The guest speaker at the Institute of Masters of Wine Conference in Bordeaux this year was Sir John Hegarty, creative director for the U.K. firm, Bartle Bootle Hegarty. Sir John is an industry advertising heavyweight. Here are some quotes from a summary of his address, 'The wine business viewed from the outside' as reported by John Abbott, Decanter, June 28th.
"The wine industry is guilty of going 'out of its way to confuse the consumer', and must urgently come up with 'a new big idea'."
"The industry fails hopelessly on accessibility. This is market that goes out of its way to confuse the consumer."
"You've seen it - the way people in restaurants nervously pass round a wine list. It's fear. You as an industry have encouraged that fear. The wine industry is the most fragmented market I've seen. Fragmented, confusing, impenetrable."
"..wine's 'inaccessibility' was inhibiting growth and urged delegates to reach out a new, younger generation of wine buyers. 'Today's market is a younger, more experimental audience. Invest in the future. Youth is the future. "
"We all know you're passionate about wine... But we want to know what you're going to do about it."
An appeal like this must have had the delegates squirming as being awarded an M.W. after years of study is a certificate to continue just what Sir John was arguing against. Perhaps they mistakenly asked the wrong key-note speaker.
Then again I do not believe in a word Sir John said. Indeed all of it is very bad advice.
Sir John forgot to mention that wines sales have been growing strongly in many Western countries such as the U.S, U.K. and Canada. Impressive growth rates are also being seen in many Asian countries such as; Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Japan and now China*. Indeed some of these countries see drinking and having knowledge of wine as aspirational, an achievement which is at the heart of all advertising and marketing.
Something about wine must appeal to all these new consumers.
Mention is made of 'inaccessibility' and confusion though I see no link that the wine trade goes out of its way to deliberately confuse customers. Quite the opposite as many in the audience Sir John spoke to will spend their lives writing about wine, perhaps publishing a book or two, but in whatever role they play in the wine trade they will be busy trying to assist consumers to understand the beauty of wine. What other business has such a large number of highly skilled cheer leaders who also, I may add, work for modest pay.
No other daily consumer product, apart from food, gets so much publicity in newspapers and magazines and has so many magazines devoted to the subject. Each year brings another wave of books that dissect in intimate detail small wine regions. Wine also moves beyond the realm of a daily beverage and is talked about in the same hushed tones as fashion, art and music.
Yes of course Sir John is correct to point out that on some levels wine is not simple to understand; that it may even make you nervous when ordering from a wine list; that it is 'fragmented, confusing and impenetrable.' That is the sublime beauty of the product. If you wish you can spend years developing knowledge about wine because it is pleasurable and fun to do so; though if you just like the taste it requires no more effort than pulling a cork out or unscrewing the top. In this way it is as simple as any other alcoholic beverage to consume.
Many large beverage companies have listened to the call of the Sir John's of the world particularly when they are told an absolute fortune awaits the company that can simplify wine and make is accessible. Verse one of 101 marketing is all it will take and all believing this siren call have lost a lot of money.
The appeal of wine is its taste, while the endless games you can play are simply another plus. The games you can play? Well think about cellaring, masked tastings and the specialties known as horizontals and verticals, visiting cellar doors, wine and food societies, the mysteries of decanting, which glass to choose, the type of cork-screw, which wine with each dish, guessing games such as is left or right bank, fooling your guests, abusing sommeliers, pontificating about your drinking history; the list is endless.
As for appealing to youth; why bother, they will get to wine when they are ready. Perhaps Sir John should have looked at who drinks wine, as apart from several old European wine producing countries where it crosses society, it is people with money who live in wealthier suburbs.
Wine does not need to be simplified and even if the buyers have a bit more money most are happy with what they buy in the supermarket. Indeed worldwide they get a good product at a good price. This seems to me like a winning formula. Indeed it's the mystery of wine and the huge range that appeals to even the casual buyer. They accept there is a lot they will never know and understand but they love to drink the stuff.
As for this comment: "We all know you're passionate about wine... But we want to know what you're going to do about it." Actually Sir John, nothing at all. The brand image is in excellent shape even while all the things you point out are absolutely true. It's just that I draw a different conclusion. All the items you list that need improving, which I take it you mean simplifying, are perfect the way they are. There is not another consumer product in the world that has the image of wine and I do not see any rivals on the horizon.
The complexity of wine is indeed profound and I hope one day Sir John you will understand its consumer mystery. Bring on the confusion, the fear, inaccessibility and its anti youth appeal.
* For the record wine sales are falling in old, mature European wine producing countries such as France and Italy but this is not because wine has lost appeal and is partly because consumption rates were at the high end of being dangerous to health.