, FWHW.

  10. Dear Redmond, thanks for your comment. I fully understand that it’s harder to accept the views of someone from a wine company as objective, compared to those of a (supposedly independent) critic/writer. This is something I myself am experiencing as I make the transition from magazine writer to employee of Jackson Family Wines. As I have previously written, I hope to prove worthy of your continuing to read me, even though I will no longer be reviewing vast quantities of wine. There are, after all, plenty of interesting and important things for me to write about, besides wine reviews.

  11. Damien Wilson says:

    Dear Redmond,

    I sincerely hope so. This year’s students have almost finished the coursework component of their Masters. Many are already comparing professional experiences that predominantly fit into the sales field.

    My hope is that enough will apply their skills in the sales field.

    Many of my graduates are working in sales, and often for their own businesses. However, distribution and other fields within marketing tend to be the preferred career paths among graduates.

    From experience, I’d expect their perspective to give them the capacity to compare a good v indifferent sales message.

    I’d welcome discussions on the topic, but perhaps Steve’s blog is not the best interface for it.

    Excuse my interruption here, Steve 🙂

    In any case, thanks for the comment!

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