The Return on Investment of Wine Education

 

… or why “consumers need more wine education” is wrong

It would appear to be widely accepted in the wine trade that if only consumers knew more about wine, the more, better (and higher profit) wines they’d buy.

“Consumer Education” in the form of brochures, seminars, events, newsletters, websites, apps, social networks, trips etc, form part of most every wine marketing plan (assuming they’ve even bothered). To quote one recent example, Tom Lewis (aka @CambWineBlogger) in a discussion on this topic initiated by Wink Lorch (aka @WineTravel):

(what we need is) more wine education, so people start to want better wines and feel confident about searching for them …

In other words, it isn’t a problem with the wine or how it is made available, it is really about a lack of knowledge. We can fix that. Right?

The basic mental model this is based on is something like this:

Simple model of ROI in wine education

Simple model of ROI in wine education

If you increase Education (i.e. invest some effort to learn) then consumers get a corresponding increase in Enjoyment. The more you put in, the more you get out.

Of course, this is flawed. Nothing in life is that easy for a start, but if this isn’t right, what might the model actually look like, what would it teach us about how to improve the customer’s “ROI”?

Let’s start with a couple of assumptions:

  1. You don’t NEED to understand wine to appreciate it
  2. Wine doesn’t matter – at least to most people

To an ‘expert’, wine might mean more than just the alcoholic beverage you actually drink. It is also the final outcome of a winery/winemaker’s efforts and the story of that creation, but also the culture of wine that led to this effort in the first place.

BUT, the vast majority of people are not, and do not want to be, experts. For many, wine is a slightly extravagant way of getting intoxicated.

However, there are always those whose interest is sparked by something, maybe a story or an unusual experience, or they see some potential reward in knowing more about wine, so they consider “learning about wine”. What awaits them? What are the “investments” they need to make, and what are the potential “rewards”?

Investments

TIME: the most obvious is the amount of time one has to spend; wine courses, reading books, magazines and blogs, attending tastings, in the wine aisle and in shops, browsing, taking notes, recording, reviewing

MONEY: this is an expensive hobby. Wine tutors, books and tastings all cost money. In addition, as you explore wine more, you inevitably spend more per bottle than before (I remember my WSET tutor apologising for this fact in my first ever class).

EFFORT: it isn’t just the time and money, you have to care! To get a lot out of your wine studies, you must dedicate a certain effort to recall information, to look out for materials, to pass exams that open doors to the next level of education achievement

FACE: “Oh, you’ve done those wine classes. Why don’t you choose the wine today?” says your boss, your partner, best friend, etc. The cost is the performance stress every time a wine list arrives at the table, and the risk of failure.

Well, that’s all well and good, but there are great rewards, too. Right?

Rewards

EXPERIENCES: Knowing more about wine means having an idea of what you want, and getting what you expected; the “right” wine for the moment. It means you can match these moments according to the style of a wine, but also to its story and personality (celebrating a surprise win? Why choose any old Champagne when you could be drinking that English sparkling wine that surprised everyone by beating the Champenois by coming top in a recent competition!)

AVOID MISTAKES (?): It is related to the above, but many people who start in wine education do so to “buy better wines and know which ones are actually cr*p”. Avoiding such mistakes is a strong motivator to get started … but how realistic is it?

SAVE MONEY (?): Another reward people might hope for is that by knowing more about wine, they can spend the same, or maybe even less, than they do now but find wines that please them more. [If only! There are very few, except for maybe City employees drinking expensive wines on expense accounts, that might fall into this category.]

: What else?

The problem is, the rewards are a lot harder to list and quantify than the costs. Unless you are looking to invest in wine and you want to know what to buy and sell, then wine knowledge is a personal achievement.

Unlike other popular hobbies, wine knowledge is hard to share. If you had ‘invested’ the same in learning about music you could talk to your friends in the pub or at work, it might even help on quiz night. If you’d been studying electronics, or flower arranging, you could make or fix something. Wine is more esoteric.

So what might the graph of Return vs Investment for wine education actually look like for an average wine consumer? Well, I suggest it might look like this red line:

An alternative view of the ROI from wine education

An alternative view of the ROI from wine education

To explain, let me highlight four consumers at particular locations on this continuum:

A. The Average Consumer

You don’t need to know about wine to appreciate it. In fact, good shops and even the supermarkets are doing some of the work for you. They’ve selected wines, categorised them, written tasting notes and might even be willing to recommend one specifically for you. Effort required = ZERO.

This is where the VAST majority of consumers exist (in the UK) and, in fact, where a lot SHOULD stay, and as the retailers get better, the “Return” increases further. Consumers are unlikely to really lose out in a competitive market.

B. The Wine Student

Having been tempted to start studying about wine, you find out you’ve paid several hundred £pounds for a course plus materials, given up several evenings and maybe even a weekend to attend the course. You’ve learned about many parts of the world that make wine. You have a list in your head, and maybe your wallet, of 50 grape varieties, and an understanding of the basics of winemaking.

However, when presented with a choice of wines in real-life situations, you are no wiser than before. You “haven’t done Italian wines yet” and you are not sure how what you learned about the three sub-regions of Rioja can help to choose between the 10 different Crianza and Reserva wines on offer on the supermarket shelf.

In fact, you might even enjoy wine less if you avoid all the supermarket offers and instead take gambles on slightly more expensive wines you think you recognise, but turn out not to be what you expected.

You’ve been through basic training. It is a good foundation, but are you avoiding mistakes or making more? Do you feel more confident in restaurants or less? I know I suffered and almost gave up.

What are the options? Stop chucking money at it and go back to A), or plough on and invest more in the hope of getting greater rewards in future? Most people do the former.

C. The Wine Geek

You’ve spent a long time at it and wine studying is part of your life. You are comfortable spending time reading wine magazines and books, you’ve taken some courses, you’ve even visited some wineries. Your overall experience of wine is much improved and you are quite happy for people to ask you for advice.

The fact is, however, that you may still not have recouped what you’ve invested to achieve this. There are a lot of points between B) and D) where you are still in “deficit”, but as your appreciation increases, so do the ways of getting other rewards from this investment. You might get invited to exclusive tastings, meet winemakers, get invitations to visit wineries, take a look behind the scenes where tourists don’t normally go, and so on. It may also be that you are becoming known to your friends as “the wine expert” and are now able to help them find better bottles and have more fun. Your wine knowledge is appreciated as a skill, not an affectation. Great reward indeed!

D. The Master of Wine

Eventually, all this effort pays off and you are king, or queen, of the vinous mountain and you’ve probably earned the right to use the letters MW after your name. Few wine labels hide secrets from you, and many of the great names in the wine world know your name and send you personal messages and invitations. Your friends all applaud your status. There’s always much to learn, but you’ve cracked the code. Very few people ever reach this point.

Conclusions

What might this mean for our wine conversation?

First, lets all agree that the vast majority of wine consumers are exactly where they want to be: Enjoying the simple pleasures of drinking simple wine at affordable prices. The “heart zone” is real. We might argue over whether it is growing or shrinking, but there are plenty of places to pick up a decent bottle of wine without being asked to present a wine certificate.

Secondly, the “bubble zone” is real too. Why is it we have to convince people they NEED more wine education? It is because it is hard work and the rewards are not obvious. We don’t need to convince football fans to “learn” team histories, squad changes, fixture lists, etc. These happen normally because more people care, and once you’ve done it, they are rewarded in lots of subtle, social ways. They can join in more discussions with friends and even strangers in pubs and workplaces. Can they do that with wine? No! If you want a barometer of what a society thinks are “important” social topics, check out the categories in the local pub quiz. Sport. Films. History. TV. Literature. Where is Wine?

Instead of pushing people to invest more effort in wine education, we should be increasing the rewards for making that effort, responsibly.

Coming back to the assumptions mentioned above, we need to try to make wine matter while remembering that you don’t need to understand wine to achieve this.

Nike & Reebok didn’t make trainers ‘cool’ by explaining the technology of sports shoes, or by making them cheaper. They made them something people thought mattered, so the could compare with their mates, and invest in.

The best return on investment for the wine business is NOT to “educate” wine drinkers about the features of the wines, but to make wine in general a more relevant part of their lives, and therefore one they will want to be involved with. This is about making wine more fun, less stuffy, easier to share, more relevant, popular and engaging. This is not the same as lowering prices and quality.

Let’s get our trainers on, hum some Pink Floyd and go out and make wine more rewarding too!

 

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