Saturday, August 23, 2008

Marketing Wine and Politics

I was quite amused to read about Wine Spectator magazine's award of excellence in the August issue to Milan's Osteria L'Intrepido restaurant. Let me make it clear that I know absolutely nothing about wine; like quite a number of unlucky people, I'm allergic to the sulfites in it, so I don't drink it at all. Still, the award struck a chord: the restaurant doesn't exist.

Wine critic and author Robin Goldstein decided to test the legitimacy of the awards by creating a faux restaurant with website, menu, even on-line reviews. The stamp of approval (including gold plaque) that the winning restaurants receive from the now perhaps formerly respected magazine is used as a prominent marketing tool.

Goldstein explained, "I submitted the fee ($250), a cover letter, a copy of the restaurant’s menu (a fun amalgamation of somewhat bumbling nouvelle-Italian recipes), and a wine list. . . The main wine list that I submitted was a perfectly decent selection from around Italy that met the magazine’s basic criteria (about 250 wines, including whites, reds, and sparkling wines–some of which scored well in WS). However, Osteria L’Intrepido’s high-priced 'reserve wine list' was largely chosen from among some of the lowest-scoring Italian wines in Wine Spectator over the past few decades." Indeed, most of the wines were utterly trashed in the magazine's previous reviews.

Goldstein exposed the true nature of his prize-winning restaurant entry on Friday, August 15th, at the meeting of the American Association of Wine Economists in Portland, Oregon, much to the chagrin of Wine Spectator magazine and the undoubted delight of some of the conference attendees.

The LA Times story on the bogus award comments:

"Getting the award, however, isn't exactly like winning an Olympic medal. This year, nearly 4,500 restaurants spent $250 each to apply or reapply for the Wine Spectator award, and all but 319 won the award of excellence or some greater kudos . . . That translates to more than $1 million in revenue."

Quite a tidy profit for the magazine, should we be so jaded as to think that there may be a desire for profit motivating the awards.

But I find that an observation Goldstein made about consumers in general is particularly noteworthy:

"He contends that people think wine tastes better when they know it is expensive, citing as evidence taste tests that show two-thirds of people preferred a $12 Domaine Ste. Michelle Brut, a Washington state sparkling wine, to a $150 Dom Perignon Champagne. "

Further proof that we, the consumers, are suckers. If we can be convinced through savvy marketing and advertising that a brand will provide what we want (in this case, taste but also elegance, sophistication and exclusivity), we open our pockets and pull out the required cash -- better make that credit.

Recently, one of my favorite bloggers, marketing guru Seth Godin, posted an insight about the purpose of advertising when trying to gain market share: it's to make us unhappy by making us want something. If we're unhappy, then we buy the thing that fulfills the want. Notice I said "want," not "need." So, if we want elegance, sophistication and exclusivity, we'd better pop for the expensive champagne because otherwise we'll be unhappy, even though the less expensive brand would make at least two-thirds of us quite content with what we're drinking.

Godin also frequently explains marketing as storytelling. If, for example, you define yourself as elegant and sophisticated, a product that tells its story in a way that appeals to that definition of yourself, i.e., the two stories are in alignment (they resonate), you will want that product. You'll pay $138 more for a bottle of champagne to keep your stories consistent.

Godin applies his observation to politics, too:

"It's essentially impossible to tell a story to an entire population and have it resonate with all of them. The global warming story, for example, has influenced some people a great deal and been dismissed out of hand by others. While most marketers spend their time telling stories about themselves, politicians spend a lot of time telling negative stories about the competition. It's illuminating, because it makes the resonance idea really clear."

I urge you to read Godin's entire post, but here's the part I find most important to remember during the continuing political campaign:

"Choose your story (or the competition's story) wisely, because you have to live with it for a long time, and if it's not authentic, if it doesn't hold up, you're left with nothing."

Or, more likely, you're left with trouble.

If we can be manipulated to buy a $150 bottle of champagne when a $12 bottle might very well do – and make no mistake, each of us can be manipulated about some things – then we owe it to ourselves and our country to make our best effort to find and connect with the authentic story of our candidates.

It's important to be thoughtful consumers, but it's more important to be thoughtful voters and not get swept away by the marketing noise of the campaign. That noise isn't just popping champagne corks; it's marketers trying to manipulate our future.

© 2008 Cynthia Friedlob

Friday, August 15, 2008

Juxtapositions: Inflation and Profits

On page one of the business section of the LA Times today, a story noted that the 5.6% July inflation rate is the highest since 1991. This bad news was accompanied by a documented drop in real wages and a rise in unemployment claims.

Another story in the same business section, page two, reported that Wal-Mart profits were up 17% in the second quarter, a greater increase than was expected. This is due to "tight inventory controls and a renewed focus on low prices that is attracting financially squeezed shoppers."

(Those low prices are primarily the result of cheap labor and production costs in other countries, but that's another story.)

So, if you're a financially squeezed shopper, you can go to sleep tonight knowing that the discomfort that forces you to shop at Wal-Mart is making money for the stockholders who probably shop elsewhere.

However, if you're fortunate enough to be a saver, you can rest better knowing that, thanks to the inverse relationship between interest rates and inflation, interest rates will probably go up and you'll earn more on your savings.

Unfortunately, as a result of those same high interest rates, you probably won't be able to afford to buy a home. But prices are low on housing right now, thanks to the loud pop of the housing bubble, so maybe you can pull it off.

Unless you lose your job, of course, which is likely because businesses are under pressure to make more profits for their investors, so they'll be cutting costs wherever they can and one of those costs could be you.

And even if you keep your job, the money you're making isn't worth what it used to be because of inflation.

Simple, huh?

© 2008 Cynthia Friedlob

"Experience Talks" Radio Show Appearance

I was pleased to be invited to return to "Experience Talks" to read a new original essay. The one hour show will be broadcast on August 19th, 2:00 p.m., on KPFK, 90.7 FM, the Los Angeles and Santa Barbara Pacifica Network station. You can hear it streaming on-line here or, if you miss the broadcast, you can hear it later in either the KPFK "Experience Talks" archives or here, where you'll find links to the December 18, 2007 and July 15, 2008 shows in which I also read essays.

You can check out this link for more information about the complete line-up of guests who will be interviewed on the upcoming broadcast: author Thurston Clarke and educator Paul Cummins. My essay is about reinventing ourselves throughout our lives.

On the December and July shows, my essays were placed after the end credits, which a number of listeners quite understandably found a bit confusing; the upcoming August 19th show will have the essay prior to the credits.

Thanks for listening!

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Small Houses, Adaptive Reuse and Green Architecture, Advertising to Children, and More?

Dear Readers:

The Thoughtful Consumer blog celebrates its second anniversary on Sunday, August 3rd!

I'm delighted that so many of you have responded positively to the topics I've been discussing. I did a little traffic research (via Feedburner) and have found that there are three topics that get the most attention on my blog:

Small Houses

Adaptive Reuse and Green Architecture

Advertising to Children

Because they are of particular interest to you, I'll be sure to spend some time focusing on these topics in the future. The Juxtapositions posts are popular, too, so I'll also continue to post observations in that category, as well as any new thoughts and discoveries that seem particularly worthwhile to me.

I would like to invite all of you to let me know, either through a comment or by e-mail [thethoughtfulconsumer at yahoo dot com], if there are any other specific issues that you'd like me to address or to write about in more detail.

There are many excellent blogs available about uncluttering (Unclutterer, for example), and there's a wonderful blog by Jeri Dansky that demonstrates how organizing can be achieved using beautiful and unusual items. I certainly didn't need to duplicate their fine efforts, so I've enjoyed writing about some of the other things that many of us also think about as we work towards being thoughtful consumers.

My goal is to provide you with information that you always find interesting, sometimes surprising, and frequently helpful. Please let me know how The Thoughtful Consumer blog is doing. And thank you for your continued support!


A note to subscribers: Over the next few weeks, I'm going to make an effort to simplify and reduce the number of labels for all the posts of the last two years. I am hopeful that this won't trigger one of those Feedburner mailings of old posts to all of you. Please forgive me if Feedburner turns out to be less thoughtful than we'd like! Thanks.