Do Labels Matter?

Alan from A Good Beer Blog sent me a link to this interesting article from the Globe and Mail entitled “Why you drink what you do (apart from the obvious reason).” The story details a research effort at Brock University in Ontario, Canada, to look into the real reasons people pick up particular wines instead of other ones.

If you find a critic whose tastes appear to align with your own, then it’s probably a safe bet that what that person recommends will also find favor with your own palate. But even then not always. It’s a pretty rare thing generally speaking, because no two people taste things in exactly the same way. We all have slightly different combinations of sensitivities and tolerances for certain smells and tastes. If you work at it, you can learn your own and adjust for them.

For example, I’m particularly sensitive to a type of oxidation that manifests itself as cattiness or simply catty. To me it stands out like cat piss — which is what I call it — and it often overwhelms a beer for me, making it hard for me to concentrate on the beer’s more positive attributes. Normally it can be detected only in levels of 55 parts per trillion, but I suspect that my own sensitivity runs higher. People I taste with regularly can even predict what I’ll say about such beers, so I constantly have to remember to play that down, if possible, because I know I’m more sensitive to that particular aroma than others often are.

But more often you’re simply drawn to certain tastes without really even knowing why. So unless and until you can identify your own peculiar preferences, it’s best to try as many different things as you can in effort to discover what you really like for yourself. The ratings can be a helpful start, but by no means should you ignore first hand suggestions or your own intuition. And to lock yourself in to only buying wine that receives a certain rating is to miss a lot of very exciting and tasty discoveries.

The article’s author, Beppi Crosariol, goes even farther when she suggests that in her experience, “people who talk loudest and dominate conversations are also far more likely to be collectors of overpriced wine.” When she wonders aloud whether or not “we really need PhD’s in lab coats to remind us the wine world is teeming with arrogant, self-appointed dictators and irrational buying behaviour,” she ultimately concludes that we do. “If you can show me another consumer product more irrationally priced than wine, I will eat my hat and wash it down with a magnum of lukewarm Hochtaler,” she continues. “Quality and price are so often in such blatant conflict in the wine world, you would do better to choose a bottle with a blindfold on than willfully empty your wallet on something you’d never tasted.” Well said. So she believes that perhaps if scientific study can reveal such prejudices as meaningless, it might “help consumers feel more comfortable about dismissing the pretentious blather of experts,” and “it would be one giant leap forward for fun, pleasure and fairer pricing.” Hard to disagree with that, I’d say.

Unfortunately, the professor conducting these experiments, Hildegarde Heymann, has her own prejudices to overcome, and she doesn’t even appear to even notice them when she says.

“[T]he subject of wine, more than that of any other consumer product, is loaded with emotional and psychological baggage. The average woman may pay scant attention to the skirt and blouse she pulls on in the morning, she says, yet ‘people will agonize over a $10 bottle of wine. They tend to take it extraordinarily personally. There is such a need by the consumer to make the right wine choice.’

Now I don’t want to speak for all women here, but most of the ones I know will in fact agonize over what “skirt and blouse she pulls on in the morning” far more than their choice of wine. I hope I’m not revealing too much when I say that my own wife often tries on several outfits before being satisfied with what’s she wearing for the day. So has almost every woman I’ve ever dated or known well-enough to know their wardrobe choices. Now that could just be me, but I tend to doubt that I’m unique in my experience that women tend to take their appearance and what they wear “extraordinarily personally.” For that matter, so do many men. So I’m already beginning to question her firm grasp on reality, and therefore my hopes for her study, when she drops the bomb.

And, Prof. Heymann adds, that is regrettable. ‘People pick up a beer without thinking about it. They should be able to pick up wine the same way.’

Okay…. Where to begin? First, that she believes that wine is the only consumer product “loaded with emotional and psychological baggage” or is loaded with the most seems almost delusional. Has she not been watching the evolution of advertising over the past century? Every single consumer good is tied to an emotional need, that’s what advertising does. Does she think people buy expensive, inefficient cars unemotionally with cool detachment? What does she think brand loyalty is, for chrissakes, if not an emotional response? An entire industry exists for the sole purpose of selling us emotions.

But, of course, that’s small potatoes compared to that second-last sentence. Let’s look at that one more time. “People pick up a beer without thinking about it.” Well, I guess Anheuser-Busch can dismantle their gargantuan advertising and marketing budgets and concentrate on making a better tasting beer. Is the good professor smoking crack? People pick up their beer of choice because of years of relentless marketing and advertising designed to get them to do just that. Hellooooo! That she honestly doesn’t appear to think people consciously — or even unconsciously — choose what beer they buy is positively baffling.

And that takes me to the title of this screed, do labels matter? Of course they do, but not just for wine. You don’t need a PhD to know that virtually every product takes the label they put on it very, very seriously. Having designed from the bottom up, several private label beers — at least one of which is still around — gave me a window into this process. We came up with names, graphics and stories and went through more versions than I care to recall. Suffice it to say it was a long and tortuous process. So I view labels much differently now than I once did. For example, almost all labels change, even the ones you don’t think do. Most large companies are constantly tweaking and updating their labels and packaging in order to stay competitive and stand out on the shelf. If you don’t do that, people will lose interest and no longer have a reason to pick up their products.

If you look at a major label — Budweiser or Heineken is good for this — from year to year, you’ll see that minor changes occur all the time. Because they’re well-established brands, they don’t overhaul them in one go, but if you look at them in ten year increments, you’ll see that they have actually changed quite a bit over time. For less well-established brands, it’s usually a good idea to redo your packaging from top to bottom every two to three years so — okay, I hate this buzzword, too — that it remains “fresh.” It is well-known that there are many people who buy both beer and wine based on the label. It’s hardly a secret, it’s why companies put so much effort into their design. So finding out what it is about labels that makes one more palatable than another is certainly of interest, but it’s the other, less well-known factors that I think most people in the business will be interested to learn.

But in the end, I’m still not sure what to make of her last statement, that people “should be able to pick up wine the same way.” By “same way,” she means, of course, “without thinking about it.” Now why on Earth is that how people should buy anything, much less wine? I don’t know about you, or the rest of Canada, but I actually want to think about which beer, wine or whatever that I buy. I find I don’t usually make good choices if they’re mindless. I find that thinking about what I want often leads to my getting exactly that — what I want. Why shouldn’t the choices I make about what to drink, what to eat or even what to wear be personal? If not personal, what would they then be? Wouldn’t impersonal choices lead to drinking, eating and wearing exactly the same thing? That’s certainly not the world I want to live in.

I certainly like the idea of looking into the reasons people choose what they do. It’s a fascinating topic, to me. But I’m befuddled by the concluding idea that the goal of the research is to remove the thinking from choosing. Having personal choices and emotional ones at that, is one of the things that makes us human. If they were all the same, we’d all be the same. Think Globally, Drink Locally, but whatever you do, keep thinking. Vive la Différences.

By Jay Brooks, Brookston Beer Bulletin.