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Pundit’s Mailbag —
Seeing Through ‘Price Pretence’ Of Wine Taste Study

Our piece, Altered States: How Price/Branding Affect Pleasure Centers, commented on a study finding that people experience physical reactions as a result of their expectations about the experience of drinking wine. Specifically, the study found that subjects drinking a $90 a bottle of wine perceived the wine as more pleasant than drinking the same wine when told it cost only $10 a bottle.

We pointed out that, if confirmed and if the same phenomenon was identified in other areas of experience, this finding would have significant implications for marketing. A letter we received points to some implications we hadn’t considered:

I would submit that for many, the relationship would be just the opposite.

For instance, if I have to pay for a really expensive bottle of wine (at a rate much higher than I am used to), I will intrinsically develop a hostile “show me” attitude. And when the wine is only marginally better, as is frequently the case, I am even more irritated with the manufacturer and the label.

I submit there are many like me who see through this “price pretense.”

Bill Gerlach
Research and Development Director
Melissa’s World Variety Produce
Los Angeles, California

Bill has a creative mind. You could see his point as simply part of the law of averages — after all, the study didn’t find that every single person always reacts this way. It just found that when considered in toto this is the overall experience of a group of people. In other words, Bill — and people like Bill — could experience things differently than the average and it wouldn’t affect the validity of the study.

Actually, though, Bill’s point is completely consistent with the study. If the relevant catalyst for the physical change is expectation, then having been disappointed in the past would possibly change the physical reaction as it would change what one was anticipating.

This research provides a strong argument for branding and for the need to deliver results that consistently exceed expectations.

The study also might be affected by the fact that the study participants were not paying — which is an important point we hadn’t considered.

If the sommelier comes over to your table and says the manager has sent over an exceptional bottle of wine, compliments of the house, perhaps the blood and oxygen will start to flow in one’s medial orbitofrontal cortex at the mere prospect of such a divine drink, and one may well be preconditioned by the high price tag in such a way that one will enjoy the wine more thoroughly.

However, if one is persuaded to purchase the expensive wine, perhaps the emotions will be mixed. If one emotion is expectation of a quality wine and another is fear that one has been ripped off, perhaps the physical effect will be completely different.

If one has often been disappointed with the quality of expensive wines and one has just agreed to pay for one again, then the expectation may be the opposite of what the researchers found.

We thank Bill for raising the issue because it points to a major problem with applying this kind of research to marketing — in focusing on just two variables — the price of the wine and the taste — the study eliminates normal influences such as having to pay for the wine.

Still, really innovative research will inevitably produce more questions than answers. The next step might be a study similar to the one we wrote about, but one in which people are given fixed sums of money to spend on the wine. So a purchase of a $90 bottle of wine might cause some anxiety as it means not buying nine bottles of something else. Ultimately, we may want to test consumers in their real-life shopping and dining venues.

Take a wine, sell it at different price points, then study, psychologically and physically, how people react to drinking it.

Many thanks to Bill for helping us think through this intriguing topic.

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