Discover more from Joe Fattorini's Substack
The Wine Anatomist
Pass the scalpel nurse, it's time to peel back the skin on the world's most controversial wine brand
It’s angry, red and pungently fuming. No, not 19 Crimes wine. This is every wine enthusiast when you talk to them about 19 Crimes wine. Frothing (the enthusiast, that is, not the wine) at the “inexplicable” success of a confected Australian wine range of no discernible pedigree. I saw this tweet last week and it made me wonder…
Is 19 Crimes the James Blunt of wine? Wildly popular, but loathed by taste-makers. 19 Crimes sells more than 5 million cases a year. Even though wine people all tell you it’s dreadful. By way of contrast the English and Welsh wine industry sells about a sixth as much. In terms of albums released in 2003 (or what we will now refer to as “Back to Bedlam index”) that makes English wine “Funky Dory”, the album by S Club 7-graduate and “face” of Matalan, Rachel Stevens. While Welsh wine is “Sleep/Holiday”, the last album by the much lamented Welsh psychedelic folk rock band Gorky's Zygotic Mynci. Both critically-acclaimed, in their own way, but not discs you could retire on.
So what is it about wine’s nefarious Australianthat drives its huge success? Well gather round, and like an 18th Century anatomist, I’ll pick up a scalpel and peel back the skin. You may need some smelling salts.
I’m not the first to note that the name 19 Crimes fails to mention who made the wine, where they made it, what they made it from, how they made it, or even which celebrity lent their name to it. This doesn’t make it unique in the wine world. See Felix Solis’s hugely successful Guv’nor. But it does make 19 Crimes a rare bird. It also led to it being briefly banned in France under their Evinlaws which expect wine names to at least make a perfunctory, Gallic nod towards the fundamentals of their production.
What’s more interesting is the name they chose: “Crimes”. This - I would suggest - is a smart piece of market positioning. Positioning is (per April Dunford)
taking a target customer who doesn't know too much about your product, and orienting them towards it.
19 Crimes does this in a single word. “Crimes”. The target market for this wine is young men. They’re an interesting cohort as they tend not to be the explicit target of wine brands (meaning less competition) but they do have plenty of “share of pocket” available for alcohol brands.
“Edgework” is the term criminologists use for the various risk-taking behaviours like crime that are the perennial fascination of young men the world over since time immemorial. I suspect that other “Edgework” behaviours like “skydiving, stock-trading, unprotected sex and sadomasochism” either didn’t gel with a wine brand or fell foul of assorted regulatory bodies. More’s the pity. So “Crime” it is. And in one word it grabs the attention of a target market (young men) who don’t know too much about your product (because they don’t drink wine) and orients them towards it (“oooh, crime, interesting”).
For industry types looking for tips, sometimes it’s a good idea NOT to call your wine after who you are, where you are, or what you made your wine from. But remember it’s a BETTER idea to call it after something that really appeals to the people you want to buy it. Calling your wine “Sponge” achieves the first, but not the second. Call it “Namaste” and you’ve got catnip for Yoga lovers.
19 of them
Having made the initial incision and peeled back the outer epidermis, we can now get into some of the functional body parts. And that brings us onto why there are 19 of these so-called “Crimes”.
Yes, yes, I know, there’s a rich heritage and brand story about the nineteen crimes that were punishable by transportation to Australia in the olden days. You can look them up. For example, crime number 16 is “stealing a shroud from a grave”. But I’d hazard a guess, and I admit it’s just a guess, that the team behind 19 Crimes would have looked for another brand story if the actual number of transportable offences was, say, three.
This is because of the behavioural heuristic known as “anchoring”. It’s a robust effect…
whereby an individual’s decisions are influenced by a particular reference point or “anchor”.
Most of the time we have no idea what something “should”cost. Or indeed how many days it takes Mars to orbit the sun or how many permanent members there are in the United Nations. (These two latter examples are often used in tests of the effect). So what we do is try and guesstimate an answer based on the last number we heard. Irrespective of whether that number is relevant or not. Tell people to go to “Room 15” and ask them the Mars and UN questions and people will lowball their answers. Put a whiteboard at the front of the class with “872” on it and their answers will soar over the top of the goal.
If you arrive at the till with your bottle of “3 Crimes” wine and it costs £12.00, the anchoring effect means it feels expensive. But arrive at the till with your bottle of 19 Crimes wine and it costs £12.00, thanks to anchoring it now feels like good value. If you’ve captured the attention of young men (“Crimes”) and they’ve not bought much wine before (which they haven’t) then you can subconsciously give them a nudge as to what constitutes good value (19) and in turn why your brand is a bit of a bargain (a mere £12.00).
It’s behavioural magic. Of course nobody likes to feel they’ve been manipulated this way. Recall how many people thought Paul Daniels was “punchable”. So it matters a great deal that the behavioural nudge is camouflaged in a verifiable brand story. Something that’s part of the historical record. Even better if it contains the words “bigamy” and “incorrigible rogues”, both of which appear every time someone does a Google search for “why is it called 19 Crimes?”. We’re now all laughing like we’re in a Carry On film at the words “bigamy” and “incorrigible”, and not wondering if we’ve paid over the odds for a bottle of Aussie red.
Anchoring has many applications. Look at how Josh Lachkovic used it at Wine List. Most of us would list prices from cheapest on the left to most expensive on the right. As that’s how we read.
But what if you did it the other way round? Josh A/B tested this and there was an increase in overall conversions. It works. He’s in good company. As he pointed out himself, Mailchimp does the same…
Perhaps the best book on these effects is Richard Shotton’s “The Choice Factory” (I heartily recommend). Perhaps not surprisingly, Richard uses the effect when selling his own online courses:
Incidentally, if you do the course you’ll also find out why there are no currency symbols, the prices aren’t round numbers, the original price is
crossed out, and he leaves out the Euro cents. It’s a good book.
You don’t need to be selling online. Anchoring is also why good idea to put a stupidly expensive bottle of wine on a restaurant wine list. A seventy quid bottle of Chianti looks like great value once it’s alongside a two grand bottle of Claret. It’s also why gentlemen’s outfitters are trained to offer men a seventy quid “matching tie” when their customer is buying a five hundred quid suit. I mean seriously, who ever wakes up thinking “what I really need to buy today is a mauve seventy quid tie”? But I’ll be honest, it did look amazing with the suit. I took the lilac shirt too.
Snoop and Martha
Now 19 Crimes is not a celebrity wine as such. But it does enjoy the “endorsement” of two celebrities. Snoop Dogg, and latterly Martha Stewart. The reason… well it should be obvious. Snoop’s got a rap sheet as long as one of his incredibly long arms. I met him once. He walks towards you like a human wind-chime. And Martha fell from grace spectacularly thanks to securities fraud and obstruction of justice.
“Benign violation theory” is one of the more successful explanations of how comedy and humour works. It suggests things are funny when they violate a norm, but only so long as the violation is “benign”. Mr Bean walks into a lamppost… funny. Kind of. Mr Bean walks into the 07.20 high speed service to Paddington… not funny. Although it would mean the end of dreadful Mr Bean films. Vicars being caught in compromising situations with middle-class housewives was a benign(ish) staple of British TV comedy for much of the 70’s and 80’s. Vicars being revealed to have been in compromising situations with school children over much the same period remains a malignant national scandal.
19 Crimes has chosen its criminal brand ambassadors carefully. Both are much loved figures in popular culture. Even at their most popular, Bernie Madoff and Ghislaine Maxwell barely scratched the underside of “tolerated” let alone “liked”. Snoop and Martha have respective convictions for the sort of drug use your friends enjoy, and the sort of securities fraud you would love to enjoy. They’re benign criminals in the sense that both are associated with essentially “victimless” crimes. Even if the man who was murdered by Snoop Dogg’s bodyguard might disagree.
Okay, okay… we can now talk about “that” augmented reality label
Right, we’re up to our elbows in marketing entrails now, and so we’ll come onto the thing about 19 Crimes that everyone talks about. Yes, yes, It’s got a label that talks to you.
Just download the app, point your camera phone at the bottle, and the man on the label comes to life on your screen and tells you what minor offence he committed back in the day that meant he was sent to Australia. It’s AMAZING. It’s so much FUN. It’s REVOLUTIONARY. It also shows how shallow our analysis of wine marketing is that this is the thing most people concentrate on.
Actually the talking label is wine’s answer to “Angry Birds”. An apparently innocent plaything, a frippery if you will, that hides a powerful data-collection tool. This is the digital equivalent of a market researcher asking you questions while wearing Groucho Marx spectacles, nose and moustache and saying “look, look over there at the funny balloon!”. Every time someone uses the app, the brand knows where they are, when they opened it, and whatever other data it can scrape from the interaction. If you’re a winemaker do you know where people are and when they drink your wine and whether or not it was their birthday? No, didn’t think so.
One thing the app revealed was how many people used it on Christmas Day and their birthdays. This was useful. But even more useful when regular sales data from retailers revealed that an uncommonly large number of 19 Crimes buyers were middle-aged women. Connecting one with the other, it was clear that 19 Crimes wine is the sort of gift exasperated mums loved to buy for their twenty-something sons (“it’s so HARD buying him something he’ll like at his age”). If you’ve ever wondered why 19 Crimes appears in the gifting features in Good Housekeeping and Woman’s Own… well this is the answer. The Martha Stewart thing makes a lot more sense too now doesn’t it?And it comes thanks to thousands of young men going “hey mum, look, the bloke on the label is talking to me!” If you’re wondering what that sound is coming from behind the comedy Groucho Marx spectacles, it’s an evil laugh.
The Wine Anatomist
And there you have it. 19 Crimes dissected. I hope you’ve found it illuminating. It’s time for me to wipe down the sticky red fluid on my arms and wash away the smell of bourbon barrels. The success of 19 Crimes isn’t by chance. Or some kind of corporate sorcery. Cut it, and you can see it bleeds. With a bit of imagination there isn’t any piece of the anatomy of 19 Crimes that couldn’t be applied to every other bottle of wine in the high street.
As it happens, applying that sort of imagination to wine brands is what I do for a living. Some of you have got in touch to ask how I can help you with your own wine. Well I can, and for a surprisingly modest fee. Contact me here or via “my socials”.
Now if you’ll excuse me I have more patients to see. It’s time to get back to Bedlam.
I do this every week. AND send you a funny (haha and/or peculiar) wine story on Friday. Insert your emaillage below and it will come free of charge as if conjured up by Paul Daniels himself
A poor turn of phrase, I grant you, which doesn’t narrow down the field much.
My Word Processor (the excellent Ulysses, try it) autocorrects Evin to Evil. Suggesting it has a pretty solid take on French alcohol legislation.
Legally in the UK Time Immemorial means since 1189AD. So technically I suspect it’s since “even before Time Immemorial”.
Although my favourites are number 1, theft above the value of a shilling, and 2, theft below the value of a shilling. Life lesson, There is no value at which thievery is a good idea.
Although in a weird way that kind of means that Snoop and Martha are metaphors for the son and the mum in this transaction. The idea of Martha Stewart being Snoop Dogg’s mum is the sort of thing that normally only happens on mushrooms.
Or at least it will “feel” modest after I’ve told you the number of flamingoes living in the Bay of Mexico and how many miles it is to the moon #anchoring.