What sells a product? Does it come down to its quality, popularity or wide availability? Or is it something much simpler? Is it in fact, the stories we tell about it?
The Sideways Effect
I’m gonna tell you a story about a fairly obscure independent movie from the early 2000s. The film in question is Sideways – a comedy about two friends touring California’s wine country. Good food and good company, it’s a trip that acts as one last hurrah, before one of the leads gets married. But if I’m honest, none of that is really important. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great film but for the purposes of this article, you just need to know that the lead character, Miles, is a grumpy, struggling writer who is incredibly passionate about wine. And that this movie, unwittingly, rocketed a single varietal of wine to one of the best selling in the country. Which has become known as “The Sideways Effect.”
A complex bouquet
It’s not enough to just have a clumsily written scene where a character steps into a shot, sips a beer and says something cringey like “Mmm that sure did hit the spot. Yes, it’s a Bud for me.” That means nothing to us, as viewers. From billboards, to adverts and product placement in film and TV, the biggest impact is felt after the best story. Sure, you can outfit James Bond with some prestigious brand of watch and the sales will spike a bit. But a lot of that comes down to association. The fantasy that you too can be just like this jet-setting thrill-seeking super spy. Except you’re not. The difference is that stories allow us to forge an emotional connection. Sometimes with the most unlikely host.
See, Miles isn’t a through-and-through hero but a deeply flawed individual. He’s temperamental, unadventurous and stubborn. That being said, he’s fiercely enthusiastic when it comes to wine. To the degree that it’s the one thing in his life that makes sense and works. And, inadvertently, this establishes him as a thought leader. Watching the movie, the audience grow more sympathetic to Miles’ plight and struggles, so when he speaks with authority, the audience listens. Suddenly there’s a collective epiphany. If this man can have such a rich, life-changing experience and define his entire personality around one specific type of wine.. it must be pretty good. And by extension, if he hates another, it must be terrible.
Numbers don’t lie
The wines in question are Pinot Noir and Merlot. Throughout the film (and the subsequent marketing) Miles talks lovingly about the Pinot, while having a tantrum that he refuses to drink Merlot. Now, as a movie, Sideways made a sizeable profit, received critical acclaim and picked up several notable award nominations including the Oscar for best picture. But shortly after the film came out, the wine industry felt the ripple of influence. The biggest impact being the highest price point of Pinot Noir doubling from twenty dollars to forty! And sales shooting up by 16%. Not to mention, a 45% increase reported by glass manufacturer Riedel – showing specific demand for their range of Pinot Noir glasses. All while Merlot saw a 2% drop-off and a highest price point reduction to ten dollars.
Naturally, fads come and go. We see this all the time, where a particular brand taps into the zeitgeist – it’s everywhere and then it disappears. Relegated to a time capsule oddity of that period. As such, there was the belief that these figures would be a flash in the pan, a brief freak trend which would eventually settle. And in 2007, with Pinot Noir sales only up 6%, the figures could confirm that. But a decade later, Pinot Noir is now the second most planted variety in Northern California. Essentially reshaping the industry.
The power of words
So what did Miles say that affected sales so heavily? After all, it’s very unlikely that anyone watching the movie at the time was quaffing back glasses of red. Was it some energetic salesy pitch? Not directly, no. It was Miles projecting his insecurities onto an inanimate object. Which is a lot of what marketing is all about. Telling a story and allowing you to see yourself, your pain points or your circumstance mirrored in that product. Here’s the full transcript:
“It’s a hard grape to grow…it’s thin skinned, temperamental, ripens early. It’s not a survivor like Cabernet, which can grow anywhere and thrive even when it’s neglected. No, Pinot needs constant care and attention. In fact, it can only grow in these really specific and tucked-away corners of the world. And only the most patient, and nurturing of growers can do it. Only somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot’s potential can then coax it into its fullest expression. Then, I mean, oh it’s flavours, they’re just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle and ancient on the planet.”
I don’t know about you but that description and its delivery feels transportive. It elevates this one drink to something mythic. It’s special. Because the story spun around it elevates it to something more. And that is how you change an entire industry with the power of a single emotional narrative.