What do you know about wine? Not much: 'We're now outsourcing memory storage to our phones'

By Rachel Arthur

- Last updated on GMT

If apps can provide a wealth of information about wine, then why bother remembering anything? Pic:getty/wavebreakmedia
If apps can provide a wealth of information about wine, then why bother remembering anything? Pic:getty/wavebreakmedia

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Consumers are getting more involved with the wine category - and yet their wine knowledge is decreasing. How can this be?

Consumers in China and the US have experienced a sharp decline their in wine knowledge – such as their awareness of wine-producing countries, regions, varietals and brands - between 2015 and 2019.

And yet Wine Intelligence sees global involvement with the wine category increasing.

The insights and consultancy company points the to phenomena of ‘cognitive off-loading’ – where consumers rely heavily on their smartphone as a memory aid for what they’ve drunk and enjoyed in the past.

As a result, consumers know less about the wine category than they might have in the past – but can still be heavily engaged when they choose to be.

What is cognitive off-loading?

Wine Intelligence identifies one of the key global trends for 2020 as this significant shift in the way wine consumers are relating to wine.

Its evidence points to the phenomena known as ‘cognitive off-loading’ – where how we retain and recall information from our brains is shifted to a physical aid. This might be entering a date in a diary or jotting a reminder on a sticky note – but increasingly this information is being committed to a smart phone.

'We’re now outsourcing that memory storage to our phones'

In the case of wine, gone are the days of needing to remember which brand or style we like – we can merely look up the photo of the bottle we took the last time we enjoyed it. Alternatively, a quick bit of Googling may provide the answer. It’s a simple way to free up space in our busy and cluttered brains by storing knowledge elsewhere.

“The idea of cognitive off-loading is that consumers are remembering less about wine due to having a go-to memory-aid in their pocket – aka their smartphone,” ​explains Wine Intelligence CEO Lulie Halstead.

“Instead of having to remember exactly the type of wine they like or the specific vintage or varietal, they can just quickly google what they remember about it.

“We’re not necessarily saying that consumers are using their smartphones as a way to build up their knowledge or engage more with the category, but rather that they’re using it more as a crutch to save them from remembering everything there is to know about wine – ie, we’re now outsourcing that memory storage to our phones.

"So all in all, the result of this is that the typical consumer doesn’t have as much knowledge about wine as in the past, because we don’t have to carry it in our brains, we can just look it up.”

One of the surprises about the research was that premium wine drinkers are not substantially more knowledgeable about wine than non-premium wine drinks.

It is surprising as one would naturally assume if you’re higher spending than you’re more knowledgeable,” ​said Halstead. “But there are two key factors that are influencing the fact that premium wine drinkers are not substantially more knowledgeable about wine than non-premium wine drinkers.

“One is that higher spenders often tend to be younger consumers. We find that those in their late 20s / early 30s feel more affluent and go out more to on-premise environments, which is linked to their life stage – you go out more and spend more in your 20s and 30s – so this is often a peak in their spending. And the second is that knowledge is correlated with age, so the older you are, the longer you’ve been drinking wine and have more experience in the wine category. Therefore, older consumers are more knowledgeable and use this knowledge to navigate spend in their wine choice.

"Plus, they are less worried about what others think about their choice in wine, whereas younger consumers tend to spend more on wine in order to impress others.”

And the cognitive limits we create could shape the way wines should present themselves to consumers. A short, sharp message, for example, may be more effective than an interesting but convoluted history of a winery.  

“Being ‘search-friendly’ is key – search in terms of being able to quickly find which one it was they wanted to remember and more importantly, from a brand point of view, ease of purchase or two clicks to buy, for example,"​ said Halstead. "Yes, brand stories are important, but it’s more about short and memorable now rather than detail.

“In terms of loyalty, we are seeing the number of brands that consumers recall they have purchased decreasing. This may be because they simply can’t remember, but it does show that people are changing the way they store information in their brain.”

Consumers become more adventurous

Without the need to build up and carry lots of information, consumers can be more adventurous without as much prior research or knowledge: helping them navigate an otherwise intimidating category. 

Various tools are helping consumers navigate the wine category online or via their phones – one of the most popular being Vivino, which draws in 30 million users to create what it calls the world’s largest wine community and a place to discover and buy wines. While the selling point is on helping consumers discover new wines, such apps also often an aid to cognitively-overwhelmed consumers: tracking the wines they’ve already drunk and thus offering an easy recall of past favourites – alongside personal rating notes and information about the wine.

“One data source that we can point to is that the red varietals (specifically lesser-known ones) are increasing in terms of the proportion of consumers who are consuming them, but more well-known varietals (Cabernets, Merlots, etc) are decreasing,” ​said Halstead.

“This indicates that there is a bit more adventurousness going on, which may be partly because of the idea of cognitive off-loading and people’s different relationship with the category – but I would also add that this is also driven by a general shift to being more adventurous with their beverages choices all together, not just wine. The idea of exploration and discovery amongst all drinks categories is a theme we’re seeing globally.”

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