How Do You Measure Pleasure?

23 Jan 2008|Added Value

As a marketer and a wine drinker, and a member of a company whose founder first developed the concept of “sensation transference,” I was very interested in the recent study by the Stanford Graduate School of Business and the California Institute of Technology on how price affects wine drinking pleasure.

The study, recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and already widely commented on, showed that among a small sample of male graduate students who occasionally drink wine, the more the wine cost, the better it tasted.

I certainly don’t question the validity of the study – Louis Cheskin proved similar concepts in work he did decades ago, and many marketers understand that how you package and position a product (especially a commodity, which arguably some wine has become) has a much greater influence on purchase than the characteristics of the product itself.

I think one key thing is missing from this study though. Baba Shiv, associate professor of marketing who co-authored the paper titled “Marketing Actions Can Modulate Neural Representations of Experienced Pleasantness,” speculates that the results of the study would probably be replicated even among wine connoisseurs. On this point, I have to disagree.

What Shiv’s comment fails to acknowledge is the deeper meaning that a person looks for from an experience. On the surface, most everyone who drinks wine is looking for some kind of pleasurable experience, but beyond the characteristic of taste (the functional aspect of the product if you will), a typical wine drinker is really looking for something more. For male college students, they may want to experience a sense of accomplishment (I have the means to afford an expensive wine) or the confidence that comes with believing you have a discerning palette. Drinking an expensive wine evokes that desired experience, making it pleasurable. Price does have meaning for this group.

On the other hand, look at the phenomenon of “Two Buck Chuck”, the cheap, yet drinkable wine from Charles Shaw. I’d argue that there is a segment of consumers whose brains would register greater pleasure from drinking this than a $90 French vintage because they wouldn’t be caught dead spending more than $15 on a bottle of wine. It means more that they found a great bargain, or got the early “inside scoop” on this wine before the rest of the world discovered it. Thrifty value is what gives them a thrill.

And as far as the connoisseurs go, drinking wine may evoke an entirely different meaning – price may have little to do with perceived pleasure – but origin, vintage, winemaker all could have an effect because it’s true love for the whole of the wine experience that means something to this group.

The lesson here for marketers is that the true value cannot be simply equated with “pleasure”. Finding a singular attribute, or group of attributes, that excite one part of the brain may still not answer they “why” behind what makes us do what we do and drives the choices we make. Because I and the grad student next to me are both reaching for that top shelf Cab, (and that pleasure part of our brain is lighting up) doesn’t mean we’re doing it for the same reason. It takes more than an MRI to tell us what really makes people tick.

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