Monday, November 2, 2009

Zero-summy Versus Yummy

Via Ezratabdumplink, I liked this from Eric Asimov:
the enemy of good beer and good wine, and good food in general, is bad beer, bad wine and, yes, bad food.

What unites this team is the striving for real wine, real beer, and real food, as opposed to cynical product. That is the problem, and I think most people realize this no matter what they say or do. Craft beer’s battle is not against wine but against decades of cynical marketing from the giant breweries, which have done everything possible to portray beer drinkers as asinine fools. The enemy of good wine is the atrocious marketing that makes wine an aspirational commodity, just another luxury good to purchase for its status value. That has to offend the reverse snob in all of us.
Aspirational commodities are positional goods. They only get their goodness by being better than other things, which then seem worse. And maybe sometimes something can be appealing as an anti-aspirational commodity (I think Asimov's characterization of beer industry marketing might fit this model), but then it gets its goodness through something else's looking bad in a different kind of way.

So adding goodness to your product through this kind of marketing ends up being a zero-sum game. It's not that aspirational marketing can't increase a consumer's satisfaction with a product, especially an unreflective consumer -- it does. It just accomplishes this by damaging the value of everything else.

But you know what doesn't work like that? Tastiness. For me, eating and drinking are a genuinely fun part of life, because there's so much good food and drink around. (Food especially, out here in Singapore at the nexus of all these different cultures that know how to use spices well.) And while there is such a thing as having high standards and appreciating better food, the overall fun-ness of eating and drinking can be raised by things being more yummy. Things getting more yummy isn't a zero sum game.


Dan Miller said...

I'm not sure I'd agree with you--how does this square with the recent findings about how much taste is governed by expectations, to the point where a bunch of wine experts thought they were drinking red instead of white wine?

yoyo said...

Well, mostly that there are two kinds of food: good and bad. bad is the bland or badly done (pilsners and skunked beer), and good is everything else. the Zero-sumists make up bid edifaces of 'taste' by saying things are good or bad (creating your expectations), but really most any beer that costs >5$ for a sixer is pretty good.

Neil Sinhababu said...

Dan, I anticipate your point in the next to last paragraph. Are you happy with how I deal with it?

Blar said...

If you can have aspirational commodities and anti-aspirational commodities getting goodness from comparison with each other, then they don't have to be zero sum. Everyone can benefit from thinking that they're in the good group and other people are stuck with the inferior product. Beer snobs can drink their microbrews and feel superior to the fools drinking standard big brewery swill, Joe sixpacks can drink their real American beers and feel superior to the fools drinking shmancy boutique "beer," and they all win. Hooray! Sure, each product has its value damaged in some consumers' minds, but only in the minds of those who don't use it, so that doesn't cancel out the gain in utility.

Neil Sinhababu said...

That's a good point, Blar.

If we were really clever about it, we could deceive people into falsely believing that other people were using crappy commodities, and brand the ones actually being used as aspirational in contrast to the nonexistent ones.

low-tech cyclist said...

You know what this world needs? Smaller wine bottles.

It's really easy and inexpensive to try different beers and reach your own conclusions about which ones you like. When you're out to dinner at a restaurant that serves a decent selection of beers, you try one that you haven't tried before. And twelve ounces later, you generally know if you like it well enough to buy a six-pack of it.

Wines are a whole 'nother thing. Sure, I can buy a bottle of some random wine for $10 at Trader Joe's, but if I don't like it, I'm left with this big-ass bottle of wine that's mostly full that I'll never drink. Eventually, I get around to pouring it down the drain, and tossing the bottle in the recycle bin.

If I go to a restaurant, the only wine I can buy if I just want a glass (the serving equivalent of the 12-ounce beer from the beer example) is the house red or white wine. If I want to try something that the restaurant thinks is good enough to have on their wine menu, I have to buy a whole bottle, only at exceedingly inflated restaurant prices. And no, I'm not going to pay $30 or more to find out if I like a wine or not.

In short, there's no natural and relatively inexpensive way of getting a sense of what you like and dislike in the way of wines.

So I wind up not buying wine, and not drinking wine. Quite honestly, I know less about wine now than I did thirty years ago. But I know a great deal more about beer.

But if I could buy a two-glass bottle of wine at a restaurant at a reasonable price, I might start building up some knowledge of wines.