Monday, 7 December 2015

The Demon Marketing

Wine marketers must envy colleagues who work on car campaigns.  A quick-fire round of word association fixes a car brand to any number of prompts: “fast”, “reliable”, “luxury”, “economical”. As I wrote in Meaningless brands from Meaningless Differentiation, consumer car knowledge is almost entirely mediated by brand familiarity.

Tellingly, when the BBC raided Top Gear to find Oz Clarke a co-presenter they chose James May, the nerdy serial-victim of Clarkson’s goading. The producers of Oz and James’s Big Wine Adventure obviously felt that May’s geekish tendencies could be made to stretch to the point where Clarke’s own geekery would take over. May bridged the gap between the audience and Oz; a sort of boozy, tri-lingual Vulcan intermediary who could scrutinise his co-host’s Klingonese for sense.

Car production has a brief history when compared to wine, particularly if we include caveman’s fluffed attempts to store grapes through the periglacial winter. On wine’s elongated timeline Henry Ford is one of us, and “Fordism” a thoroughly modern matter. The Model T came with a slogan: ”Any colour you want as long as it’s black”. Mass production and mass marketing interpenetrated one another. Post-war American men, it’s often said, were more familiar with the Ford logo than they were with the clitoris. Advertising understands the value of substitution and the affirmative nature of desire. A Ford, after all, would never say “No!” to a man.

Let me make it clear from the outset: I’m not writing this piece out of some general disillusionment with the digital age and marketing. My position alternates between scepticism and usage, because I market myself, albeit in a fairly impoverished way. My online persona is purged of negativity; and these criticisms are being made from within digital space.

One of the advantages of the digital community, unlike the cemetery, is that it swells without taking up more space. The Côte d’Or is similarly paradoxical. In Cultural Terroir, I analysed the concept of terroir in terms of divisionism. Wine production always has the potential to split - one can become two - and the elements formed through this division are held in a relation of proximity and difference. Accordingly, terroir becomes a network of differences dispersed in space, but always with the potential to split again, adding more folds to an already involuted organisation. Identity is subordinate to difference, and unstable.

Gilles Deleuze writes of classification: “It is always a matter of bringing together things that are apparently very different, and separating the very close.” The terrain of the Côte d’Or is segregated into vineyards, which in turn are classified all the way from generic up to Grand Cru. If the region hadn’t become such a monument to the historical process of division then one could imagine an even more detailed plan; after all, Aubert de Villaine speaks openly of the differences across Romanée-Conti.

However we divide terroir’s antecedents between man and environment “separating the very close” is the creative force active within the concept. Moreover, this splitting has an elevated sensibility at its centre.  Kant writes in Book III of his Critique that aesthetic judgements should be “disinterested”, which in the context of 18th Century rationalism means something like “resulting out of nothing but contemplation of an object”.  Whether the Cistercians were trying to map the workings of God is there for genealogical investigation to decide, but their achievements on the Côte d’Or testify to a regime of hard labour and Kantian-style aesthetic absorption.

Eighteen years ago, Mike Paul told a room full of MW students that Romanée-Conti, Château Latour and Rosemount Chardonnay were all brands.  At the time I remember feeling relieved that Mike had offered a definition of “brand”, albeit via a process of extension and inclusion. In that same lecture we were introduced to Brand Australia and Strategy 2025. The Australian wine business wasn’t shy about its vision for the future.

Strategy 2025 was my first encounter with aggressive wine marketing. For those still drinking mother’s milk back in the 80s, believe me, the hostile strategy was delivered with a smile. Australia was set to distance itself from what it saw as the failed model of European wine production through a process of enlargement and customer-focused brand creation. Brands would be developed specifically with the end consumer in mind, with grape variety taking precedence over geographical origin on wine labels. The paradise of the common man was to become brand utopia. If the UK trade didn’t get on-board its fate was sealed. We were like twitchers talking-up birdwatching in a world whose avian interests only extended as far as chicken McNuggets. How remote from the consumer was it possible to get!   

The themes of Strategy 2025 were already familiar to those of us who were working in the trade at that time: terroir was denied; French fruit wasn’t ripe; and all grape varieties had found their ideal habitat beneath the tall Australian sun. At the time this take on the role of environmental influence wasn’t presented as one possibility among others; it was hostile and denying of terroir, dismissing its claims as pernicious “marketing”.  The truth of this encounter is that marketing only tolerates knowledge and expertise that can be used to enhance its own commercial position. So entranced was “Brand Australia” by the idea that marketing was the only genuinely creative means of establishing value and identity within wine that it chucked its own modus operandi back at France as a slight on terroir. The contrast between disinterested aesthetic judgement and the sort of commodified knowledge delivered via brands was stark. One only has to see the level of invective that’s turned on wine education by some of today’s marketers to appreciate how a broad understanding of wine can be anathema to their narrow commercial requirements. “Consumers want wines they can understand” sounds reasonable enough, but when it’s forced into a false opposition with “not education” we begin to see the hostility to what I’ve been calling, after Kant, the “disinterested” perspective. 

I’m thinking of the above struggle in the light of Mallarmé’s assertion that all of life eventually reduces down to aesthetics and economics. I realise that I am consciously trying to draw a line between the two by clinging on to divisionism and contemplation. Capitalism’s innovativeness lies in its ability to identify and exploit value in hitherto unforeseen areas.  We’re familiar with thinking of “coal” and “oil” as commodities, but what of “expertise” and “trust”. What is the PPI scandal other than the exploitation of trust through the creation, development and marketing of financial products? Wine is not unique in fending-off economic encroachment into its own realm of expertise, yet for many of us it’s worth protecting precisely because it provides an area of contemplation – like books, music and film – where one can escape from the economic flows and connectedness of everyday life. Freud, who was himself a hoarder, maintained that millionaires often resort to collecting not to realise the eventual exchange value of their collections, but because possession and contemplation of these aesthetic objects reversed the transient nature of their monetary accumulation.

The fine wine market has joined the mass of other of winner-take-all markets that have come to characterize the early 21st Century. Millionaires have been replaced by billionaires at the gates of DRC. Relatively small differences in the absolute quality of wines are magnified into large differences in price. Such markets are a reflection of the increasing concentration of wealth, and in the case of DRC, this inequity is exacerbated by limited supply. The latest round of wealth consolidation began in the US in the mid-70’s, centuries after the vineyard-by-vineyard division of the Côte d’Or was begun, and together they’ve led to an inflationary storm that’s left wine merchants and drinkers looking elsewhere. Personally, I doubt whether critics or marketers have an adequate response to the forces of economic determinism that have swept through Burgundy and Bordeaux in recent decades, but to blame individuals seems to me to miss the bigger macro-economic picture.

The integrity and independence of critics has never been in greater demand than today, and as far as new wines and regions go we are genuinely living in exciting times. If I can’t afford DRC I won’t be forced to drink Aligoté. Gary Farr is making Pinot in Australia on a calcareous Richebourg-like clay that’s every bit as exciting as the best Burgundy. Because, in truth, the nightmare vision of brand utopia never happened.

Strategy 2025 no doubt still exists in some revised data rich form, but the heartening part of this story that began back in 1996, is that Australia itself became resistant to all the marketing platitudes that were being generated. Farr, Cullen and Grosset drew the line between aesthetics and economics that the plotters behind the plan seemed so keen to erase or re-evaluate. Wine, like novels and string quartets, can be an inclusive point of departure from the tedium and habit of the daily round.

Of those original 80s Australian brands, only a few like Penfolds survived. Grange is still an interregional blend, which offers a point of difference in a fine wine market that craves particularity. It’s ironic that the wine that was supposedly going to blaze a trail for profitable, blended still wine brands now finds itself singled out as the anomaly.

Mallarmé maintained that life separated into aesthetics and economics, but I’d also add sex. The Unbearable Lightness of Being is proof that great art and abundant sex are possible under the most ascetic of economic regimes. Could it be that things were just so much more intense before the intervention of brands, when the Ford badge wasn’t there to distract you?