Understanding Ontario Wine Consumers

On June 10, Vineland Research and Innovation Centre co-hosted a grape and wine workshop with Brock’s CCOVI. As promised in my previous post, I am going to summarize the main research findings presented during the day and the key messages to take away.

Sensory and psychological factors affecting wine purchase – The development of food preference from birth to adulthood was briefly presented, in order to highlight that the sensory attributes of wine classify this beverage as “an unpalatable substance” to use Dr Rozin’s  expression. Indeed wine can be acid and bitter –taste sensations innately disliked; wine can smell oak, petroleum or flowers, very unusual food aromas which should make any human beings suspicious of the palatability of the substance. Human beings are naturally neophobic and reluctant to eat new food. Only by repeated exposure, can we become familiar and more inclined to eat this new food (theory of mere exposure, Zajonc, 1968). Learning to like unpalatable substance can only happen by associate learning, learning to associate benefits and pleasant moments while consuming wine.   
To like a wine style or a wine brand, consumers need to be exposed repeatedly (but with moderation) and live a positive and pleasant experience each time.

Although taste is cited as the most determining factors by consumers when choosing a bottle of wine, social and psychological factors have a huge impact on consumer wine preferences.  Three different psychological stages guide consumer behavior: behavioural choice, consumption experience, and the memory of the experience. The influencing factors are related to each individual: how involved and interested s/he is in wine; how motivated s/he is to find the right wine; and how much prior knowledge and how much information has been encoded in his/her memory. Creating personal relevance between wine and the consumer, meeting his/her needs at time of purchase and minimizing perceived risk seemed to line up the right strategies to engaging the consumer in buying the wine.  This is often achieved through branding and establishing a brand name.
Marketers need to build strong associations and knowledge structures in consumers’ memory so that the brand is thought of when a related concept is cued

Factors impacting wine purchase were summarized in a framework displayed in Figure 1.

 What do Ontario consumers like or dislike? The case of white wines – ‘It is still widely believed that experts and ‘the marketing group’ know ‘what the consumer wants’, but in fact consumers don’t share the same preferences as ‘experts’ …” (Noble, 2001).  A study conducted in 2009 to determine the sensory preferences of Ontario consumers for white wines was presented (Lesschaeve et al., 2009). Twelve commercial wines were selected out of 91 candidates through a rigorous sensory screening process to represent the sensory variability of three wine varietals, Riesling, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon blanc, priced between $15 to $20 existing on the Ontario market. Three groups of 40 Ontario consumers (VQA drinkers, Imports drinkers, and Millenials) participated in two 1-hour sessions in a central location. The same wines were profiled by ten Vineland trained sensory panelists using 29 attributes in duplicate.  No liking differences for white wine were found between the 3 a priori consumer groups. Therefore sensory preferences are not explained by demographics-psychographics segmentation.

Three a posteriori consumer segments were identified based on similar liking patterns: the largest segment (77%) preferred white wine with sweet, fruity and tropical flavours and disliked white wines with  oaky aromas and burning mouthfeel. This result was in accordance with previous findings on Riesling sensory preference (Willwerth et al., 2008) and Chardonnay (Lesschaeve et al, 2002). When a white wine is tasted without any marketing information (or extrinsic cues), the majority of consumers like a sweet and fruit forward wine style.

The effect of extrinsic cues on consumer liking of wines  – Wine consumers can become very confused in front of wine shelves, with so many options available, so many label styles looking similar (think creatures!), so many information available. Purchasing wine is considered as a risky business by non connoisseurs, that why, in order to get through the experience without becoming insane, consumers develop risk reducing strategies. The less involved consumer will look at price as quality indicator, awards, or label style. A more involved consumer will look at varietals, vintage or region of origin. A study was conducted in 2008 in an attempt to determine if involved consumers would perceive Ontario Riesling with higher quality when reading an appellation or sub-appellation name on the front label (Lesschaeve and Mathieu, 2009). 77 consumers assessed the expected quality of 38 visual concepts/hypothetical wine labels created using an experimental design that systematically varied 9 extrinsic cues: geographical indication, sub-appellation indication, font size of regional indications, closure type, label style, logo VQA (quality standard), reserve mention, vintage and price range. Label style appeared the most important cue affecting expected liking scores, the least being closure type. Individual differences existed between consumers however.

In order to determine how extrinsic cues can impact the sensory experience when drinking a glass of Riesling, researchers tricked the same consumers by presenting six times the same Riesling wine however accompanied by different information and asked them to taste the wine and to rate their overall liking (Mathieu and Lesschaeve, 2009). Six hypothetical wine concepts were selected from the 38 concepts abovementioned, which were designed to systematically vary three cues (appellation, sub-appellation, and price point) . Price and appellation moderated the change of acceptability when wine was tested with information. Interestingly for marketers, a group of consumers (60% sample) increased their liking scores when the price point was higher and when a well known sub-appellation was present on the label. Unfortunately, demographics and psychographics data could not help characterize further this group. The prevalence of extrinsic cues on the sensory experience had been described in the literature confirming that imagery affects sensory experience, creating assimilation of expectations in overall liking assessment.

These two studies used mock-up information as extrinsic cues. What about real labels? A follow up study is currently conducted at Vineland on 18 commercial white wine bottles. The first step was to categorize all the extrinsic cues present on the bottles, be it the vintage, presence of food and wine pairing, or label style. Evaluating the latter can be quite subjective; therefore an online survey was conducted this spring to determine for each bottle the label style (Modern, Traditional or Intermediate) and the familiarity with the brand names. 97 consumers from the Niagara/Hamilton area took the online survey permitting to objectively categorize these 2 extrinsic cues. One interesting outcomes was that all the Ontario brands present in the study (9/18) were familiar to very familiar to consumers. The next step will be to compare expected and experienced liking scores using the same framework that was used with mock up labels.

What about local? – Is local an extrinsic cue that could increase consumers interest in purchasing Ontario wines? Preliminary results collected from Niagara/Hamilton residents using the IdeaMap technology started to reveal the elements driving consumers’ purchase of local wines. As expected the presence of the VQA logo was an important component of the equation.  The beliefs that one can ‘meet the winemaker’ or that local wines are ‘handcrafted and home grown’ or ‘produced with sustainable practices ‘ increased consumer interests. Any reference to high end products as local wine option such as icewine reduced consumers’ interest. Local wines were not perceived as wine options for dining out with a loved one or to impress colleagues and clients alike. These results are preliminary and data collection is on going in the GTA as well as in British Columbia and Nova Scotia.

Other factors affecting consumer expectation of wine quality – Consumer psychologists are interested in the heuristics of decision making but also in any psychological biases that can affect consumer response in a choice situation. At tasting bars, winery staff usually offer two or more wine samples for visitors to taste and would casually which one they preferred. This real business situation led to the following question: Are there biases in the final choice simply as a function of the position of each option in the temporal sequence? A study conducted in 2008 in the consumer perception and cognition laboratory attempted to answer this question (Mantonakis et al., 2010). Participants were assigned randomly to a group where they would taste 2, 3, 4 or 5 wine samples. After tasting the series of sample, participants were asked to choose the one sample they preferred. The trick was that all samples contained the same wine from the same bottle. For short series, the first sample was significantly preferred (Primacy effect) and for longer series the last sample was preferred (Recency effect). Interestingly the wine knowledge of the participant moderated the experiment outcomes. The more wine knowledgeable participants showed a higher recency effect than the less knowledgeable group. It is hypothesized that knowledgeable consumers are motivated to seek for a difference between wine sample and keep analyzing the wine as the series progresses by pair comparisons.

Figure 1: Three factors impacting consumer wine choice and preference (adapted from Shephard (1985)

For more reading:

  • Lesschaeve, I. (2008). Wine consumer flavour preferences. Paper presented at the 1st Wine Active Compounds symposium, Beaune.
  • Lesschaeve, I., & Mathieu, N. (2009, July 26-30). Triggers of Wine Quality Used by Involved Wine Consumers. Paper presented at the 8th Pangborn Sensory Science Symposium, Florence, Italy.
  • Lesschaeve, I., Neudorf, E., & Bruwer, J.  (2009). Consumer Market Research Strategic Study for 100% Ontario Wines with a Focus on Future Innovation Opportunities. OVTP report: Vineland Research and Innovation Centre.
  • Lesschaeve, I., Norris, L. N., & Lee, T. H. (2002, July 2001). Defining and targeting consumer preferences. Paper presented at the 11th Australian Wine Industry Technical Conference, Adelaide, SA.
  • Mantonakis, A., Rodero, P., Lesschaeve, I., & R., H. (2009). Order in Choice:  Effects of Serial Position on Preferences. . Psychological Science, 20, 1309-1312.
  • Mathieu, N., & Lesschaeve, I. (2009, July 26-30). Branding an emerging wine region: Do appellation and sub-appellation matter? . Paper presented at the 8th Pangborn Sensory Science Symposium, Florence, Italy.
  • Noble, A.C. 2001. Sensory evaluation in the wine industry: An underutilized resource. In Proceedings of the ASEV 50th Anniversary Annual Meeting. J.M. Rantz (Ed.), pp. 1-2. ASEV, Davis.
  •  Rozin, P., & Vollmecke, T. A. (1986). Food Likes and Dislikes. Annual Review of Nutrition, 6, 433-456.
  • Willwerth, J. J., Reynolds, A. G., & Lesschaeve, I. (2008, 14-16 July). Sensory Profiles of Riesling Wines from Sub-Appellations Within the Niagara Peninsula. Paper presented at the 33rd Annual Meeting American Society for Enology and Viticulture/Eastern Section, St. Catharines, Canada.
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