Where preference fails, and why giving people what they want can be elitist

Try this: you might like it!

Try this: you might like it!

It’s common to see market research on wine where people are given samples and asked which they prefer. The common implication of these studies is that the wine trade should give people what they prefer. Producers should discover peoples’ preferences, and then use this information to shape their offering. Get more people drinking wine by giving them what we think they want.

But I think this is a mistake. If I’m going into a food or drink category where I have little expertise, I don’t want people to ask me what I prefer. Instead, I want to ask the questions. I’m the one learning, after all. I want to ask: what should I like and why? Which are the authentic products? Then, armed with this information, I can make informed choices. I may decide I prefer some over others, but I realise that some of the most interesting foods and drinks have flavours that I will, initially, find challenging, but which I may grow to like.

A criticism levelled at the approach I’m proposing is that it’s elitist. Some reckon that if novice consumers prefer sweet wines in a market research exercise, we should be selling them sweet wines because it’s their preference. But if the wine industry lets mass market consumers dictate wine style, it will be a disaster.

Of course, I am not advocating forcing people to drink wines that they don’t enjoy. Rather, I’m suggesting we give everyone a chance to try the authentic products, rather than saying you won’t like the real thing, so we’ll give you what we think you might cope with, an ersatz sweetened-up, accessible version. That’s really elitist: keeping the best for ourselves but giving the masses something their unadventurous, safe palates can cope with.

By doing this, we are saying that quality products that have a senses of place are too complex and serious for normal people.

I don’t want to force my tastes on anyone else. But I do want to encourage people to be adventurous and try drinking interesting wine. I want to ignite curiosity in them. Years ago, someone did that for me: they steered me away from supermarket versions of famous wines towards the real things, and that set me on my journey.

Rather than ask people who are new to wine what they prefer, my message is this: here’s a magical world that I stumbled upon, and I think you might like it too!

6 comments to Where preference fails, and why giving people what they want can be elitist

  • Dick

    The whole world of wine is pretty elitist for those ‘new to wine’. What do you even mean by that? People who haven’t ever had a drink? Those who’ve traded up from supermarket stuff? You have an article in a UK national newspaper and if you want people to enjoy the magical world that you stumbled upon, then write about it there in layman’s terms rather than musing about it in a misty eyed, self indulgent manner on your own blog.

  • Chris Williams

    It was Steve Jobs who said he wanted to give people something they didn’t know they needed…and the IPod was born.

  • Spot on.
    I also think this is about mindfulness.
    And there is a parallel between mindless food and wine consumption. Mass production and marketing of focus group driven food and drink products is providing the new opiate for the masses.

  • Dick – bit of an odd comment, I’m not sure I really understand your point. I think Jamie does use “layman’s terms” in his newspaper articles and in his own blog he’s quite at liberty to write what he likes, just as you’re at liberty not to bother reading it.

  • Dick

    Andrew (and Jamie) – You’re quite right. I wrote that after a few glasses and am a little embarrassed by my comments – I really am that novice! What I do feel though is that the wine industry itself is a little elitist (and I know that is what Jamie was trying to argue against) but as a novice, I do still feel that industry professionals, journo’s etc could do more to engage the likes of me, and that a mass appeal broadcast character would be great for the industry and for those seeking to learn more about wine in an informal manner. Anyway, apologies for any offence caused. Every day’s a school day!

  • Producers become successful by identifying their target consumer group, whether novice or hobbiest, working class or elite, etc., and marketing to them. That consumer criteria can be selected prior to or as a result of production results…
    What I’d like to know is how you intend to market that g’dawful-looking foil-leafed pork rind in the image?

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