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What Does a Millennial Want?
By Marguerite Thomas
May 7, 2019
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In the mid-twentieth century the legendary psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud claimed that women puzzled him.  “What does a Woman want?” he famously mused.  Today a lot of people are observing a different population but asking a similar question: “What does a Millennial want?”  In this case, however, it’s wine, not sex, that is being considered. 

So what kind of wine does a Millennial want to drink?  Or for that matter do Millennials even want to drink wine at all?  Will Millennials prevent wine sales from plummeting, or will this population abandon wine altogether in favor of beer and cider?  Is the Millennial generation uniquely sophisticated about wine or are they clueless?  Among the many people seeking answers to these urgent questions are vintners, wine company leaders, retailers, researchers, importers, sommeliers and journalists, as everyone concerned tries to figure out what impact the Millennial generation will have on the present and future of wine sales. 

The consultancy organization “Wine Intelligence” reported in January 2019 that there was a “marked decline” in the frequency that wine (and alcohol in general) was drunk by people 35 and under, with 3 million or so people aged 21-35 “falling out of the category.”   The report continues, “Overall, the number of regular drinkers in the US aged under 55 has fallen from 88 million in 2015 to 84 million in 2018, despite the population of adults of drinking age rising over the same period.”

“Wine Intelligence” further suggests that younger drinkers are seeking different types of wine including organic, lower alcohol, and “natural” wines as well as innovative formats such as wine in a can.  “We need to realize we are in a pitched battle for the hearts and minds of the next generation,” the report concludes.  “They are becoming less connected with alcohol generally, for a variety of health and lifestyle reasons.  When they do choose alcohol, they now have diverse and interesting offers in spirits, beer and cider.”

John Gillespie, founder and CEO of the market research firm “Wine Opinions” (a research organization with an online panel of U.S wine consumers) offers a somewhat more optimistic take on Millennial drinking habits.  Millennials, writes Gillespie, are more willing to experiment and are more “open minded” about such things as packaging and imported wine.  This group came of age in a wine culture that was radically different than the wine culture that baby boomers knew.  The Millennial generation “grew up after the Robert Mondavi-driven California wine revolution of the 1970s and ‘80s.  They grew up going to grocery stores filled with imported French wine.  It wasn’t a luxury.   It was part of everyday life.  Millennials are willing to venture farther afield than their parents would in terms of packaging, imports, Prosecco, and red wine blends.”

If you doubt Gillespie, check out these stats: forty-two percent of Millennials have bought bag-in-box wine in the past year, compared with one-third of other generations, and roughly 14 percent of Millennials have drunk wine from a can, compared with between 3%-8% of other generations.

Here’s one reason Millennials might not be drinking as much wine as previous generations did: weed.  According to Forbes, “Millennials aren’t yet embracing wine consumption as many had predicted.  Damaged financial capacity is a major contributor, but cannabis legalization is another factor explaining their slow adoption of wine.”  And here’s something else that explains why they aren’t drinking as much wine:  Booze.  According to The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States’ Annual Briefing (February 12, 2019) “consumers are continuing to favor spirits over beer and wine, particularly among Millennials.”

But Nielsen Holdings, the American information and data company, suggests that things may be changing, pointing out that Millennials order wine by the bottle when they’re at a restaurant, and are drinking more wine than they did a few years ago, although they seem less informed about it than their predecessors were.  More than half the time (52%) Boomers make a shopping trip knowing which brand they plan to purchase, says Nielson, compared with less than a quarter (24%) of Millennials. 

The good news there, Nielsen points out, is that since Millennials “have fewer planned brands in minds when heading to the store, it leaves ample opportunity for retailers and suppliers to influence their in-store purchases….  Millennials also use word-of-mouth, previous purchase experiences and research to help plan their wine and Champagne purchases.”   Almost half, 43%, of Millennials depend on previous experiences to inform their decisions, compared with 71% of Boomers “which again, leaves plenty of room for retailers, marketers and suppliers to influence Millennial shopping behavior.”  

Since we live in an environment that offers a constantly expanding number of choices, alcoholic beverage producers are more aware than ever that appearances influence consumer choices, with wine, beer and spirits brands relying increasingly on the power of effective packaging to help them keep their current buyers and attract new audiences (and also to push their price points upward). 

In a recent survey looking at packaging trends, when Millennials were asked if they have ever purchased a product based solely on its visual design, 68% of them said yes (compared with only 45% of older consumers).  When asked if they have paid more for a product based solely on package design 34% of Millennials and 22% of older consumers said yes. 

A good example of this trend is the recently redesigned Robert Mondavi Private Selection bottles, which include a sleek, black label.  Nielsen explains that the brand aimed to target “crossover consumers” who tend to purchase wine in lower price tiers but might be willing to trade up based on the bottle’s “new, more compelling look”.  Indeed, a year after launching the redesign the brand saw a 14% rise in sales.  Another case of a label’s potential monetary importance is Dark Horse, a wine brand launched in 2015 by E. & J. Gallo.  The winery credits its package design as a key factor in helping the brand achieve $61 million in first-year sales.

Since Millennials tend to be “uninformed and inexperienced” wine consumers according to numerous studies, they often look to the packaging of a wine to help them make their purchasing decision.  Wine label design plays a significant role in 89.7% of Millennials’ wine purchase decisions.  Liz Thach, Distinguished Professor of Wine at Sonoma State University says, “Millennials are turned off by labels with a picture of a chateau on them.  They think it’s their grandfather’s wine.”

But what constitutes an attractive label for Millennials? A 2012 report by Wine Market Council stated the 60% of Millennials said they were swayed by “fun and contemporary looking” labels.  “In an effort to attract the youngest wine drinkers--the Millennials--wineries have upped the colorful, wacky, and creative design elements on their labels,” according to Maryanne McGarry Wolf, a professor at California Polytechnic State University.  According to Wolf, many consumers consider back labels to be even more important than the front ones, especially when they offer information about what to expect from the wine.  “That’s more valuable to consumers than information about the winery, food pairings, history of the winery, or history of the wine.”  Several studies indicate that Millennials also rely less on geographic cues such as region of origin and pay more attention to medals won, label imagery, and alcohol content.  

A host of different studies have noted some of the design characteristics that appeal to Millennials.  Asymmetric and jagged-edged labels, for example, are deemed to be edgy and contemporary.  Given that looking at the label is one of the primary ways people decide whether or not to buy a wine they’ve never tried before, in 2018 a Portland State University study was designed to observe consumers’ reactions to wine bottle labels.  The survey’s participants, ranging from 21 to 35 years old, were asked to look at the graphic element of various bottles and to categorize each wine under descriptions such as “Cheap Wine,” “Best Value” and “Fine Wine.”  These Millennials mostly classified bottles with embossed labels as “Fine Wine,” while labels with more than three colors were perceived as “Cheap Wine” or “Best Value” (this was especially true when the colors were strikingly different from each other rather than various shades of a single color). 

The survey noted that the perceived value of a bottle increased when texture was used, making the label look “thoughtful and artisan,” which is consistent with “the appreciation that Millennials have for artisan and handcrafted products.”  According to this and other studies, Millennials also think heavier bottles indicate quality wine, which makes me wonder how that accords with this generation’s well-known appreciation for environmental matters--but perhaps this is a discussion for another time. 

Meanwhile, I applaud many of the attitudinal changes Millennials are bringing to the wine scene.   Rosé, for example, is on fire right now thanks largely to the open-minded younger generation (Nikki Huganir, co-founder of the Yes Way Rosé brand, points out that one reason rosé is popular with Millennials is that images of it can be shared widely on social media thanks to its camera-friendly assets). 

The popularity of imported wine is on the rise again with wines such as Cava, Tempranillo, Chenin Blanc and Syrah likewise becoming stars thanks to Millennials.  This generation also seems more interested in learning about the farming practices of winemakers than previous generations.  “One of the first things customers ask me about is provenance,” said Dan McCarthy, a wine merchant in Seattle.  “They’re farm-to-table eaters, and they want to ensure their wine is sustainably produced too.”

Since Millennial consumers are currently the generation with the largest purchasing power in the history of the United States, it doesn’t take a psychiatrist to tell those of us who have an interest in wine that we should indeed all be paying more attention to what Millennials want.