The Millennial Quotient: How 21-35 Year Olds Are Changing The Wine World

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MillennialsMillennials are hot in the wine world right now. Everyone is talking about us and trying to figure out how to sell to us. Recent data shows that Millennials are consuming more and better wine at a younger age than their parents’ generation, but no one seems sure what this trend means and where it is going to go. Marketers often try to tap into the trend, but few do so successfully. Witness the collapse of Roshambo winery in Napa (Alder over at Vinography has a great article on it) whose marketing was designed to target this age group, but whose business model ultimately failed.

Why is everyone failing to understand this demographic? For one, I don’t think that Millennials all fit into the same pattern – there are definite segments with distinct qualities. However, what I want to write about here is the segment of Millennials who are starting to think of and treat wine as more than a vessel for alcohol delivery, but who are becoming genuinely interested in exploring what goes on behind the bottle and who are starting to associate wine with food.

From my perspective, there are ten characteristics of this group that thus far marketers have poorly understood. Keep in mind that my opinion is based entirely on personal experience and reflection and not on market research. I encourage debate and reflection on this issue more generally. Here’s what I think (in no particular order):

1. We care about process.

With the increasing importance of movements such as the slow food movement and initiatives that focus on understanding the source of food rather than simply the end product, Millennials are becoming increasingly interested in understanding the process behind what we are consuming. We are ever curious about biodynamics, organics, vineyard practices and additives. Wine labeling is far behind the trend on this issue, but when and if it ever catches up, Millennials will be checking them just as fastidiously as food labels. More and more certifications will start to develop and these will hold sway so long as they gain respect in the community.

2. We care about the small guy.

We don’t tend to believe in big corporations anymore. We don’t like to support them, particularly when it comes to agricultural products. As more and more Millennials begin to understand that wine is an agricultural product, their support for small producers and farmers will increase. Of course, major brands that sell wine cheaply will still prosper; however, there is a huge open niche for small producers if they market themselves correctly and reach out to the Millennial generation.

3. We don’t mind spending money, but we want to feel ‘honest’ value at any price point.

Marketers often make the mistake that Millennials want the cheapest option possible. That is not the case. Millennials see wine as coincident with food, and often bring it over to friend’s places as guests. No one wants to be the cheap guest; everyone wants to impress their friends at the party with a carefully thought out (or really good) selection of wine. Wineries who make the assumption that Millennials care about price more than quality are simply missing the boat. Both price and quality matter to this growing segment of wine appreciators.

4. We have growing skepticism for commercial wine scores.

Millennials don’t like to be told what to do. Wine scores are convenient, but this emerging group of wine appreciators is caring less and less about them. New services such as Cellar Tracker, blogs, and good old word of mouth, fuel wine sales within this demographic just as much as scores do. And, with time, the value of commercial scores will continue to diminish.

5. We see wine as community and conversation, not prestige.

Again, social media is not something you can just jump into and succeed at. Underlying social media is the basic tenet that Millennials see wine as a community building enterprise, and one that fosters conversation. We care far less about the prestige of a particular wine or wine region, and far more about new exciting discoveries made through friends. That, and we see wine as a vessel for community rather than simply a product to consume.

6. We think of wine as personal discovery.

Just as much as Millennials see wine as community, we also see it as part of personal discovery. Finding the wines you love, and the styles that resonate with you is part of building a Millennial’s sense of personal style and sense of self. We actually don’t want to be the same as everyone else; rather, we want what we consume to feel individualized and an honest expression of what we care about.

7. We like to think of wine as our own culture and not benefiting from the cache of others.

Millennial wine appreciators in North America are not buying wine for the cache of a particular region. While French wine remains popular, it is not because we are buying into the prestige of French culture. Instead, Millennials like wine to express and become part of their own culture, wherever we are from. This helps to explain the popularity of the BC wine industry with young BC wine drinkers. However, BC wineries that try to rely simply on local pride and not consider all the other factors that make wine drinking Millennials tick will fail to properly tap into this market segment. Don’t forget, we care about QPR, process, and honesty too.

8. We see wine as multivalent and not univalent.

Similar to how wine scores are diminishing in importance, Millennials tend to see wines as having many meanings and possible interpretations. We don’t really care about accurately describing a wine along some rigid objective line. We appreciate a diversity of opinions and thoughts. But, this does not mean we are simple relativists. No, Millennials also have a great respect for knowledge, and care tremendously about why things are the way they are. We just don’t think there is one answer to the question.

9. We believe in principles and knowledge, but not rules and rankings [plus don’t talk down to us].

This is an extension of the last point. Certain things can be understood objectively, other things cannot. Millennials do believe that certain principles and knowledge are useful to know in wine appreciation. However, we don’t care so much for rules and rankings – we just don’t find them useful in understanding wine. Again, if wine is just as much cultural and community based as technical and flavor based, then rules based entirely on the latter factors will simply alienate Millennials. Give us basic principles to work with that still allow us to develop community and pursue personal discovery? Well, then we’re all for it.

10. We prefer branding as story and not as message.

This is the biggest mistake of marketing to Millennials in the wine world today. Don’t talk down to us, and don’t try to create phony lifestyle branding for your wines. Instead, find (not create) an honest story and tell it with panache. Doing this successfully taps into all the other factors I’ve discussed above, and helps to build a personal connection between your brand and the Millennial customer. We like attention, but we also like freedom and respect. Respect our freedom, but give us something on which to work that freedom and you will start building some pretty loyal customers.

Posted in: Wine Marketing

Comments

  1. Richard Huskey
    January 20, 2010

    I love your post and absolutely agree with your positions! I still feel that much of the wine industry pays the most attention to older consumers. This may make sense from a near-term dollars and cents POV, but seems to lack any foresight. I would imagine that figuring out how to cultivate the next generation of wine drinkers is vital to the future of big and small wine makers alike.

    As it stands right now, the industry seems to be resiting the Gen Y interpretation of wine, or as you point out above, throwing us some cheesy bones that don’t resonate. I hope this changes for the better.

    Wonderful post!

  2. Shea
    January 20, 2010

    Richard, thanks for the positive feedback. I agree with you that the future of the industry will depend on their savvyness w/ respect to the Millennial generation. The wineries that get it will increase their market share considerably. Those who don’t, well, they’ll be pushed into the deep-end and be forced to start treading.

  3. Josh Opinion
    January 20, 2010

    I don’t agree with a lot of your points, but I think you hit Number 5 on the spot. From personal experience wine is about conversation and community. While I personally know nothing and do not have an interest in wine, I have attended wine tastings and similar events as it is a good way to get with friends and even network. I believe the wineries that kill it will get away from the traditional paradigm of sophistication and craft and focus their product on making it fun, conversational, and accessible.

    Nice post!

  4. Shea
    January 20, 2010

    Josh, could I ask for more details on what you disagree with? I would note that I was talking here specifically about a segment of Millennials who already identify themselves as wine appreciators. I do believe that ‘wine newbies’ or those with little interest in wine are another segment altogether and accordingly demand completely different marketing. Then again, they aren’t the kind of consumers that tend to make up a small winery’s core business.

  5. John Schouten
    January 20, 2010

    Hi Shea. I’m a 50+ writer/researcher i Portland, and you profiled me ten for ten. I don’t think I generally fall into other millennial profiles, so I have to wonder if the segment is demographic. By your admission it’s one segment within your generation. My guess is it spans multiple generations and touches a psychographic (God I’m beginning to hate these marketing terms) that also values sustainability, community, artistic and other kinds of discovery. Your thoughts?

  6. Josh Opinion
    January 21, 2010

    Hey Shea,

    Looks like there was a misunderstanding from my part. I was not coming from the perspective of a GenY’er/Millenial who identified themselves as a wine appreciator.

  7. Shea
    January 22, 2010

    John,

    Well I think that the overlap with members of another demographic does not mean that these factors are not a good description of the demographic I am talking about. I doubt that any demographic statistics are necessarily limited to that demographic, only that they are a useful description of what trends tend to make the demographic I’m talking about tick.

    In my experience, the 50+ boomer generation does not generally hold the views that you hold if you meet these criteria 10/10. Boomers were the basis for supporting score-based wine consumption, the status-oriented napa wine palaces, etc. Overall I would be shocked if most boomers identified with the characteristics I listed.

    Josh,

    No problem.

  8. Shea
    January 22, 2010

    John,

    Although on more thought I do also think that this could describe a certain psychographic, but that if that is the case, most individuals within that psychographic would probably fall within the segment of the Millennial demographic I am talking about.

  9. Weston
    January 23, 2010

    on #1, we care about the process, I mean we can get the info off the internet so easily that we want the details on wines, I like good stats like a hockey card, I always like it when I find a wine is 100% New Oak and it isn’t over oaked! Then again good quality is good quality

    On spending money and like we saw in the 90’s early 00s People were buying Cult wines getting on the mailing list buying to collect or as status, I mean us our generation we don’t have 500$ on a bottle [well I don’t] I want quality and will pay a little more but there is a limit.

    Commercial WIne Scores, I like how you didn’t talk down the scoring of wine [like some people think no one should be scored] but you know what we need that to build our reference point [ I do it for myself and post on CT so people know how I feel about a wine, so either A. they get a good deal or B. don’t get ‘ripped off’ like me]

    Great Post

    Weston~

  10. Shea
    January 24, 2010

    Weston,

    Good point about the limit to the price. That is certainly true, as we have seen with downward pressure on cult wine prices. Most Millennials aren’t buying into cult wines the way their parents did.

    Cheers,

    Shea

  11. Joon S.
    January 25, 2010

    Shea,

    This is a very thoughtful and interesting article. I think we Millenials benefit from having an ever-expanding group of peers with whom to compare notes, share costs, and drink wine. Not only are more wine stores opening that have an egalitarian, low-stress approach towards sales and education, there are a number of online resources (such as your blog!) that people can use to point them towards a great bottle. The traditional wine press a la Robert Parker still plays an important part, however: I’m of the impression that somewhere in the penumbras of online media, traditional print, and face-to-face conversation with wine stewards and friends are excellent, excellent bottles of wine.

    Is it shameful to admit I still find scores valuable? I won’t bother listing the limitations of wine scores, as we’ve both noted these limitations on our blogs in the past, but I feel that the more information there is the better. The danger is when someone starts to rely solely on one source. This can lead to a narrowed scope of selection and, beyond that, can lead to the person missing out on so much of the fun of wine.

    Discovery–QPR–food pairing–community–mystery–celebration–wine as produce–passion (and maybe even obsession). These are the ideas I associate with wine, and they’ve led me down a helluva enjoyable path.

  12. Shea
    January 25, 2010

    Joon,

    I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I agree with your thoughts. I do not think wine scores are irrelevant, just limited. I do find more information useful. The anti-score cartel can sometimes forget that demanding a score-free world is a form of information control too.

    Cheers,

    Shea

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