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The Coronavirus and Alcohol – Depth Psychological Insights Based on the Example of Sparkling Wine Consumption: Would you like another drink?
Rochus Winkler, concept m
Have you noticed that the people around you have been drinking more alcohol since the start of the pandemic? Maybe also the odd glass (or two) of sparkling wine on regular week days? In the context of his research on COVID-19, concept m’s Rochus Winkler has taken a closer look at the (excessive) consumption of alcohol during the Covid crisis. He also examines why sparkling wine has a different effect than wine and beer and highlights the risks manufacturers are facing in the pandemic.
Have you noticed that the people around you have been drinking more alcohol since the start of this pandemic? Maybe also the odd glass (or two) of sparkling wine on regular week days? Working from home also means no commute, sleeping longer – which creates opportunities. And while restaurants and bars remain closed, why not make yourself comfortable at home? And why not also celebrate during this crisis, right?
Cultural influences on consumption
The Covid crisis has further deepened the social divide. While wealthier people are able to bounce back from the pre-pandemic culture of maximisation, poorer classes are increasingly left behind.
Short-time working schemes, sudden unemployment, challenges posed by home schooling, working from home – to many people, trying to find a work-life-balance is a stressful experience these days. German politicians are currently making efforts to lift Covid restrictions, the country is inching towards the end of the exhausting fight against the virus and facing a reorientation. To top things off, spring makes people want to go outside and enjoy life again.
The hope for better times is also turning into a desire for a vision of a new world felt by people of all walks of life. They want a fundamental change, cutting ties with the over-accelerated culture of maximisation of the past. But the wish to tackle life goals, put on hold by Covid, seems to persist: the long-awaited garden party, the anniversary celebrations that had to be rescheduled time and again, or meeting friends. All these occasions are reviving our adventurous spirits, our drive to explore. It is likely we will overcompensate for social gatherings, trips, and other festive occasions on which we’ve missed out.
What’s the role of sparkling wine in this “exhausting permanent battle against the coronavirus” and the “longing to be and feel alive”?
The cultural backgrounds illustrate that the Covid crisis has lead to unfulfilled needs in society. The sanitary and safety trends in politics, society, and consumption have created a space in which we can move more freely, or so it seems. People now reject the idea of more or stricter restrictions – let alone a hard lockdown (link in German).
Consumers want to be free. Looking at a new world where promotions, festivities, and social gatherings are possible again is a great motivation in the here and now. After long months of waiting and longing, it feels legitimate to anticipate these drinking occasions psychologically and to celebrate them with a glass of sparkling wine today. People want to leave the uncertainty behind and take a look at the new world with new (and tipsy) courage. Memories of how things were and prospects of how things will be prompt them to raise their glasses.
Enjoying a flute of sparkling wine sends a message to others and the consumers themselves: that they have emerged more or less unscathed from these past months that were defined by the coronavirus. Toasting to the moments of crisis, or rather to the fact that they have persevered and still have both feet on the ground, fills people with a sense of achievement and success.
But this can also pave the way for disguised alcoholism. If there are no real occasions for drinking sparkling wine, people sometimes create less ritualised situations. At celebrations like birthdays, baptisms, holiday meetings with friends etc., we usually stick to predefined structures and units of action: Meeting up, clinking glasses, sharing a meal and then spending some time in a relaxed and buoyant mood. At the moment, the only drinking buddies most people have are their family members. After-work drinks are often taken without the clear steps and rituals known from pre-pandemic times.
Compared to other categories of drinks, sparkling wine, and champagne in particular, help claim the feeling of superiority and resilience to crises. In the past, these drinks were reserved for the affluent classes (link in German). The image of the category “sparkling wine” therefore serves as a clever smoke screen: you’re not “boozing” (despite having opened the second bottle), you’re demonstrating sophisticated class awareness.
Psychologically speaking, sparkling wine dilutes the stagnation perceived during the pandemic and de-dramatizes the crisis: people want to go back to developments, promotions, successes. The sparkling wine promise strengthens the conviction that this return will happen. The topics covered in “sparkling wine conversations” are diverse: personal life events, or that of your children, loved ones who have had a baby, birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, engagements, etc. Many people have also seized the opportunity and have taken classes during the pandemic. You can also have a glass of sparkling wine to celebrate passing an exam, a new career step or a raise at work.
What’s the super power of sparkling wine, compared to beer or wine?
On a psychological level, sparkling wine symbolises festive “stimulation” and “activity”: These qualities can be observed and felt on the product level, too. The liquid inside the glass is active, bubbly, dynamic, it seems impulsive – sparkling wine is vivid and lively. And so are the drinking occasions. While red wine can make us sleepy, and beer can make us sociable, sparkling wine gives us a boost of energy and excitement even if we were exhausted before. Sparkling wine never rests, it bubbles with vitality, even overflows, and greets us with a loud “pop” as we open the bottle. Varying degrees of sweetness, depending on the type of sparkling wine, also give us the energy we need to engage in conversation and to stimulate our creativity. Sparkling wine is cultivating the image of an animating drink, turning even the dullest moments into joyful, action-packed situations.
What are the potential dangers for manufactures in the time of Covid-19?
Drinking alcohol always requires a justification. Before the pandemic,
- “a successful workday”, “small and big occasions”, “visits”, “before going to bed”, “as a pick-me-up”
counted as acceptable situations.
Covid has simplified these justifications. The only reason left to have a drink often can be boiled down to one simple factor: “spare time”. Spare time can also lead to boredom, which, in turn, motivates people to drink.
The graph shows how the sparkling wine motivation has developed over the past decades (image: Rochus Winkler)
If the learned justifications no longer apply, the marketing of sparkling wine manufacturers takes on a new meaning. The bottle shape, the label and the brand story have to create a framework that basically gives consumers permission to drink. A long tradition, exquisite grapes, a bottle with a special design, etc. legitimise drinking and are welcome justifications. They are a way to dignify otherwise trivial situations.
The danger for manufacturers is, paradoxically, their success. Unlike champagne, sparkling wine already lost its position as a status symbol in the past. Drinking sparkling wine from paper cups, offering it as an inexpensive gift at random occasions – sparkling wine has become a popular drink for everyone.
The Covid crisis further undermines sparkling wine by robbing it of the association with special occasions. Generalising the consumption of sparkling wine at any time make the drink more popular, but also herald the descent of the entire category.
Drinking sparkling wine becomes more of an everyday activity, more random and less important compared to back when you had a glass to mark an occasion. Against this backdrop, it’s becoming ever more crucial for brands to restore their elegant, unique and exclusive character to stay relevant. It is more essential than ever for marketing to counteract the “everyday” trend and to create a new profile.
As the pandemic goes on, cheap champagne becomes a fierce competitor for sparkling wine, threatening to steal its target group. Champagne is the epitome of resilience to crisis and elegance. Many consumers feel that champagne products, available for € 10-15 at regular supermarkets, are worth it. Because champagne allows you, without great effort, to ride the wave instead of getting buried by it. People are willing to make a small additional contribution for that.
About the author:
Rochus Winkler has been Managing Partner at concept m research + consulting since the company was founded in 2008. His work focuses on national and international research in diverse industries, like FMCG, Food & Beverages, Services, Media, Telecommunication, Energy, Fashion, Electronics, Retail and Pharma, and on B2B and cultural psychological issues. Since 2014, he has been teaching classes on “Marketing”, “Pharma Economy”, and other topics at Fresenius University. He is a speaker at industry congresses and marketing symposiums, guest lecturer at universities and has published many articles on market, media, and cultural psychology in specialised magazines.