In defence of wine influencers

Nothing seems to stir up as much passion as "influencers", particularly the Instagram variety. Robert Joseph asks why all the fuss – they do, after all, have a role to play.

Photo by Maddi Bazzocco on Unsplash
Photo by Maddi Bazzocco on Unsplash

In London’s Jermyn Street, close to the some of the British capital’s most famous tailors, there is a statue of George Bryan ‘Beau’ Brummel. He was the early 19th century dandy credited with inventing the precursor of the modern men’s suit. 

In the early 1800s, not only did the Prince of Wales (later King George IV) look to him for sartorial advice, but the tailors of the day gave him free clothes to wear, in the hope of drumming up trade. Brummel was, by any standards, an influencer – a third party who could help to persuade people to buy something.

How did Brummel, the grandson of a shopkeeper, manage to have such power – yes, power – over the aristocrats of his day? 

Why was a tobacco company so successful in using a cowboy on a horse in the advertisements for its Marlboro cigarettes for 45 years? How did the makers of Old Spice convince so many American women to buy their product, in the belief that it would make their men smell like the American footballer, Isaiah Mustafa?

I’m sure there are plenty of people reading this who are muttering to themselves that they’d never be persuaded to spend their money in this way. They wouldn’t buy a Nespresso machine because of George Clooney, or a Rolex watch because of Leonardo DiCaprio or a Tag Heuer because of Cameron Diaz. Nor would they buy a bottle of Sarah Jessica Parker Pinot Grigio, much less a Greg Norman Cabernet or Kylie Minogue rosé. Similarly, they might wonder why anyone has ever chosen Bollinger over Taittinger, prompted by the subconscious knowledge that movie hero James Bond favours the former. 

For these people, the idea that someone’s wine selection might be influenced by pictures posted by young, possibly unqualified, Instagrammers must seem even more ridiculous. 

Dismissing the Instagrammers, however, is not unlike the way Parker points have been dismissed by those who prefer lengthier descriptions. 
It’s an inconvenient truth, but almost nobody needs to buy a particular brand of wine, soap or clothing. They have to be persuaded. This is not always going to be achieved by the simple strategy of offering it at a lower price, or by relying on an eye-catching brand name and/or packaging. Something else is going to have to engage the customer’s neurons, strongly enough that he or she will opt for your product rather than an alternative. 

Thanks to a combination of nature and nurture, we’re all wired differently; everybody’s brain reacts in its own way to specific sets of stimuli. And the reaction your or my brain has to something this morning may not be the same as the one this afternoon.

So, John reaches for a bottle because of its 98-point score; Jean’s purchase is driven by the heartwarming story of how the winemaker came to buy the vineyard; Jimmy liked the description on the shelf-talker, Jasmin loved the moody image of the old man on the label and Jack was turned on by the augmented reality label.

And who’s to say that on another day, and in another mood, it might not be Jasmin who’s prompted by the score and Jean by the adjectives?

Scores, reviews, stories and packaging all work for some people, some of the time. Celebrities and Instagram influencers work for others.

To be blunt, if a modern Beau or Belle Brummel offered to be seen in all the best places drinking my rosé in return for a few free bottles, and – this is important – I produced the appropriate style and price of wine, I’d be delighted. I might even be happy (local laws permitting) to pay them to post a few pictures with my wine. And if they helped to persuade enough people to buy enough good wine, I’d readily chip in for the cost of a statue to commemorate the contribution they’d have made to our industry.

Robert Joseph

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