Knowledgeable wine folk know that price isn't always the best indicator when it comes to quality, but researchers have confirmed that many consumers do think expensive wines taste better.
In a new study, published in the Journal of Consumer Research, consumers were shown an advertisement for a bottle of wine with both a low price and a high price. They believed the expensive wine would be better compared to the cheaper wine.
“Consumers rarely have complete information and use various strategies to fill the gaps in their knowledge as they consider and choose products,” write the four researchers drawn from universities in Cincinnati, Indiana, Nova Scotia and Tennessee. “For example, consumers may believe that popular products are high in quality while also believing that scarce products are high in quality."
These findings support a 2008 study which revealed that tasters enjoyed wines that were supposedly higher in price. It’s no surprise that a $90 wine came out as the sample group's favorite, but when they tasted the same wine and were told it cost $10 bottle, they liked it a lot less.
Those tested in the 2008 study were wired up, and from their findings the scientists were able to suggest that a part of the brain, the medial orbitofrontal cortex, is responsible for people deciding how good a wine should be before it reaches their lips.
But it’s not just high prices that enhance someone's enjoyment of a wine. According to the new paper published in the Journal of Consumer Research, low prices might actually be seen as an indicator that a wine is good value rather than low in quality depending on their perceptions.
This is a key finding for wine sales and marketing departments. Money-off deals and promotions might encourage consumers to open their wallets, thinking they are getting a good deal. But such offers "can also backfire if consumers believe that low prices equal low quality.”
The answer lies in finding the right marketing message to match consumer beliefs, says Dr Steven Povasac, professor of marketing at Nashville's Vanderbilt University and one of the study's authors. He suggests that lower-priced wine brands need to convey an image of value through their marketing material and slogans. They also need to reassure consumers that many others are making the same choice.
"Using the angle that lots of people choose a wine that is inexpensive may be beneficial – [e.g.] 'the choice of 2 million wine drinkers each year' – because the 'popular equals good' signal may be the only card a cheap wine has to play in driving brand attitudes," he notes.
At the other end of the price scale, wine brands should convey a sense of scarcity. "Given the relatively lower distribution of high-end wines, it is likely a good thing to also focus on appeals of exclusivity in marketing materials – [e.g.] 'only available at select wine stores' – so that the relative scarcity of an expensive wine vs. one like Sutter Home is taken to imply it is desirable because it is hard to get," reveals Povasac.
So, are our preconceived ideas about the quality or value of wines on the shelves determined by clever marketing? The findings suggest this might be so. Bordeaux first growths and many Champagne brands are not produced in tiny quantities, but they have created an aura of scarcity, which many brands try to replicate through reserve and single-vineyard bottlings.
For consumers with little wine knowledge, the wine aisle already represents a minefield that needs to be carefully negotiated. This new study suggests that you will need to be at your most alert next time you're shopping for wines, to make sense of the marketing melee.