May 31 2012 issue

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PAGES (91-93) May 31 2012

Marketing Wine to Women Cara Gardner

If you think gender equality has been achieved in the wine business, you’re not alone. Most industry professionals today are sensitive to the idea that women have long been underestimated—both as consumers and as authorities—in a male-dominated field. The dialogue on women and wine has begun to overturn some antiquated assumptions, and women are vastly better represented in the industry now than they were even 10 years ago.

But current research cited by the experts I consulted for this article shows there’s still a major disconnect between the power held by women as consumers and the beliefs that persist about their wine-consumption patterns. "You hear the question, ‘Are we still talking about women and wine?’ and I say, ‘Absolutely,’" notes Leslie Sbrocco, founder of Thirsty Girl, a multimedia wine-and-travel company, and author of Wine for Women: A Guide to Buying, Pairing, and Sharing Wine (William Morrow/HarperCollins), which won the Georges Duboeuf Best Wine Book of the Year award when it was published in 2003. Sbrocco finds that women purchase wine for different reasons, drink for different reasons, and respond to different marketing approaches than men do. Brushing aside the distinction is simply not good business, she says: "There is nothing condescending about this discussion. Everything from cars to computers is sold differently to women than to men—and women are the leading consumers in almost every market."

The bottom line is that negative assumptions and outdated marketing biases about women’s wine preferences can only undercut sales. Studies such as a 2007 article in the International Journal of Wine Business Research and a 2009 Nielsen report indicate that women purchase as many as eight out of every 10 bottles of wine. Women are making more educated decisions and spending more per bottle than they used to. But many wine professionals are not effectively meeting their needs, particularly in restaurant settings. Why, for instance, are men in mixed parties so often handed the wine list? Why are many women, upon asking for recommendations, directed to lower-priced wines by the glass, such as light whites? And why do so many sommeliers choose to offer a male diner the sample pour, even if a woman at the table made the choice? This happens more than most industry professionals care to admit. And whether you chalk it up to bad habits or poor training, it amounts to lost opportunity.

MISCONCEPTIONS AND MISSED CHANCES

Liz Thach, who teaches both undergraduate and wine-MBA classes at Sonoma State University’s School of Business and Economics, has consulted for more than 30 wineries and published dozens of articles and five textbooks, including Wine: A Global Business (with Tim Matz, Miranda Press, 2004). In her view, it’s a common industry misconception "that women prefer primarily sweet and white wine. Our research shows that a much larger percentage of women drink red wine over white and sweet." Thach herself has experienced gender bias while dining: on a recent vacation, for instance, she watched as her husband was handed the wine lists at several high-end restaurants. "That isn’t something that’s taught," she says; "it’s about not paying attention." Another fallacy, according to Thach, is that women spend much less on wine in restaurants than men do; according to her study of 300 wine consumers for an upcoming article in The Journal of Wine Research, the difference is only $4 per bottle on average.

Julie Brosterman agrees. Founder and CEO of Women & Wine (a niche multimedia lifestyle company) and owner of Wine Valet (which creates customized private wine events), she acts as a social-media consultant to wineries, engaging some 16,000 women a day through her Facebook page (facebook.com/womenwine). "A lot of service people think the worst thing is a group of women who will linger and drink wine by the glass and not tip well," says Brosterman. "There isn’t any truth to it." She claims that servers and sommeliers undersell female diners based on preconceived ideas about what they are willing to spend—ideas that stem from a misunderstanding of consumer data.

"Most wine purchases are made in grocery or discount stores, and women do the vast majority of that kind of informal, everyday purchasing," says Thach. "Men are more likely to purchase wine for special occasions." But that statistic doesn’t apply to restaurants, which need to reevaluate their approach, in Brosterman’s view: "A lot of sommeliers are not using their knowledge to engage the consumer unless the consumer seeks them out. And that’s a waste"—particularly since she finds that women are less likely than men to seek out a sommelier’s help.

MOVING BEYOND STEREOTYPES

Thach’s latest study shows some basis for the idea that men are more influenced by authoritative ratings and the prestige of name brands, whereas women are more concerned with the social experience of drinking wine and the stories behind the bottles, as provided by labels and personal recommendations. Men collect wine, women share it; men use wine to impress others, while women use it to create memories.

Such generalizations have long shaped gender-based sales strategies, but they are intertwined—sometimes intricately—with more complex truths about the differences between male and female consumers. Wine is a notoriously intimidating beverage, and with more than 10,000 labels on the U.S. market, says Thach, "it is one of the most confusing product categories. The only category that’s more confusing is music." Her research indicates that although women respond better to being engaged, educated, and entertained, and are more likely than men to ask questions in retail settings, they are less likely to seek wine advice in restaurants—often preferring what Brosterman calls "the comfort of not being wrong" in a social group. Men, says Brosterman, "don’t have as much problem asking questions"; as Thach puts it, they want to "show what they know."

The solution, says Evan Goldstein, MS—president and CEO of Full Circle Wine Solutions, a wine-and-spirits education firm—is to "cater to women, who are inherently more curious," by "offering up as much information as possible on wine lists, from full descriptions to pairing options." Thach agrees that providing more information is the key to increasing sales: "Anything you can do to make wine more approachable is a good thing." Although Sbrocco recognizes what a challenge this can be for sommeliers who "get, like, two seconds with a consumer," Goldstein points out that a good sommelier will find ways to educate and engage: "Pay attention; know your audience."

DEVELOPING A SERVICE STRATEGY

In an ideal world, a gender-neutral wine-marketing strategy might be a desirable goal. In the real world, Goldstein emphasizes, wine directors should be "savvy enough not to make their lists so appealing to [one gender] that they lose the other one." He believes in training service staff according to the model of successful—and respectful—gender-based marketing. "First of all, you shouldn’t go in looking to give the wine menu to the man," he argues; servers should be schooled to ask questions or observe the dynamic of mixed parties before handing over the list, offering the first pour, or bringing the bill to a male customer. A woman who wants to engage the sommelier but goes overlooked is not likely to enjoy her experience.

Besides, even if a male customer places the order, a female companion may have chosen the wine. "People have, in general, become more knowledgeable and curious about wine, and their decisions are more collaborative," Goldstein observes. "At the Court of Master Sommeliers, we teach our students how to respond when it is not obvious who is making the decisions, and that’s to pour a taste for both people rather than just one." The end result should be enjoyment and satisfaction, not strict adherence to tradition.

Both Thach and Goldstein agree that the best approach, particularly with female guests, is an informative one. A good wine program, Thach feels, will utilize technology to give consumers access to additional sources: "Restaurants should have free Wi-Fi. People can share their ‘likes’ online. Let them take pictures of the labels so they can remember what they drank." Although the concern that some customers may be turned off by the difference between retail prices and markups is understandable, "people are going to look them up on their phones anyway," she says. "It’s nice to have a quick online comparison in order to make a choice."

In the end, this kind of wine experience appeals to both male and female diners. Sommeliers need to tailor their service to reflect the purchasing tendencies of women as well as men—but everybody wants to drink good wine.

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