Are we on the horns of a dilemma?
During his travels through space, Arthur Dent, the central character in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, comes across a planet that had just managed to get rid of those elements of the population considered useless. A story had been invented that the planet was about to be destroyed by a comet, and two very large spaceships had been built. The population was then divided into two. Those deemed surplus to requirements – which, as I recall, included hairdressers and marketing people – were fired off to an uninhabited planet some light years away.
A while later the hitchhiker happened upon this planet where he found some marketing people having their hair cut. They appeared to be thriving (and had great hair) but after a while he realised that he could see no evidence of the wheel. It was pointed out to him that they had developed the capability to build the wheel soon after landing, but the marketing people couldn’t decide what colour it should be.
Now Douglas Adams, the author of the HHGTTG, is hardly alone in believing that marketing can too often represent a triumph of style over substance. Indeed its not too difficult to think of examples in our own industry where this is the case.
Understanding the mind of the consumer
I’m sure that we could all agree that in an ideal world one would never market anything that one didn’t believe was a product or service of appropriate quality or value.
Unfortunately life is rather more complicated than that. For a start the words “quality” and, particularly, “value” are pretty nebulous; they mean different things to different people. The reasons consumers choose one bottle of wine over another are hardly entirely rational (and occasionally not rational at all, as wine experts might define the term). Even on occasions when the choice is made entirely because of prior knowledge of how the wine tastes, people’s tastes vary. What is good value to one person may be the opposite to someone else.
More importantly, if people are getting pleasure from buying a bottle of wine that goes beyond what it tastes like, is it wrong to appeal to such pleasures in one’s marketing? At one level someone may simply pay more than they should “rationally” because they adore the presentation, find the back label story appealing or feel engaged by the website.
At another level they may feel they want to buy that particular bottle because everybody they know is drinking it or, alternatively, because nobody they know is drinking it. They may indeed want to buy it because it IS expensive and/or because their peer group knows it is expensive.
Good marketing people understand human nature, they understand how consumers’ minds work, and use that knowledge to develop more successful brands than producers with less awareness of consumer needs. Isn’t that the marketing mantra? Well, if you read many of my posts, that’s in effect what I’m arguing. In fact a key objective of this blog is to encourage people to be more successful by developing a greater understanding of consumer marketing as well as marketing more generally.
I rarely feel I have to justify this objective. There are too many producers who make great wines, yet the consumer is unaware of their existence because they are poor communicators. There are other producers who appear to be teetering on the brink of failure because they are too production oriented. What good would it serve for them to fall over the edge? Surely it’s a “win-win” to encourage producers to communicate effectively and creatively and thus engage (and thereby give pleasure to) consumers on a deeper level?
Do people really need more stuff – or more marketing?
However, two books I have read recently, which are particularly critical of trends in consumer marketing, brought to the front of my mind a question or two that normally reside closer to the back.
One book, How Much Is Enough? by Robert & Edward Skidelsky, is a thoughtful account by two economists of how western society has reached its current position. It’s a powerful polemic against insatiability in economic terms and, while certainly not anti capitalist, argues powerfully that we cannot simply continue on our current path.
As one element of their thesis they make the point that our natural tendency to insatiability is inflamed by advertising (and, I’m presuming, consumer marketing in general). The traditional view of advertising was that consumers used it to enlighten themselves so that they could make more informed decisions about a product that they were going to buy anyway. He argues that nowadays “the aim of most advertising is rather to create an atmosphere around the product, to enhance its glamour and allure, in short to make us want something we would otherwise not have thought of wanting”.
The second book, What Money Can’t Buy: the Moral Limits of Markets by Michael Sandel, takes a similar view about advertising, seeing it in effect as in the vanguard of a commercialism that is increasingly pervasive. The book argues that no area of life appears sacrosanct any more and quotes countless examples, such as people selling their bodies for tattoo advertising, to advertising being widespread in schools in the USA. “Do we want a society,” he asks, “where everything is up for sale?”
Neither of these authors are in any way neo-puritans; nor are they against advertising in principle. Sandel uses an interesting analogy with pollution. “Emitting carbon dioxide is not wrong in itself; we do it every time we breathe,” he says. “And yet an excess of carbon omissions can be environmentally destructive.”
We’re all marketers, whether we think so or not
So where does this lead us? Well as someone who lectures on marketing I’ve always defended it as a discipline against those who criticise it on “holier than thou” grounds. Some students say, for example, that it’s all about spin and therefore, in effect, a deceit. Yet spin is hardly confined to companies or politicians. How many people give a balanced assessment of their strengths and weaknesses in job interviews or, when selling a property, point out the defects of the house in equal measure to its attractions? How many indeed would turn down an exceptional offer for their property because they thought it wasn’t worth the amount offered? Marketing is something we all do, I would suggest, almost on a daily basis: we seek, consciously or subconsciously, to put ourselves forward in the best light.
As individuals we are, in effect, brands. We have an identity and we have an image. If those who knew us were asked to sum us up in one sentence we would like that sentence to be in line with one we might write about ourselves. Thus, it could be argued, companies or brand owners have merely formalised what is inherently human nature. Marketing isn’t something you just pick up when you join the business world.
Yet the more profound issue being raised by these authors (and they are hardly alone) is that it is unbridled human nature that has, over the last thirty years in particular, in western society, led us to a position that appears unsustainable. Thus, one might extrapolate from this, the better we are at marketing, as individuals and companies, the more we are in effect adding fuel to the flames.
So what should be done? Well, firstly, you may not agree that economic insatiability is either happening or indeed alarming. Secondly, you may feel that as an individual or company you can’t afford to take account of such macro trends, you need to focus on optimising the potential of both yourself and your company. I would suggest that most of us would fall into one of these two categories. After all there is precious little one individual can do to change human nature.
But let us look at it another way. There is precious little any individual can do about climate change yet many of us have adopted recycling to some extent or another. What might be the equivalent of recycling when it comes to behaving appropriately in the marketing of wine?
Well for a start we can fully understand that wine is an alcoholic beverage and not try to push the boundaries by developing brands that might be appealing to under-age drinkers. Unlike most other FMCG categories it might be argued that we are at an advantage; we have much clearer operating boundaries. Some areas, to take Sandel’s point, ARE sacrosanct when it comes to promoting alcohol.
Secondly (as I argued in a recent post) we cannot simply hide behind the fragmentation of our industry and rely on the WSTA or the big companies when it comes to self-regulation. However much some may rail against political correctness, or the apparent ineffectiveness of health warnings, some of that railing is probably simply an excuse for inactivity.
Thirdly, we can as part of our marketing plans look to put something back into the community either in the UK or in the area of production. Linked with this we can develop a greater understanding of what the word “sustainability” means in wine industry terms. As a category we are closer to the land than most and have therefore an inherent advantage in this respect. It would be fair to say that there are plenty of initiatives that tick these particular boxes.
Being on the horns of a dilemna.
Ultimately, however, it is not that simple. Wine is not a necessity; it’s a treat, a minor luxury, and in some cases a very expensive one. To many people it’s a symbol of good living and a cosmopolitan lifestyle and, as marketers, our overriding objective is to keep it that way. If we don’t, as an industry we will be even less successful in terms of return on investment than we are currently.
So arguably we find ourselves on the horns of a dilemma. To achieve our own ends as an industry one of the key things we need to do is to learn lessons from other categories in terms of how to get more consumers to pay higher prices for bottles of wine. This in part implies significantly improving our ability to engage with consumers in ways that it could be considered risk encouraging the very insatiability that both the authors above are railing against.
Much consumer marketing of wine is terribly old fashioned as the Siddleskys define the term. It is merely providing information for the consumer rather than seeking to beguile and entrance them. Indeed our industry is in such dire straits partly because our marketing is so ineffective. And, however much we might say that we will always ensure there is substance behind the style, our objective is to ensure that consumers pay more for that “substance” than is currently the case.
Ultimately I resolve this dilemma by believing that the prices most consumers are paying for most wines are ridiculously low given the effort and resource that has gone into their production. We need to ensure that our industry is sustainable economically and not just in the more narrow definition of the word.
However I am aware that this argument is perhaps just a little too convenient. Would my attitude, I wonder, be any different if I worked in a category of high returns? Are all consumer marketing people inherently at the forefront of commercialism? Answers on a postcard please.