Clever Wine Marketing

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by: Roger Dooley

How do you market a product that your customers know is bad before they try it, and which they may well dislike if they do? That’s the dilemma faced by makers of boxed wines – even those of high quality that would fare well in a blind tasting.

Wine is such a subjective product that I could probably devote a blog just to wine neuromarketing. We know that expensive wine tastes better, and that California wine beats North Dakota wine – even when all the wine tasted is the exact same stuff! And these differences have been measured by brain scans, so it’s not just a problem with the tasters saying what they think the researcher wants to hear.

So if the way people experience wine is heavily shaped by their expectations, pity the wineries trying to market box wines in America. U.S. consumers have been conditioned to believe that proper wine comes in a 750ml glass bottle with a natural cork. Artificial corks and screw cap closures are suspect, to say the least. And box wines are traditionally suited only for penniless college students, who will drink anything if it’s cheap enough. Hence, despite the major performance advantages of wine boxes (also called wine casks, or bag-in-box packages), wineries seeking to sell higher quality box wines have major neuromarketing obstacles in their way. What’s a box wine maker to do?

Killer Juice’s creative approach to marketing their product was described at Box Wines in Killer Marketing: How to Sell Boxed Wine. Here’s how that winery addressed a couple of the neuro-obstacles to selling their boxed Killer Juice Cabernet Sauvignon

Setting Higher Expectations. If people expect better wine, they’ll get it. While Killer Juice can’t erase the stigma of rectangular packaging, they attempt to set higher expectations by putting a prominent gold and black sticker on the front of the box. The sticker celebrates the wine’s winning a gold medal at the 2007 Critics Challenge International Wine Competition. I have no idea how prestigious that competition is, or how many wines took a gold medal in 2007, but it sounds good.

Since most consumer-facing wine marketing occurs on the shelf of the supermarket or wine shop, highlighting awards and favorable point ratings at the point of sale is a great idea for any winery. If you see that Robert Parker scored the wine you are checking out at 90 points, that will go a long way to offsetting the potential negative expectations from, say, a low price or unknown brand.

The research I’ve described in the past suggests that steps like this that set higher expectations will do more than provide a point-of-sale competitive edge; it’s very likely that they will improve the customer’s real experience with the wine.

Setting an Anchor Price. In the last week, I’ve talked about anchor pricing in several contexts. The issue of anchor pricing – the predetermined price expectation people have for a product or service – is particularly tricky for box wine makers. Wine buyers may lack a frame of reference for a boxed wine. Here’s my rough guess at some price anchors for the typical supermarket wine consumer who enjoys wine but is not a wine hobbyist:

Price for 750ml bottle

Under $5 – very questionable, might be unpleasant
$5 – might be drinkable, depending on origin
$10 – should definitely be drinkable, maybe quite good
$20 & up – special occasion, better be very good

This is a gross oversimplification, but there is some weak correlation with published wine ratings. (Then again, maybe expensive wine tastes better to wine writers, too!)

While most regular wine buyers do have mental anchors set for bottled wine, they probably do not have such anchors for the less common boxed product. So, confronted with a 3-liter wine box, the U.S. wine buyer has to put the price in context. (Typically, 3-liter boxes of better wine sell for $15 – $25 in the U.S., while 5-liter boxes of undrinkable cheap stuff run from $8 – $12 or so.) If he’s looking at a box of Killer Juice Cab on sale for $16, a not unthinkable price for a wine intended to sell for $20 or so, two key questions will influence the anchor price:

  1. Does he realize that the very compact box contains four bottles of wine?
  2. If he DOES realize there are the equivalent of four bottles in the box, will he divide the box price by 4 and conclude that it’s likely bad stuff?

Killer Juice addresses both questions by pointing out on three sides of the box not only that the box contains the equivalent of 4 bottles, but that the wine is a $10 wine. The clever KJ marketers are attempting to reset the anchor price for boxed wine, in essence telling customers that (at least for KJ wines) a 3-liter box is worth $40, and the contents will taste like what you’d get in a $10 bottle. Now the shelf price looks like a real opportunity to score some decent wine at big savings.

This is a nice approach to the anchoring problem. If Killer Juice advertised boldly, “Only $4 per bottle!” they might appeal to some bargain hunters but would likely turn off many others who would relate the $4 to their existing anchor pricing and assume it was junk wine. Conversely, if they pitched it as $20 per bottle wine, the claim would be so extreme as to be unbelievable. And, in addition to helping reset the anchor, the $10 claim works with the gold medal sticker to boost the wine drinker’s ultimate perception of the wine.

Reportedly, in Australia over half the wine sold is in boxes or non-traditional packaging. If the U.S. is going to come close to catching up to the Aussies, it will be due to good marketing that not only moves higher quality boxed wines off the shelves but leads to a good experience when the wine is tasted.

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