Brands and reassurance

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I’ve been thinking a bit about brands of late, and it is coffee that prompted my thoughts.

I was in Washington State in June, and you just couldn’t get away from Starbucks. Every hotel had Starbucks coffee, aside from the ubiquitous Starbucks stores. My coffee geek friends tell me that Starbucks coffee isn’t very good. But it’s clearly popular. It is a very powerful brand.

If Starbucks isn’t great, why is it such a strong coffee brand?

It’s because it does what brands are supposed to do. It’s not great, but it’s not bad. It is good enough, and it is consistently good enough. The brand reassures people that they are not going to have a bad cup of coffee, and they know what to expect when they order a Starbucks coffee.

For coffee geeks, reassurance and consistency are not good enough. They want great coffee. Clearly, for most people, good enough coffee is just fine. Quality is best defined as fitness for purpose, and for normal people a cup of coffee that isn’t bad is usually all that they want. After all, coffee is not just about the flavour. It is a psychological punctuation mark in the day; a ritual; a special moment. So according to our definition of quality – fitness for purpose – Starbucks is good quality, for most people.

Let’s extend this thinking to wine. Most people find wine brands reassuring, even though wine geeks usually find branded wines dull and uninteresting. As with coffee, normal people want a wine that isn’t bad, and the flavour of the wine isn’t the primary consideration in their purchase decision.

This applies to expensive wines, too. For people shelling out serious bucks, high-end wine brands – think Penfolds Bin Series, famous Napa Cabs, recognizable classed growth Bordeaux – are reassuring. Champagne brands are a great example here: you could show a normal person a grower Champagne that they prefer the taste of and they’ll still choose the Grand Marque that’s more expensive, because the branding is powerful and reassures them that they are drinking the right thing.

It’s true that brands mean different things to different people. You could argue that for the natural wine crowd names such as Ganevat are powerful brands. Here, the brand becomes more aspirational than reassuring. There are somm-bait and geek-bait brands, just as there are brands appealing to affluent dudes who like a bit of conspicuous consumption.

Overall, though, the role of the brand is to reassure those who are looking to spend and consume in safety, with no nasty surprises. And this is what wine brands do, and it is largely why they are so successful.

7 comments to Brands and reassurance

  • BT

    I’m sure what you say about reassurance (does what it says on the tin) is right at the lower range of markets, but I wonder if at the higher end there’s a degree of “signalling” going on too. Not just the conspicuous consumption you mention, but, using your champagne example, the role of the brand is that it has a roughly identifiable value. Giving a gift of a bottle of brand champagne signals approximately how much the giver has spent on the receiver, and having brand champagne at your drinks party signals to guests that you are not serving them £10 Tesco tooth-stripper. If reassuring the consumer is at one end of the spectrum and showing off with expensive brands at the other, I suspect there are a range of social messages we use brands to convey that lie inbetween.

  • Ian Beckett

    I think an aspect of the reason for the popularity of Starbucks(& other coffee chains) is not the quality of the coffee but how it is drunk.Your geeky coffee friends will no doubt drink espresso in which, if made correctly, will demonstrate the true flavour of the coffee. However, most people I see in coffee chains do not drink coffee but milk flavoured coffee or heaven forbid coffee flavoured milk. We don’t add anything to our glass of wine, save for the odd glacon in summer, and attempt to drink it at it’s most accessible(room temp for red, cooled for white).
    Now spirits are another matter!
    I hope you find this viewpoint interesting.
    Ian

  • Leeann Froese

    Excellent post. I totally agree on what you said the role of a brand is, to spend and consume in safety. Well put.

  • On the money I’d say, and good point about the grower Champagne.

  • Le Guil Jean Louis

    Brilliant idea to compare wine brands with starbucks!
    Brands, and especially the big boys such as moet (LVMH), Torres, lindemans or others are probably the first bottles that most consumers will buy. And then, or some of them will try to see or experience further…

    Wine brands are very reliable but unfortunately never impressive, up to certain point as vieilles Vignes Françaises By Bollinger or Penfold’s Grange can be a unique tasting experience! But they are not widely available ( and affordable) like a branded coffee.
    Nevertheless, reliable brands a very useful. If you have to offer a bottle of champagne to a friend (not a wine freak) and you choose to go for a small producer that produces an astonishing fizz, it is possible that your friend will be disappointed as he can’t estimate your gift. A familiar and well known name would do the trick!
    We could say that it works the same way for most restaurants/gastro pubs. A wine list composed exclusively of small unknown producers from obscure wine regions would be scared people. It has to be consumer-friendly. So Brands a very useful. But do we enjoy them? or who enjoy them?

  • Helen J. Conway

    With Starbucks, I think a large part of its success is related to the experience. People know that they will be entering a comfortable environment with good lighting, the right temperature and good music, spacious toilets in working order and they can rely on it for a good wifi connection. Check out just how many people sit in Starbucks working on their laptops – the coffee is just a detail in that moment. Personally I really don’t like Starbucks coffee, but as a businesswoman living in Chile, I go into Starbucks stores regularly because of their reliable infrastructure and long opening hours. Comes back to what you are saying about reassurance and consistency.

    Taking the analogy to wine, perhaps the experience equates to the supermarket wine buyer. They go to their regular supermarket because they trust it to have decent wines at decent prices in an environment that feels comfortable and safe and has the right opening times. They stick to the same variety of wine / country of origin and/or brand because they know they like it; it’s good enough for them.

    I know some of the wineries here in Chile have contracts to supply the supermarket chains in the UK. Their clients want the wines to be the same from one year to the next, so the winemaker has to adjust the blend each year to try to get the same outcome. Interesting divergence from what those of us who are passionate about wine are looking for: unique and varied wine experiences where each vintage is unique. Vive la difference!

  • Unless you are in it for only a few years, your brand reputation will linger for years. Many wineries forget that they need to protect and enhance their brand in the secondary market just as much as the current release market.

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