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January – June 2019

How do consumers choose the wines they buy?

By Jeandri Robertson, Caitlin Ferreira and Prof Elsamari Botha

  • June 2019
  • Tags Insights, Coaching
15 minutes to read

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Decisions, decisions: the importance of product knowledge in the evaluation and choice of wine

Recent years have seen a dramatic increase in wine consumption in many parts of the world, and this trend is likely to continue. Today consumers are faced with a bewildering selection of wines, all boasting attributes designed to catch their attention and encourage them to come back for more ‒ from an impressive quality rating and well-known brand name, to attractive labelling.

Not surprisingly, choosing a wine is becoming an increasingly daunting task for many consumers. Yet wine purchases are rarely made on a whim. Consumers assess wines on the basis of several obvious and less obvious attributes, with their choices heavily influenced by whether they are wine aficionados, complete novices or somewhere in between. Understanding what consumers look for in a wine and where a particular product is perceived to be on the value-price fulcrum lies at the heart of an effective wine marketing strategy.

Today consumers are faced with a bewildering selection of wines, all boasting attributes designed to catch their attention, stir their interest and encourage them to come back for more.’

Product knowledge is a very important, but often overlooked, factor in the evaluation of different types of wine. Such knowledge may be subjective or objective. Subjective knowledge refers to what individuals think or believe they know about a particular topic, while objective knowledge refers to what people actually know about a topic in a practical sense, which can be verified or demonstrated to be correct. One could say that subjective knowledge is imagined while objective knowledge is real. Objective knowledge is typically associated with experience and expertise, and is therefore considered more reliable than subjective knowledge which could be the result of hearsay, preconceived ideas or bias. Yet, subjective knowledge is increasingly found to influence consumer behaviour.

Both subjective knowledge and objective knowledge are equally important to wine marketers because what consumers think they know and what they actually know about wine will influence the marketing strategy. This is because the presence of perceived and actual product knowledge gives rise to different market segments whose predilection for certain wine characteristics (and the relative strength of their perceived knowledge versus actual knowledge) needs to be investigated. Often wineries target wine experts differently to the average consumer, and this study investigates whether that should in fact be the case.

The ‘intrinsic’ attributes of wine include colour and taste. The ‘extrinsic’ attributes of wine include price, age (or vintage), brand and region of origin. Extrinsic attributes appeal to consumers’ senses in more complex ways than intrinsic attributes, often making the marketing of the former more challenging. However, a wine’s extrinsic attributes cannot be divorced from its intrinsic attributes. Thus, wine production and marketing are inextricably linked.

‘Consumers assess wines on the basis of several obvious and less obvious attributes, with their choices heavily influenced by whether they are wine aficionados, complete novices or somewhere in between.’

Extrinsic attributes have been defined as those that ‘are known or can be known to the consumer before buying the bottle of wine and are separated from the actual characteristics of the wine’. The contemporary literature on wine marketing is focusing increasingly on the ‘extrinsic’ attributes of wine, but what has not been researched is how product knowledge – both subjective and objective – influences the importance that consumers attach to extrinsic attributes.

This paper examines the influence of subjective and objective product knowledge on the relative importance of four extrinsic attributes of wine ‒ price, age, brand and region of origin ‒ in the evaluation and purchase of wine by consumers. The paper first presents the findings from a literature review and then discusses the results of an online survey that the authors conducted among a sample of experienced and less experienced wine drinkers.

‘Both subject knowledge and objective knowledge are equally important to wine marketers because what a consumer thinks they know and what they actually know about wine will influence the marketing strategy.’

A typology of wine knowledge

A ‘wine knowledge typology’ was developed by Vigar-Ellis, Pitt and Caruana in 2015 to provide a useful guide to the different degrees of, and variations in, wine knowledge among consumers. The typology identifies four main categories of wine consumer:

  1. Neophyte (low objective knowledge + low subjective knowledge): A consumer who knows and also thinks they know very little about wine. A dictionary definition of a neophyte is someone who has just started learning or doing something.
  2. Snob (low objective knowledge + high subjective knowledge): A consumer who believes they know more about wine than they actually do.
  3. Modest (high objective knowledge + low subjective knowledge): A consumer who actually knows more about wine than they think they do.
  4. Expert (high objective knowledge + high subjective knowledge): A consumer who thinks they know a lot about wine, and in fact do.

While it can be dangerous to generalise, some broad characteristics have emerged from the literature on the different types of wine consumer. For example, people’s relative wine knowledge has a significant bearing on the extent to which they are motivated to look for information about a particular wine. Also, most consumers tend to be overly confident about and overestimate their wine knowledge. Furthermore, expert consumers have been found to attach more value to the origin of wine, its official ranking and château name, while novices generally base their wine choices on price, age and bottle design.

‘To a consumer, the price of a bottle of wine is not only about its affordability; it is also an important part of the wine’s perceived brand value and can add to (or detract from) its desirability.’

What the literature says: The influence of price, vintage, region and brand on wine purchases

The interaction between price and quality is a key area of interest in the economics field and has been extensively researched. In the context of wine purchasing behaviour, the general consensus is that price and perceived quality are strongly interrelated. People’s views about price can be influenced by both subjective and objective knowledge. To a consumer, the price of a bottle of wine is not only about its affordability; it is also an important part of the wine’s perceived brand value and can add to (or detract from) its desirability. Although consumers typically weigh up several attributes when selecting wine, those with less brand knowledge are inclined to attach relatively more importance to price as a quality indicator.

Although some authors see the age or vintage of a wine as an intrinsic attribute, others argue that age should be treated as an extrinsic attribute because it can be evaluated without the wine being consumed. A number of authors have discerned a strong relationship between a wine’s age and its price, saying that as a wine matures over time its price tends to increase. A wine’s age can therefore also be seen as a mark of quality. Though often price-sensitive, novice consumers may be prepared to pay premium prices for older wine if its quality can be verified through a visible quality symbol or a persuasive argument provided by a specialist wine store.

‘A wine’s brand is a powerful marketing tool because it evokes different feelings and emotions in people, which can be tapped through the interplay of words and images, and an interesting story line. ’

A wine’s brand is a powerful marketing tool because it evokes different feelings and emotions in people, which can be tapped through the interplay of words and images, and an interesting story line. Part of the story line is the region of origin, an attribute that can make a brand particularly distinctive. A wine’s brand (and where the wine was produced) tends to make a stronger impression on more knowledgeable consumers. However, having said that, wine connoisseurs do not necessarily see the brand as being a consistent mark of quality; they will also consider other attributes before arriving at a final choice. Novices, in contrast, rely more on first impressions and are generally more swayed by a country or region of origin than the actual brand name and what it stands for.

The influence of region of origin on wine purchases has been one of the most heavily researched topics in wine circles in recent years. Region of origin indicates where a wine’s grapes are grown, where vinification takes place, how the wine is classified and also sometimes where it is bottled. Like a brand name, the region of origin can trigger perceptions about a wine’s quality and character on the basis of its geographical or cultural identity. For example, ‘New World’ wine-producing countries like Australia, New Zealand and South Africa have differentiated themselves from more traditional, ‘Old World’ wine-producing countries like France, Germany, Italy and Spain.

What the online survey revealed

Using a conjoint analysis (a statistical technique used to determine how people value particular attributes that make up a product), price emerged as the most important extrinsic attribute for wine purchases – irrespective of the level of product knowledge. Furthermore, most respondents, including those in the Expert category, indicated a preference for the mid-priced range of wine. Interestingly, those in the Snob category ranked expensive wine as their least preferred attribute. This suggests that consumers generally apply risk-reduction strategies when making wine purchases.

Region of origin emerged as the second most important attribute among respondents, with those in the Expert and Modest categories preferring this particular attribute over others. Those in the Neophyte, Modest and Expert categories viewed unknown region of origin (in other words, no information on the region was available) as their least preferred attribute. This highlights the importance of a wine having a clear regional identity. The Neophyte and Snob categories of consumer attached relatively high importance to a wine’s brand, with both indicating that their highest preference was for well-known brands. Clearly, brand differentiation is an important factor when marketing to all levels of consumer.

Age of wine was shown to be of lesser importance to respondents, with wines in the mid-range generally being the preferred attribute. This mirrors the preference for mid-priced wines and suggests a risk-mitigation approach.

‘Even novice consumers, with limited practical knowledge of wine, constitute a distinct market segment because they display common tendencies when evaluating and choosing wine, which marketers should creatively tap into. ’

Conclusion

With the global wine industry becoming increasingly congested and competitive, wine producers and marketers need to appeal to consumers in ever new and innovative ways. Understanding what motivates consumers to buy particular types of wine is a critical part of this process. While the literature is replete with studies on the extrinsic attributes of wine and how these drive wine sales, the particular contribution of this study is that it delves into a neglected area of research – that is, how consumers’ knowledge of wine influences their perceptions about the relative importance of price, age, brand and region of origin. What is interesting is that even novice consumers, with limited practical knowledge of wine, constitute a distinct market segment because they display common tendencies when evaluating and choosing wine, which marketers should creatively tap into.

This study lays an important foundation for more in-depth studies into the influence of product knowledge on wine purchasing behaviour, taking additional attributes into consideration. Wine labels and bottle characteristics, for example, could be included in the product attribute mix as visual cues can steer consumers in very clear directions. In line with the global focus on terroir in wine, region did in fact have the greatest influence on wine drinkers when considering both novices and experts.

  • Find the original journal article here: Robertson, J., Ferreira, C., & Botha, E. (2018). The influence of product knowledge on the relative importance of extrinsic product attributes of wine. Journal of Wine Research, 29(3), 159-176. DOI: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/09571264.2018.1505605.
  • Jeandri Robertson is from the Department of Business Administration, Technology and Social Sciences, Luleå University of Technology, Luleå, Sweden.
  • Caitlin Ferreira is from the Department of Business Administration, Technology and Social Sciences, Luleå University of Technology, Luleå, Sweden.
  • Prof Elsamari Botha lectures in Digital Enterprise Management and Digital Futures at the University of Stellenbosch Business School.

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