Ilon Specht, the woman who

raised the self-worth of

millions of women.

“How can any bottle of wine be worth $200?” (Or whatever figure you choose to name).

It’s a question I’ve been asked countless times and, to be honest, I’ve always had a hard time dealing with it. Responding, as I have, with my own questions about the relative value for money of pricy designer clothes, sports cars or seats at sporting or entertainment events, has never really seemed to be a satisfactory answer to the question. Either the wine is worth its price tag or it isn’t.

But, of course, I’ve been missing the point. It’s not the bottle that’s worth the $200; it’s the belief by the person who’s buying it that they warrant the expenditure. In the words of the famous l’Oreal advertisement, Because I’m worth it.

In 1999, Malcolm Gladwell, author of the Tipping Point and Blink wrote about meeting Ilon Specht, the woman who came up with that slogan four decades ago. Specht, recalled working against the clock in an office full of Mad Men-type males, on a slogan for a hair dye. She remembers feeling increasingly frustrated with her colleagues’ approach.

“I was a twenty-three-year-old girl – a woman,” she said. “What would my state of mind have been? I could just see that they had this traditional view of women, and my feeling was that I’m not writing an ad about looking good for men, which is what it seems to me that they were doing. I just thought, Fuck you. I sat down and did it, in five minutes. It was very personal. I can recite to you the whole commercial, because I was so angry when I wrote it.

Specht sat stock still and lowered her voice: “I use the most expensive hair color in the world. Preference, by L’Oreal. It’s not that I care about money. It’s that I care about my hair. It’s not just the color. I expect great color. What’s worth more to me is the way my hair feels. Smooth and silky but with body. It feels good against my neck. Actually, I don’t mind spending more for L’Oreal. Because I’m” – and here Specht took her fist and struck her chest – ”worth it.”
The feeling of spending one’s own money on something for oneself is one of the most important – and often most overlooked of sensations. Writing this, I think of my then-seven-year-old son adamantly insisting on spending his pocket money on a particularly unimpressive plastic toy. The more I tried to argue him out of it, he more he wanted to hand over his five-pound-note to the shopkeeper; the transaction made him feel grown up. And I think of a seminal moment on one of my first trips to Hong Kong when a friend who lives there pointed at a couple waiting for a taxi and said “Those two illustrate something you should know about China.”
As I looked across at the object of his attention, he explained, “It’s obviously a western boss and his secretary. He’s wearing a fake Rolex and is very pleased with himself – at having only paid $100 for something that looks as though it cost thousands. She’s his secretary; over her arm, there’s a genuine Chanel bag. She’s just as pleased with herself at having been able to buy it for herself – with a few weeks’ wages of her own money.” And then I recall another advertisement that was used by BMW in France in the early 1980s and went something like “What better way to celebrate your 40th birthday?”. And finally I remember a friend who always bought expensive new clothes to wear at job interviews – even when she could not remotely afford them: they made her feel worth employing.
Is any of this 100% rational? Of course it isn’t. And does that matter? Not a jot. Did most of us choose our home entirely rationally? Or our pet? Or our partner?
The concept of “because you’re worth it” certainly applies to Champagne, whether it’s a celebratory bottle bought for oneself, or cases of the stuff to serve at a wedding, but far less frequently with other wines in cost-conscious markets like the UK. And I think that’s probably because too many wine drinkers actually think to themselves “I’m not worth” the premium bottle because “my palate isn’t fine enough to appreciate it”.
And this is where rationality has just walked into the room. Saying that I’ll never be a skilful enough driver to warrant owning a Ferrari would be a pretty valid reason for not shelling out hundreds of thousands on parking a red stallion in your driveway, but it’s not one you often hear. The point is that most potential owners of fast cars imagine themselves to be capable of handling them – because it’s an acquirable skill. Wine is more like hi-fi; people imagine that they may genetically lack what what it takes to appreciate the finer qualities that come with spending more money.

The wine world has, if anything, fostered this notion by banging on about the need for education. (If I’m not vinously educated, obviously there’s no point in splashing out). And it’s done itself no favours by presenting wine experts as people who are not as other mortals. Some of those same experts lived up to this image when they discussed the recent BBC 12 Drinks of Christmas programme and focused on the fact that the presenters – an actor/comedian and a restaurant critic – weren’t sufficiently qualified fir the task, and got a few things wrong. But the more I think back about the programme the more I reckon that this was part of its appeal: two middle class everymen who told each other – and the audience – that even though they hadn’t been to wine school, they were still worth the splashing out of £30 or so on a bottle of red to drink with their Christmas lunch, and a further handful of cash on the vintage port to follow.

If I’m right, maybe the best way to get middle class Brits to dig deeper into their pockets when buying a bottle of wine is to demonstrate that someone like them thinks it’s worth doing.

In response to Caroline Gilby’s very relevant comment below, I’d add this:
Little does more to foster the feelings of unworthiness among non wine people than the professionals’ use of terms like “connoisseur”, the French “amateur” and “consommateur averti”, and even perhaps “wine enthusiast” – a term I often use myself. It’s a little like being introduced to a group of self-termed “opera buffs” and wondering how to join their conversation.

I’ve actually seen proof of the deterrent effect of wine enthusiasm. Until around 10 years ago, I used to work every year at the BBC Good Food Show, a leviathan pre-Christmas event at the Birmingham NEC where tens of thousands of people flocked to see Jamie, Gordon and Rick et al, and do their Christmas shopping. I was based in the Wine Theatre in the wine section, at one end of one of the halls. It was an area where samples were poured generously so one might reasonably have expected it to have been packed with attendees on the quest for free booze. Surprisingly, however, it was always the least crowded part of the show. I remember thinking there seemed to be an invisible beam that kept people out, because they thought it was “not for them”. These same people were very evidently wine drinkers – as the Australians proved on their stand on the other side of the line. Surrounded by food, they were overrun by visitors…

  1. Caroline Gilby Must say it annoys me no end when Eastern European wine producers (and they happen to be the ones I have most experience with) describe their premium wines as being for connoisseurs. I reckon this immediately puts off a whole bunch of potential consumers by implying they are not “worth it”

  2. Good article Robert. Lots to think about there. My first thought is that wine education is supposed to help you wasting money on some expensive bottle that isn't that good. Lets be honest, the wine world is full of overpriced bottles that even the best experts would not appreciate without seeing the label. This is the fundamental problem that anyone not involved in the very top or very bottom of the market faces. How do we convince the customer that we are not just trying to con them out of a few extra bob.

  3. Jonathan. I agree – and disagree with you. There is a lot of very highly priced art which comes highly recommended by the kind of people responsible for art education. As you probably realise, I've crossed over to the dark side. I'd rather people became prepared to overspend on overpriced wine than the current situation in which they are often scared to dig their hands in their pockets at all. It's why I unashamedly applaud Apothic. If Gallo can persuade people who currently spend £6 on Chilean Merlot to spend £8 on a Californian red blend, they'll have raised the bar for everyone.

  4. I enjoyed Robin Copestick's comments on Harpers today too – “If someone buys a handbag or a pair of jeans do those producers ask their customers to understand where the material comes from, what was the manufacturing process, when was the raw material harvested etc etc? Of course not.”

  5. Very true Hugh. But most come to the (desire for) learning via the experience rather than vice versa. And many – I'd say the vast majority of – people are happy with the level of enjoyment they get without having to do the learning. I'd say that this is true of most people who like eating chocolate and drinking tea and/or coffee, for example. (As well as beer, whisky… and wine drinkers).

  6. Love the “I'm Worth It” link. Indeed. I just spent a stupid amount of money on Oenotheque Dom Perignon 1996. But it was that good for me and I am in a position now where I can afford it. I guess. . Your text raises many questions. About marketing and “intrinsic value”. In the end luxury goods like Rolex watches have become status symbols. I would bet – but cannot prove – that a large number of people who wear Rolex have no clue about intrinsic watch quality or the fine mechanics of watchmaking. They want to show that they are worth that price. I am not making any moral judgments. It is like how some wealthy people purchase 1st growths from Bordeaux at over $800 per bottle at least. To show that they can afford it. Does that mean that “they are worth it”? On one level, perhaps. Whatever the case may be, your text does beg the question: does intrinsic value exist and if so, for some products, does it matter anymore?

  7. I think there are just so many obstacles for people to be able to say “Because I'm worth it” about choosing a genuinely good bottle of wine and the concept of spending £8 on Apathetic rather £6 on Blossom Hill is one of them. Another is the idea that wine education means getting people to drink a Riesling instead of a Pinot grigio. Wine appreciation is about taste and the development of taste. That is exactly the same as the appreciation of fashion, food, music or any of the other things we try to compare it with.

  8. My point, Panos, is that the ONLY value that ultimately counts is the amount the purchaser is prepared to pay. I may think that a beautiful 18th century watercolour is finer than a Koons or a Hirst dot painting, but if the market says the latter are “worth' more, that's the truth of the matter until the buyers of those paintings change their minds – or someone discovers the “value” in my watercolour. And no one really worries whether the Koons or Hirst buyers are necessarily fine arts experts.

  9. very true about education – we need to understand that there is a large section of the wine drinking public, who buy wine in supermarkets, who in their view want a limited amount of information, rather than education, so we need to impart this subliminally, where we can. Listen to what they like and help them progress, rather than dictate. this includes how we communicate about wine, and the language we use.

  10. Hi Robert – on a similar theme to your blog post, I found a link to a US home hydroponics unit this morning, for growing herbs easily and with an electronic keypad/timer to tell you when to water them, etc. I remarked to my husband: this is what people want, not books (that they have to buy physically or download) telling them what to do, then having to go out and get all the stuff, not a home degree in horticulture before they can grow anything, but something that makes it EASY for them, all in one kit, out of the box – just plug and play, like (most) electronic games. Even better for them that it's pesticide free (if not organic, but many wouldn't know that).

    A lot of people are so busy they can barely think about anything other than work, family, getting the kids to school, the mortgage, whatever in their daily lives. Most don't have the time (or the inclination) for much more – and what is, is probably taken up with hobbies and relaxation. For some that may mean wine, but most don't have time to learn about such things as terroir (or why that might or might not be important), or to de-jargon winespeak, or to go round sniffing hawthorn berries and blackcurrant buds (even assuming they can access them) then trying to work out if they can find those aromas in their wine glasses, or even why one grape variety might be more suited to wine x or region y than another, before they feel comfortable even taking a sip or buying a more expensive bottle of wine. In my opinion, they simply want wines that work, for them.

  11. I don't necessarily follow the belief that spending more on wine equates to getting a better wine experience, regardless of a particular individual's wine knowledge. While it is true that good wines tend to be more expensive, it is not true that consumers don't spend more because they lack the acquired taste for these wines. It's all about supply and demand and always will be. When more winemakers are making quality wine at affordable prices, the need to spend more will obviously reach a new equilibrium. There will always be producers who see the opportunities and provide the solutions. And unfortunately, the expensive car analogy hardly applies here. No consumer ever said: I can't spend $100 on this bottle of wine because I simply don't have enough wine knowledge to appreciate it.

    Supply and demand. Period.

  12. Wine is purchased and consumed based on the appropriateness of the wine for that occasion not on the quality of the wine itself.
    Wine Buyers buy across a wide spectrum of prices and to suggest that the $10 buyer will never buy a $50 is misguided similarly that a $50 wine buyer does not buy $10 wines.
    Research has proved that wine buyers have 3 repertoires of brands – Monday to Friday – drink at home ( mostly commercial brands such as Gallo), Lifestyle brands (Turning leaf) at social gatherings, and the Occasional Luxury wine ( Birthday's etc).
    The key driver of what is a luxury wine is determined by the the level of the buyers disposable income and not on the perceived quality of the wine. It has little to do with Wine Knowledge – Brand yes – but is knowledge of the Brand that matters — not of the wine in the bottle. I am sure that this will upset a few but that's the way it—–everywhere.

  13. Hi Anthony – this is very much the case in Australia also, and borne out by our ('s subscriber research, which shows exactly that range of purchasing behaviours. Interesting about your comments too Sean, whilst I agree to a point (eg price does not necessarily equate with quality), plenty of consumers (here, anyway) are scared of buying higher priced wines, and I have had at least one say direct to me exactly what you said above, (ie they don't have enough wine knowledge to buy/appreciate it, even though they could afford it). although they were referring to a wine priced over $100. It would be interesting to know what various consumers' 'pain points' actually are, for each occasion.

    That said, there are plenty who are not at all intimidated by wine, either, who may or may not know a lot about it.

  14. Hi Robyn, I am writing about Australia but as this research is replicated in 11 other markets ( even China) the results as fairly consistent. Taste ( whether I like it is key) but the other attributes vary based on the level of wine experience amongst consumers. This has also been measured using retail data on levels of repurchase ( I like it and I want to BUY it again and again) and has been undertaken for region ( Italy), variety, brands and was very informative on the loss of favour locally amongst buyers of for Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon for example long before these varieties fell into surplus. This data is now the mainstay of range determination and stocking decisions by the major supermarkets based on the bar codes and the loyalty programs.

  15. Hi Anthony – is any of that data publicly available pse? I'm very interested to learn more about all this (or DM me). Thx – Robyn

  16. Robyn, my point is that a consumer's real reason for not spending $100 is that they don't believe the cost is justified. Perception vs. price. Quality vs. value. These are the real reasons. Wine is a product like any other and consumers understand there is an acceptable level of quality that can be attained for a reasonable point of price. Anything beyond, a consumer seeks more than quality alone.

  17. Hi Sean – (this is an interesting and fun discussion while Robert is AWOL, isn't it?!) – isn't part of the perception of quality then about consumer education? For instance, if I am buying a dishwasher or some other appliance, I have (or had until recently) a choice between buying an Australian-made, fairly basic model for $x and a German model for $2x or 3x. The Australian-made model is perfectly acceptable, but once I educate myself of the benefits (ie superior quality, performance etc) of the German model (or a salesman does it for me, eg it's more economical, can fit more in it, better water saving etc etc), then suddenly the quality bar is raised, and simply via education I am now prepared to spend a lot more. I would not be paying more for the brand (no-one sees my dishwasher) or for any other feelgood factor (in fact, it might even make me feel slightly bad, not supporting an ailing local industry) but simply for better quality, once I fully understand that. So, the quality bar can be easily raised, even right at point of purchase, via education. I'd suggest it is the same with wine.

  18. You are exactly right. But have you ever said: I can't spend the extra money on a (perceived) superior dishwasher because I'm afraid I'm not educated enough to appreciate it. …?

  19. I think the key word here is justify Sean – and to whom! (self, partner, someone you are trying to impress, etc). All things being equal (ie quality) economic theory says that the rational consumer will purchase the lesser priced good, and use the balance of his/her scarce resources to meet other wants. Perhaps for those to whom money is almost unlimited, other factors come into play, eg bragging rights, or 'the story' eg “I found this wine whilst on a horseback ride in Patagonia” or etc.

  20. I'm not convinced that wine education either encourages people to spend more money or helps them appreciate wines that critics tend to favour. I think only experience can do that. Most education, from what I have seen, teaches people facts and the flavour or grape varieties, not how to appreciate finer wines. The qualities of a top Burgundy over a (decent) Chilean pinot noir are not obvious to the newcomer.

    The big difference between wine and fashion or music is that the consumer can experience them without spending their money. I can see a guy looks great in a Cerruti suit far easier than I can tell how much a wine-lover enjoys a great wine by the expression on his face. Wine can't be appreciated and enjoyed second-hand.

  21. Sean, I appreciate your input from the US, but I disagree re perception and price. There is plenty of evidence that people “prefer” something they have been told is more expensive. And plenty of evidence that US wine drinkers are ready to pay high prices if they are given the confidence to do so.

  22. They shouldn't be given the confidence to do so, when there is no real reason or proof that that wine is worth $50

  23. Robert, I'm sure you can get quite a lot of people to make purchases with simple sales techniques. But you might want to give the American wine consumer a little more credit than that. Especially when we have the world's best winemakers producing the world's best wines under $50. Your argument reminds me of the bat-shit coffee that hipsters raved was the best coffee in the world–fetching around $200 dollars a pound. Let me just tell you, consumers are not morons… and if you want to serve a market you can't price yourself out of it. Consumers do not readily justify spending $20 on a cup of coffee. One-time novelty coffee, so they can brag to friends about tasting it?…Perhaps. But I laugh at the thought that all we have to do to create demand is educate the consumer to the fine nuances of bat-shit coffee (in order to teach them to appreciate it) and they will happily start paying $50 a cup. This thinking is bat-shit crazy.

    Robert, if you want me, an American wine consumer, to spend over $50 on a wine, I need reasons that go beyond quality because I expect quality at that price. I don't experiment at that price.

  24. Sean, I live in a country – the UK – where $50 is as far beyond most people's imagination as a trip to the moon. The average retail price here is £5.10 ($8.50) and only 5% sells at over £8 (13.25). I think you'll find the figures a lot higher in the US.
    It's why the only US wine we see here is at the bottom of your pile and Napa and Oregon efforts are almost impossible to find.

  25. Lucky for you guys France is nearby. What I see here in America is the core wine consumer's willingness to justify $10-20 to explore what's out there. This is approximately the cost of the essentials for a nice home-made dinner. I believe there is a perceptive relationship between these consumables.

  26. Sean, we don't have a 3-tier system here, but the proximity of Europe is mitigated by the fact that half of the cost of an average bottle goes straight to the government as tax. It's far easier for me to sell my le Grand Noir wines in the US than in the UK

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