To make brands work in the wine category, we need to recognise how they work

Most of us working in marketing think we know about brands. After all, they are the most visible, tangible and discussable element of our trade – and arguably the most important. At their best, brands lodge themselves firmly in what Daniel Kahneman terms the “Fast Brain”. This is the elemental part of our minds that automates thinking and allows us to cruise through a lot of our daily existence without deploying the energy-intensive, slow, nuanced, analytical “Slow Brain”. Hence we can move through a supermarket quickly, making hundreds of decisions in a matter of minutes, and guide ourselves through crowds of people moving in multiple directions.

Impressive though the Fast Brain is, it can be easily nudged into doing something, which, in the modern era, is exactly what brands have done. Jingles, colours, shapes, sounds, phrases and, latterly, smells, have been used to influence its instinctive, low-level decision-making in the direction of a product or service. As the branding process has grown more sophisticated, this under-the-radar influencing has migrated into product categories whose complexity – and in some cases major financial implications – would naturally demand more Slow Brain thinking. How often was that house purchase influenced by the neatness of the furniture, or that holiday purchased because the colour of the sea in the picture on the website?

In the wine industry the branding task is more nuanced, because our category sits at an unusual crossroads in the Fast Brain / Slow Brain continuum. It’s presence in a supermarket, and relatively low sticker price, would make it prime material for Fast Brain branding: colours, shapes, icons and the like. And yet the category complexity – colour, country, varietal, taste profile – demands that we engage the Slow Brain. From what we’ve discovered in our research, not everyone wants to do this, and frankly even those that do, don’t necessarily want to do it all the time. If I need to buy a bottle on the way home from work, do I really want to have to make a considered choice? Or will Oyster Bay do because I recognise its distinctive blue colour from a distance? Yet, when deciding on wine for Christmas, the foodie end of my family will engage in three days of email debate.

At the root of this analysis sits a rather uncomfortable truth for marketers in all categories, not just wine, which we explore in our current workshop roadshow on branding.  (After London last week, next stop is Sydney, Porto and Madrid in October, rounding off with Geisenheim, Santiago and San Francisco). Using Fast Brain logic to find your product on a busy shelf does not breed an undying love for the brand. The consumer is simply using the shortcut (also known as “heuristic”) to get what they want, when they want it. Their “loyalty” is simply a function of availability, recall, and fit at that moment. They really don’t care that much.

As brand owners and marketers, this lack of passion for our brand is a difficult concept for us to grasp. After all, we live and breathe our own brand’s image and equity, and spend a lot of Slow Brain time on it. As marketing academics are now increasingly pointing out, marketers in the 21st Century inherently bias their time and marketing budget towards channels that demand Slow Brain commitment – websites, blogs, Facebook – and much less to Fast Brain stuff like traditional advertising and point of sale. Professor Mark Ritson of Melbourne Business School has been particularly scathing on this subject, arguing that the marketing world’s obsession with social media, and wilful ignorance of basic measures of ROI, has damaged marketing’s credibility within business.

So if we are serious about brands in the wine category, we have a few things to accept:

  1. Consumers have at best a fleeting connection with our brands, and expecting them to have the same passion as someone who’s paid to live and breathe the brand is unrealistic
  2. The Fast Brain thinking that allows us to navigate the world quickly is still valid for wine, though we should accept that our complex category can become Slow Brain territory some of the time
  3. Spending money on areas which interest us as brand owners may not be the best way of achieving sales success – sometimes it’s better to save your social media budget and splash out on a more basic awareness campaign across traditional media

Author: Lulie Halstead