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shelf talker Rob McMillan’s post today on wine marketing language got me thinking about wine tasting notes once again. McMillan, a banker specializing in wine-related business, thinks wineries that rely on tasting notes to sell wine ignore the basic practices of good marketing.

Marketers work overtime to take commodity-like goods and then pretend they aren’t commodities by creating and building an emotional appeal around the brand.

His example is deodorant, the advertisements of which seldom mention the qualities of the product. Instead you get images of the type of person who wears the deodorant, which are designed to push emotional buttons, not inform the consumer.

But lists of flavor notes lack emotional appeal and sound stuffy and pretentious. And so he asks why wine is still being marketed by listing flavor notes, a holdover from when consumers didn’t know the differences between varieties.

Of course, wine marketing involves more than tasting notes and most wineries try to capture the “romance” of wine. Every winery today must have a “narrative” that references their vineyards’ soil and climate characteristics, their family’s commitment to the land, and the hard-working, risk-taking vintner who overcame the forces of nature to develop the product. Most of these stories are true, or were true before industrial winemaking and market consolidation took over.

But with these stories, McMillan is unimpressed:

Is that approach creating an emotional lift? Are you feeling any endorphins flowing? Is that building your brand? I’ve seen no research to suggest that kind of marketing even tips a purchase decision.

I think McMillan is right to be skeptical if only because these narratives all sound the same. Unless you’re Robert Mondavi, they don’t differentiate one brand from another.  But, on the other hand, selling wine as if it were deodorant is not the direction to go. Do deodorant ads get the endorphins flowing? I’m not sure what McMillan has in mind.

In fact, some wineries are trying to deliver an emotional message much like deodorant. Mad Housewife has the disgruntled-or-sexually-betrayed woman market cornered, Flip-Flop wants the bottle-for-the-beach crowd, Barefoot’s marketing is all about relaxed fun.

But I’m still not feeling the endorphins. Maybe this marketing sells wine to the average consumer; these companies are successful after all. But as a model for the industry it won’t fly. First, there are only so many innocuous, unpretentious, crowd-pleasing messages out there. In the end, they won’t differentiate the thousands of wines competing for attention.

But more importantly, this kind of marketing betrays the nature of wine, or more precisely the ideal of wine that has captured the imaginations of wine lovers for thousands of years. And McMillan recognizes this:

Think about how you won’t buy gasoline at one gas station because it’s four cents cheaper around the corner. That’s a commodity. Ever buy a piece of art that way? Of course not because art’s value is in the eye of the beholder, is easily differentiated, and consequently will have wide price ranges. When art is sold, it’s sold on the artist’s reputation or the emotion the piece evokes for someone.

This is exactly right. Premium wine, the kind everyone wants to make and wine lovers want to drink is closer to an art than a commodity and some of it achieves artistic status. Thus, the marketing of it must resemble the marketing of art. It’s value is in the eye of the beholder, it is easily differentiated (given the necessary experience), has wide price ranges, and is sold by reputation and emotional connection.

So the question he poses is an interesting one. How do you market a product with the distinctive features of wine? Must tasting notes lack emotional appeal? If not the tasting note, and not the faux struggle-against-nature story, then what?

I need to collect my thoughts on this; I’ll have more on it later in the week assuming the collection bucket doesn’t spring a leak.

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