Consumer behaviour has been transformed by technology, but the main consumer trends all have their roots in mankind’s most primeval impulses. There are some important lessons for drinks marketers, as Wine Intelligence explains.

Our lives are changing fast. When asked why this might be the case, most people will tend to say it’s all down to the internet: Instant access to information, social networking, personal empowerment. But, this technology has not changed the way that human beings function. It’s made things possible that were impossible 25 years ago, but fundamentally we’re still the same animals that we’ve been for the past 50,000 years.

True, Facebook and Twitter have given us new ways of expressing and indulging ourselves. But, these networks plug into some very old instincts. Humans have an in-built desire to belong to a tribe, and social networking means we can join and create more tribes than ever before. Your Twitter followers are part of a tribe. When you 'like' a winemaker’s Facebook page, you join another tribe.

We can go further than this basic observation, however. People are driven by three main desires: they are looking for reward, they want to explore, and they want to conform. A new report published by Intellima in association with Wine Intelligence, entitled Global Trends in Alcoholic Drinks 2013, suggests that new technology makes it possible for us to respond to these instincts like never before. 

In the report, analysts at Wine Intelligence (WI) have observed nine consumer trends, all of which derive from these tribal instincts. Because WI's business is principally rooted in the global alcoholic drinks market, most of the observations and illustrations tend to include references to wine, spirits and other beverages. But the trends the report describe are not simply phenomena that apply to drinks consumption, and nothing else. They help us make sense of consumer behaviour in myriad categories.

We’ll deal with just three of those trends here. They are Retro, Telling Tales and Fusion.

The Retro trend is, as its name suggests, not entirely new. People have always had a tendency to wallow in nostalgia, but there’s more to it than that. Look at the unexpected rise in sales of vinyl LPs (a format that was expected to be killed off first by CDs and then downloads), or the worldwide fascination with Lomo cameras: homages to the Soviet-era devices with a tendency to produce over-exposed but strangely beautiful film images.

There’s something reassuring and comforting about scratch-prone records and old-school cameras. They might remind us of a happy childhood, or lost relatives (that tribal instinct again); we might think of them as trendy (so in other words, they give us chance to conform with the cool trendsetters); and they certainly offer plenty of scope for reward and exploration.

In the drinks world, Retro has reared its head in several ways. It’s evident on the labels of Hendrick’s gin, and the wines of California’s Cupcake Vineyards. It’s part of what’s fuelling the craft distilling movement in the US, which plays unselfconsciously on its moonshine associations. We also see it reflected in the microbrewing boom on both sides of the Atlantic, which has resurrected many an ancient beer style.

The Telling Tales trend, meanwhile, is something that every Facebook and Twitter user will instantly connect with. Had a great holiday? Your pictures may well have been posted online before you got home, along with some anecdotes about the trip. Something amusing or unexpected happen on your commute? You’ll want your Twitter followers to know about it straight away.

But, we’re not just reporting our stories as we chance upon them. We’re actively seeking them out. As consumers, we’re less content to merely consume, and leave it at that. We want an experience that we can then turn into a story.

Brand owners understand this, particularly those in the travel business. Holidaymakers who get the chance to learn how to cook Vietnamese food, or share a meal with a family in a remote corner of Algeria or Trinidad, are given stories they will never forget.

In the drinks category, the Wine Riot events in major US cities (raucous affairs in which young people can try up to 250 wines in between dancing, receiving temporary tattoos and posing in photo booths) provide ideal anecdote material. This is something wine can find tricky to achieve, especially among novice drinkers.

A Spanish marketing offensive for Beefeater Gin saw the creation of a mini Camden market in the middle of Madrid, complete with red 'phone boxes for Spaniards to phone friends with tales of their gin-inspired adventures.

The final trend is Fusion. The internet, like steam engines, aircraft, TV and films before it, has made the world seem a smaller place. Human beings travel, and relocate, like never before. Ideas spread from continent to continent at the speed of light.

It’s considered unremarkable that Americans lap up sushi, or that Indians love Scotch whisky, or that there’s a chain of Tex-Mex restaurants in France. Food and drink trends tend to spread even more rapidly than political or cultural ideas.

However, it’s a mistake to assume that the cultural barriers have been broken down entirely. For one thing, there are massive disparities in income across the world: Johnnie Walker Black Label may be what a Bangalore clerk aspires to, but it isn’t necessarily something he’ll ever afford. There are religious issues to factor in (witness the world’s first vegetarian McDonald’s, in the Indian Sikh city of Amritsar) or simply local tastes (you can buy seaweed-flavoured Pringles in Vietnam, but not Vermont).

For drinks marketers, especially in emerging markets like China - which has famously embraced first-growth Bordeaux - it can sometimes appear that consumers will automatically embrace established Western brands. Yet, beneath that superficial veneer, we can see that the wine producers doing best in the wider Chinese market are the ones who take the time to invest in Chinese-language labels and establish local footholds.

Taken together, the consumer trends observed in the report overlap in places, and generally reflect the complexity of consumer behaviour. Human beings have never been so connected with one another, so healthy, or so empowered. It’s a fascinating time to be observing the species. For drinks marketers, it’s never been so important to understand what’s making their customers tick.

Expert analysis

Global Trends in Alcoholic Drinks 2013

Global Trends in Alcoholic Drinks 2013

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