The pursuit of quality is derailed by a quantity-driven market

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Alex Walker argues that cultivating knowledge is the way for quality to win out over quantity

Consumers are after experiences. Long gone are the days when consumers simply wanted to grab a bite, or have a drink. Nowadays, if it doesn’t look good through an Instagram filter it’s just not worth it. (Food for thought: Instagram filters make everything look good, blurring the perception and memory of the experience itself, leaving just an eye-catching image.)

The drinking business is no different. The branding epidemic has swept through, magically transforming bartenders to mixologists, and every decent bottle to a premium one. Surprisingly or not, the term “premium” has been completely robbed of meaning and substance, leaving consumers not buying into this ever-escalating word game – try our super-premium vodka!

Ironically, this branding leap led some consumers to prefer quantity over quality. They can’t be blamed: getting wary of marketing terminology and losing faith in qualitative labels, consumers opt for the quantity rather than the often-misleading quality.

The ancient “quantity vs quality” predicament has a modern twist, and the brands themselves are to blame for this. The chase after quantity is readily apparent in travel, for example. Hot destinations, like Las Vegas, where drinking laws are far less strict than the rest of the US (as explained in this article titled Everything You Need to Know About Drinking in Vegas’ Casinos), aim for quantity-driven offers like all-you-can-drink and various happy hour combinations. Once back home, consumers are looking for the same kind of offers in their own towns and cities.

Knowledge is an acquired taste

There’s another level to this expanding preference to quantity, a deeper level, that relates to the individual consumer’s knowledge and understanding of a specific category. Let’s take whisky as an example, a crowded category with a very wide price range.

So whisky wise, how does a consumer choose whether to go for a top-shelf bottle (quality) or settle for an under-the-bar pour (quantity)? I would argue that it has to do a lot with the specific consumer’s level of familiarity with the category.

If I’m knowledgeable about whisky, if I know Hibiki 17 and understand the difference between it and Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Straight Kentucky Bourbon – know from experience – then I’ll be more inclined to spend more on the Bowmore Small Batch Single Malt that the bartender just offered me to try. Why? Because I’m curious to try again a smoky seaside malt from Islay, because I really enjoyed Laphroaig and Ardbeg two years ago on my trip to Scotland and because the bartender says it’s unsarcastically full-bodied for Islay, so I’m curious.

On the other hand, if I normally drink whisky and Coke with whatever whisky is poured, then I won’t even let the bartender finish their description of Bowmore, because what do I care? I can’t even tell the difference between whisky and bourbon, not to mention between a blend and a single malt. So why would I care to spend double or more on something I’m unable to appreciate? I probably just want to get a buzz so I’ll have the courage to go talk to that gorgeous girl at the other end of the bar, or get totally smashed because it’s a Saturday night.

Talking of getting smashed. Maybe it’s just me, but it sometimes feels like this practice is actually getting hyped by certain brands. The hip flask industry is pulling all the stops to encourage consumption of alcohol when and where it shouldn’t be consumed. What once was an accessory for elder gentlemen has become a vehicle for excessive consumption of alcohol in a disguise of a fashion trend, offering to personalise your hip flask and make it a part of your overall identity. This is yet another example of misguided marketing, or branding, where the consumer’s best interests are less of a consideration.

Now, add to that the constant rise in prices of alcohol, and you’ve got a quantity-driven market.

Help your customers become more knowledgeable

So how do we encourage a change in perception in consumers? How do we gently pull them toward the quality? By cultivating knowledge. Simple as that.

As mentioned above, knowledge, understanding and experience all contribute to the enjoyment and appreciation of quality. If you don’t really know why a certain bottle is expensive, if you’re not curious to try it out, you’ll be much less inclined to spend the extra money on it.

You can help your consumers gain this knowledge. Either individually – conversing one on one with patrons sitting at the bar or tables, explaining to them a bit more in-depth about the various liquors offered. You can also take the first step for them. For that client that always order a whisky and Coke, offer to try a single malt, on the house. But don’t just put the glass on the table and walk away. You need to drink it together, like a guided palate tour. Taste is indeed acquired, especially for more complex alcohol.

It will be worth your while. There’s no doubt in my mind that enthusiasts spend more. Wine enthusiasts spend more on wine. Whisky enthusiasts spend more on whisky. Chocolate enthusiasts spend more on chocolate.

In a way you’re not only increasing your own margins, you’re helping your consumers enjoy their drinking more. Because having a whisky and Coke is fun, but sipping on a glass of Auchentoshan American Oak, scotch whisky is an experience all to itself. Once you are able to appreciate the nuances in flavour – the sweet notes, the hint of spiciness – and be surprised at its smooth lightness, you’re in a completely different place, immersed in your pursuit for that magical sip of fine malt.

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