Devil's Advocate - Selling Fine Wines Like Luxury Cars?

Robert Joseph wonders whether wine producers shouldn't learn a lesson or two from car manufacturers.

Reading time: 3m 30s

Robert Joseph - with horns
Robert Joseph - with horns

Imagine for a moment that you have been asked to go out and sell some Rolls Royce cars – possibly as an assignment on the TV show such as The Apprentice.

Would you book space at the next available luxury car show? Or would you take the more lateral approach that has apparently been adopted by the makers of that particular car. They now, it seems, prefer to present their wares at events where private jets are on show and for sale – an approach that has been described as “like putting the sweets next to the counter."

There are two interesting aspects to the Rolls Royce strategy. First there is the price ‘anchoring’. For anyone who needs an explanation or a reminder of how this works, there’s one at the end of this column, but let’s just say that luxury brands know that one of the best ways to sell a $5,000 handbag is to put it next to one with a $25,000 price tag.

Changing context

Alongside that, there’s what one might call ‘recontextualisation’: putting a product or service in a different and perhaps unexpected context. Displaying a vehicle at a car show, or a wine at a tasting or wine fair, has the obvious advantage of raising the chances of anyone present being a possible customer. But it also has the disadvantage of making it just one of a number of similar items that are competing for access to a wallet or purse.

The differences between luxury cars and bottles of wine are too obvious to be worth listing. What is far more interesting is what they have in common. Nobody needs to buy either of them. Jeff Bezos reportedly drives a Honda Accord and Ingvar Kamprad, founder of IKEA happily got around in a 1993 Volvo until it was finally judged to be unsafe. The characters in Succession may knock back pricy Napa Cabernet, but plenty of real-life billionaires drink no wine at all.

Partly as a result of this lack of necessity, neither cars nor wine are purchased rationally. The process is emotional - as is obvious from almost any car advertisement. If you had access to the buyers’ brains you might find a complex mixture of personal tase and prejudice, memories, aspirations, insecurity and curiosity. They couldn’t rationally explain why an Audi is better than a BMW or vice versa, any more than a wine drinker could objectively justify why they bought a Brunello rather than a Burgundy.

Car shows and wine fairs and indeed events where private jets are on show, are, at least partly, set up to favour rationality, allowing attendees to attempt to make considered comparisons.  

Encouraging irrational behaviour

Separating any product from the alternatives can, by contrast, be highly conducive to irrational impulse purchases. Think of the difference between being the one wine brand on offer at an exhibition of antique watches, or haute couture or $50,000 hi fi, and being the 12th in a room of 25 bottle-laden tables.

Wine tasting wasn’t anywhere on the visitor to the watch or hifi event’s radar when they bought their ticket to the event, but there’s no reason to imagine that they aren’t going to welcome a delicious glass of red, white, pink or bubbles and a little narrative of why it is – in its way – as special as the other products on display. If they splash out on a timepiece or turntable, a case of wine may indeed be like the sweets on the counter; and if they decide against buying a watch or piece of hi fi on this occasion, the wine might be a way of disposing of some of the cash they had already mentally spent.

And the same might apply to a business showing off, say, handmade stationary at a wine event.

I’m writing this in the lounge of Heathrow Airport, close to retail outlets that are a temple to irrational purchasing. Men and women who, an hour ago, had absolutely no intention of buying a watch, a leather bag or a bottle of overpriced single malt are literally queuing up to do so, They are not, even briefly, questioning the wisdom of their decision; they’ve seen something that takes their fancy and handed over their credit card.

I’m sure that most producers would prefer to imagine people buying their wine after falling in love with its complex flavours, or hearing about the terroir or centuries of history, but all too often life is a lot more prosaic. Like some of the world’s priciest cars, their cherished bottles are actually purchased with little more rational consideration than the chocolates and mints on offer at the checkout. While their competitors may bemoan this human foible, some clever wine brands will profitably exploit it.


Take the day of the month when you were born and multiply it by 300. Write that figure down.

Now (without checking online) answer this question:

How many a Rolls Royce cars were sold globally in 2022? Write that figure down too (before reading any further).

Now get a few friends to conduct the same exercise and compare your results.

In theory, the people whose birthdays were in the first 15 days of the month will have estimated a lower figure because a figure of between 300-4,500 will have been ‘anchored’ in their minds while those with birthdays in or after the 16th will have had a number from 4,800-9,000 (or 9,300 for 31-day months).

To find the ‘correct’ answer click here


Minor grammatical editing to this piece took place on Monday 18, 06. 23



Latest Articles