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“But XXX has nothing to do with wine”
That, in a nutshell, is the rationale for many in the wine world to bristle at the idea of celebrity wine. So, Sam Neil gets a free pass for clearly being very hands-on at his Twin Paddocks winery in New Zealand, for the quality of the Pinot Noir it produces and, quite possibly, for not putting his name on the front label. Snoop Dogg, the face of the 19 Crimes Cali Blend, by contrast, probably represents everything most disliked by what I would describe as the Anti-Celeb brigade.
Kylie Minogue: a personal involvement
Last week, Kylie Minogue turned up at ProWein to promote her three year-old wine and grape-based cocktail range that has clocked up sales of 8m bottles. I was particularly aware of her presence at the Dusseldorf event and its impact on almost everyone who saw her, because I was asked to interview Minogue at a public press conference. I also had a one-on-one conversation with her for Meininger’s that will be published here in the next week or so.
Minogue is not a hands-on vineyard owner like the Jurassic Park star, but nor is she simply a ‘face’ like Snoop. As she told me, she’s done that kind of thing in the past – “to pay the bills” – but, with her perfumes, bedding range, eyewear and now, wines, she has had a personal involvement in the product that bears her name. As the director of the winery where her Vin de France rosé was produced privately confirmed, she spent two days in Southern France, taking an active part in the blending process.
I was pleased to hear this and impressed that she was prepared to brave a trade fair, but frankly I wouldn’t have minded if she’d entrusted the task completely to one of any number of competent experts.
After all, when Sophia Loren launched the first celebrity scent in the 1960s, did anyone seriously expect her to have acquired the skills of a professional parfumier? Or to face the crowds at ParfumExpo?
Whatever the level of their involvement, in return for the money the celebrity and the brand owner hope to make from the association, each knows that the relationship carries a potential risk to their reputation. No actress wants to wake up to headlines saying that ‘her’ skin cream range was tested cruelly on animals or causes unsightly rashes, or that ‘her’ t shirts are manufactured in a Vietnamese sweatshop that has just gone up in flames. But nor does any company enjoy seeing ‘their’ celebrity spouting racist, sexist or homophobic stuff on Twitter and Instagram.
But my interest here is not in the relationship between the brand and the celebrity; it’s the one between the latter and the target consumer. Why should anyone buy anything because of a link to someone whose name they recognise?
Why should anyone buy anything because of a link to someone whose name they recognise?
Well, the first thing to acknowledge is that there is nothing fundamentally new in any of this. Over 2,000 years ago, gladiators were superstars. Roman citizens turned out en masse to watch Tetraites fight Prudes in the Coliseum, just as modern sports fans might want to see Ronaldo versus Neymar or Nadal against Djokovic. Today’s tennis players’ and footballers’ faces appear on advertising hoardings. Two millennia ago, those gladiators were immortalised on glass vessels such as the one found in France in 1855.
Later celebrities tended to be monarchs and churchmen. Would Châteauneuf have become as famous without its pope? Or Corton Charlemagne without its emperor? Givry in Burgundy was, visitors are proudly told, the favourite wine of the 16th century French King Henri IV; Fixin was apparently the personal preference of the Emperor Napoleon.
Royal cups and saucers
In the 18th century, soon after starting his business, the British potter, Josiah Wedgwood sold a set of crockery to Queen Charlotte, and then leveraged that transaction to launch a hugely successful ‘Queensware’ range whose customers included the Empress of Russia.
Even today, the value to a brand of a ‘royal warrant’ indicating that a product is good enough for a British King or Queen is illustrated by the pride taken by Bollinger and the London merchant, Berry Bros & Rudd, in the warrants they have held for generations, and the eagerness of others to obtain one from the soon-to-be-crowned King Charles lll. Or indeed,in the case of many top Bordeaux chateaux, to be the estate chosen to welcome the British monarch on his now-postponed state visit to France.
Whether the celebrity sits on a throne or raps to crowded arenas, the reasons for their effect is easily explained.
There’s the dopamine rush to the brain that happens when we have a reason to expect some kind of pleasurable experience.
First, there’s the dopamine rush to the brain that happens when we have a reason to expect some kind of pleasurable experience. This phenomenon can be measured using MRI scans when a person is told that they have won a trip to Las Vegas or – in the case of a Burgundy lover - is about to be given a glass of la Tâche
Obviously, we all get our pleasure in different ways, but most of us admire at least some of our fellow human beings. For some, it might be the Pope or Bill Gates; for others it could be Donald Trump or Albert Einstein. It is estimated that well over a billion people across the globe watched the 2018 wedding of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle and even more saw the funeral of Harry's mother, the Queen. Fewer are likely to watch King Charles's coronation, but it will still be a huge audience.
There’s a scientific name for this: Parasocial Relationships. These are unrequited relationships in which people invest emotions, time and quite possibly money, into famous individuals they have little or no chance of ever meeting.
Newspapers and magazines profitably exploit public interest in celebrity love affairs and breakups. Countless thousands ‘mourn’ the death of a famous stranger they admire.
You may scoff at this human foible, but you cannot deny that it exists.
There is another reason why celebrity associations are effective: trust.
But there is another reason why celebrity associations are effective: trust. Given a confusing array of tennis rackets to choose from, you don’t need to be a signed-up Nadal fan to be drawn towards buying one on which he has pinned his reputation.
Obviously, the Mallorquin star knows about tennis gear. Why trust Kylie Minogue or King Charles when shopping for wine? Why trust Oprah to recommend your bedside reading? Quite simply, as the French might say, faute de mieux – for want of anything better.
Okay, so spending one's money in this way may not be wholly rational, but the way we select our friends and lovers or choose a bottle of wine from the hundreds on offer isn't usually very rational either. It's emotional, which brings us back to the dopamine.
Obviously, a wine enthusiast would take the time and trouble to research which book or wine to buy – or trust the advice of a knowledgeable bookshop manager or merchant. But most wine drinkers are not, and will never be, enthusiasts. They do their shopping in supermarkets, putting their bottles in the same basket as the washing powder and dog food.
The selection process usually takes moments. Like a climber working their way up a rockface, the shopper grasps for familiar or trustworthy holds on which they believe they can rely. The fact that a singer or monarch XXX has effectively given a product their seal of approval makes one rock at least a little more trustworthy than the others.
Even if XXX hasn’t got their hands dirty picking and crushing any grapes...