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.