Mark Ritson: Brands put the thrill-factor in bubbly

With Christmas just over a week away it’s time for any well-organised marketer to stop thinking about work and start thinking about the festive season ahead. And that means it’s time to talk champagne! The average British marketer will drink more than 84 bottles of the stuff over the Christmas and New Year holidays.

OK, I made that last statistic up (it’s Christmas and our Marketing Week fact checkers are already on their holidays), but it is true that the challenge of picking the right bubbly is now upon us. Which? magazine has already made its contribution to the debate. In a blind taste test of 13 different champagnes, its researchers concluded that the best champagnes for the coming festive season where overwhelmingly supermarket own-brands. Five champagne experts ranked Lansons Black Label as the best of the lot, but the next four places went to lower priced store-brand champagnes. Martin Hocking, editor of Which? magazine, said: “Our experts found that supermarket own-brand champagnes performed better than some of the best known brands, so you can save some cash and keep the party bubbling.”

Not so fast Mr Hocking. I am sure your taste test was performed with absolute objectivity and your experts were the best in their field, but your conclusion is a little off the pace. The problem with your research was not the manner in which you conducted it but the method you opted for. The blind taste test – in which consumers are asked to sample and rate products without knowing the brand name – is a notoriously fickle approach.

Most British consumers don’t buy champagne for the taste, they buy it for the brand

For economists and consumer advocates who generally detest brand equity and want to reduce the world down to bare basic truths – blind testing is the ultimate exposure of over-inflated pricing and the fallacy of brand image. But the problem with blind tests is external validity. Or to put it more basically, when does a consumer ever actually make a purchase detached from the influence of brand equity? And that’s a crucial consideration because brand equity influences consumer judgement in far more complex and pervasive ways than most marketers realise.

Let’s start with the most basic influence that brands have on consumer decision making: time saving. There are more than 12,000 brands of champagne in the market. Even when a retailer like Tesco whittles this down to a more manageable 30 or 40 SKUs, an afternoon’s worth of decision making would still be required to pick your bubbly if we removed brand names from the bottles and just numbered them one to 40 with tasting notes on the back. In their simplest, but most common role, brands save us time. We use the brand we bought last year, the one our dad used to buy, or the one we remember in short-term memory from last week’s advertising to guide our hand in the wine and spirits aisle.

And let’s be honest, we need the help. The average punter does not have any kind of a palette or much of a clue when it comes to champagne. Brands guide us when our own knowledge is scant or non-existent and in the case of champagne we need the assistance badly.

But of course the real reason why blind taste tests of champagne are totally pointless is because most British consumers don’t buy champagne for the taste, they buy it for the brand. And here we reach the biggest criticism of all the “objective” blind tests of brands – by taking out the brand component of the purchase, they render the findings meaningless.

Consumers buy Moët & Chandon because it is the most famous, generous, stylish champagne in the world. They opt for Krug because they are more austere, classy and expert in their outlook. They buy Veuve Clicquot because they enjoy themselves and like light, fun celebrations. And yet how many of these consumers really know what champagne they are drinking? It is the brand equity that is driving the decision making.

Maybe you fancy sitting down for Christmas dinner with a bottle of Morrisons “The Best” champagne” (yours for £19.99). Which? ranked it the best value-for-money champagne for 2010. Personally, I’d rather punch myself in the head until semi-conscious. I’ll be serving Dom Pérignon to the assembled Ritsons this festive period and you could show me 500 blind tests showing me evidence that Morrisons makes a better champagne and I would still be reaching for the heavy green bottle with the golden shield.

Recent experimental research from Stanford University confirms I am making the right choice. When students were fed wine through a tube while hooked up to a brainscanner the same wine tasted much better when they were told it was more expensive. Crucially, this was not just because they perceived it to be better but, as the brain scanner revealed, because when they were told they were drinking more expensive wine the part of the brain that experiences pleasure became more active.

Proof – if ever it were needed – that you should avoid blind testing next year, buy Dom Pérignon this coming holiday, believe in brands always, and enjoy a very Merry Christmas over the next two weeks. The last part especially.

Mark Ritson is an associate professor of marketing, an award winning columnist, and a consultant to some of the world’s biggest brands

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