Fast little loans
This article was first published in the second-quarter 2012 edition of Personal Finance magazine
“I so loved your talk today,” she gushed, her dark chocolate eyes sparkling in the flashing street lights.
“You guys were a great audience – dauntingly intelligent and hugely receptive,” I wanted to say, but instead murmured a bashful, “Thanks”.
I had just given a series of lectures to the international Masters of Wine students in a place called Rust, in snowy Austria. The Masters of Wine programme can be described as a wine industry-centric type of academic degree, the detailed focus of which is everything to do with wine, from viticulture to the trade.
You cannot get this “degree” at a university; it is a qualification administrated only by the Institute of Masters of Wine out of London.
You always know who these illustrious wine aficionados are, because they have the celebrated letters MW after their name. There are only 299 MWs in the world today, and students have been attempting the examinations since 1953. So only a minuscule percentage of students who start the demanding MW journey end up with those letters, usually after about four to six years of studying, tasting exams and dissertations. If you reach the stratospheric status of an MW, you are regarded as one of the most knowledgeable wine professionals alive.
Part of the MW course includes intensive workshops at centres around the world. Rust is one such centre, complete with purpose-built wine school facilities. People from the wine industry are invited to present topics every year. Such an honour had been placed on me. After the day’s lectures, we had been taken on a tour of the local Esterházy Castle and now I was seated in the back of the bus with a young group of MW students on the way back to the hotel.
The girl with dark chocolate eyes was talking, not about wine, but lingerie shops. Her dark red lipstick was starting to mesmerise me like Kaa’s hypnotic python eyes in The Jungle Book movie.
One of the other young female students was disagreeing about suspender belts. Life offers up so many interesting opportunities for adventure when you are a winemaker, I thought.
“Where are you from?” I asked the young lady with the dark chocolate eyes.
“I am pure Black Forest,” she answered, rather more slowly than was necessary. This sent a not unpleasant electric shiver down my spine. It suddenly dawned on me that maybe I was eventually hitting my midlife crisis. I made a mental note to warn my wife there may soon be a Porsche in the driveway.
In my second lecture I had explained that, like second homes, thousands of small and medium-sized wineries are up for sale around the world due to the global recession. Now is a great time to go hunting for a small wine estate. Choose your country, hire an interpreter and a viticulturist, and snap up the bargain of a lifetime.
“So why do some wine ventures succeed and others fail?” Ms Black Forest asked, reviving the topic from earlier in the day. “It’s mostly about understanding the consumer, isn’t it?”
Perhaps it was a cultural thing, but there was a sort of pouting expression involved when she spoke.
Unfortunately, I realised, the discussion around lingerie had ended, but finally here was a topic I could sound like an expert on.
“The vast majority of wine consumers are like car consumers,” I began authoritatively.
Many car owners are primarily interested in getting from A to B. They are not interested in how the thing works to achieve this, or even what brand does the best job. I call these consumers the “A to Bs”.
A smaller percentage of car owners likes the idea of going faster and further, and believe they know the difference between brands and models. But these consumers aren’t interested in how an internal combustion engine works. I call them “Thrill Seekers”. To this group, driving gives them a buzz beyond the price.
At the opposite end of the spectrum are the “Car Nerds”. They are madly passionate about cars. They know all sorts of weird facts, such as the year Austin Healey launched its iconic 3 000 model. The rest of us view Car Nerds as a bit weird.
When it comes to cars, I am in the Thrill Seeker category. I own a much-loved S-Edition Subaru Forester and read Sagie Moodley’s column in this magazine before any other. But don’t ask me to rebuild an engine or explain the relationship between torque and acceleration. There is a limit to my interest, and it’s important that car marketers know this about me before trying to sell me a car.
The same broad categorisation, or, to use the professional terminology, “market segmentation”, can be applied to wine, personal finance, interior decorating or the food industry – in fact, almost anything.
Once you’ve understood what category your consumer fits into, you can communicate with them in a focused and meaningful way. This is financially efficient, measurable and devastatingly effective.
The more a brand owner knows about its consumers, the better you know when and how to communicate. In other words, when you know what makes consumers tick, you have a priceless advantage. Importantly, you can share the relevant bits of this insight with your big trade customers, such as the powerful supermarkets.
The supermarket buyers are just as driven by sales as are the brand owners, and if they can boost their figures through a closer understanding of the consumers we share, their annual bonuses are secure.
We’ve recently spent millions of pounds researching and defining the various wine consumer groups in the United Kingdom. We have segmented them into nine distinct categories with labels such as “Newbies”, “Advanced Explorers” and “Experts”.
The research company with which we partnered did some cool things, such as place little cameras on top of consumers’ heads to see what products on a shelf caught their eye.
They also did this head-mounted camera research in bars, because more than 70 percent of the time you decide what to buy only when you get to the bar counter. Presentation of product at this retail-critical moment is therefore paramount. We wanted to understand what cues worked with specific categories of consumers.
This research is done on both women and men. The camera is placed on the head of the person who has to buy the next round of drinks. The order is taken: perhaps a G&T, a Campari and soda, two lagers and a glass of Chardonnay. Off the woman strides to the bar.
As she waits in the queue, we know from reviewing the footage that she generally scans the bottles from left to right – very quickly. She flits momentarily between two options, perhaps she pauses on the Absolut vodka bottle and then the advertised wine-by-the-glass option. Moments later she is served and she orders a vodka cocktail, because perhaps in this case it is better presented.
Unfortunately, the men were less helpful research subjects. Having taken the order from their fellow revellers, the majority amble towards the bar and lock target, not on any displayed products or colourful merchandising but on the barmaid’s breasts.
Now these are men who know they have a camera on their head! They still aren’t able to help themselves. The obvious question arose among the researchers: “How do we market to such pathetic creatures if we can’t put branding on barmaid’s T-shirts?”
I was explaining this somewhat disturbing insight to my groupies when we arrived at our hotel. We hurried through the snow and descended on the hotel bar like only a swirl of wine nerds can.
My turn came to buy a bottle of wine and serve it label-unseen to the students, in order for them to try to guess what it was. This is a wine nerd’s favourite game. I had spotted an old bottle of wine from the Cahors region in France. This area was made famous in Roman times for the inky-black, chewy wine crafted from the Malbec and Tannat varieties.
As I arrived back at our table, bottle wrapped in a cloth, Ms Black Forest cocked her head in the direction of our charming Bavarian barmaid and asked, “So what were her breasts like?”
“Oh, dear,” I blushed, “I forgot to look!”
Suddenly I could sense my guru status wearing thin with this pathetic admission. My groupies looked disappointed, perhaps even a bit embarrassed for me. Beneath the 007 veneer of “winemaker-licensed-to-thrill”, my rather more prosaic wine nerd personality had been terribly exposed.
The problem with nerds is that we become a bit myopic about our chosen obsession. In the case of wine nerds, we focus on the warm glow of truth in the creation of great bottles and forget to look at the barmaid’s breasts. How our DNA must be screaming blue murder at our lack of respect for the human condition.
I hope this doesn’t preclude me getting a Porsche.
* Bruce Jack is the chief winemaker at Accolade Wines, responsible for the Flagstone, Fish Hoek and Kumala brands.