Can you taste the difference? Study claims marketing--not taste--dictate beer brand loyalty

CINCINNATI - It’s news that will be music to the ears of the craft beer fan in your family.

A new study claims that marketing -- not taste -- may be responsible for your loyalty to the lite lager you’ve been drinking.

The American Association of Wine Economists took a break from analyzing their favorite vino to find out whether flavor or advertising wins brand loyalty when it comes to mass-market lager.

The group claims that when it gave drinkers a blind test, consumers couldn’t distinguish between three major competing beer brands and that the results suggest the market is driven by marketing and packaging.

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The group started by pointing to a landmark 1964 study that also suggests brand loyalty has little to do with taste.

In the previous study, mixed six-packs were sent to hundreds of beer drinkers to rate their preferences. If the participants indicated a preference for a particular brand, it was included in the six-pack sample.

Some of the six-packs were labeled and others weren’t. In the blind test, participants showed “virtually no preference” for one beer over others. However, people who got the labeled beers rated their favorite brand higher than the others.

The AAWE said more recent studies have released similar findings.

To conduct their test, the AAWE did away with ratings or analyzing a range of beers to focus solely on whether people could distinguish differences between three mass-market European beers that are readily available in the American market.

Drinkers were presented with a blind “triangle” tasting test, and had to distinguish between Czechvar, Heineken and Stella Artois. (A full explanation of the process is provided in the report below.)

What the group found was that drinkers were generally unable to tell the difference between the different brands.

The group said the findings suggest that advertising and packaging -- and not taste -- is responsible for consumer loyalty.

The study said it was worthy to note makers of mass pale lagers spend enormous sums on packaging and advertising. The AAWE quoted Advertising Age  reporting that Anheuser-Busch spends more than $1.5 billion per year on advertising and SABMiller spends just under $1 billion.

The group also states drinkers may identify with the brand’s suggested “lifestyle” or cultural identity rather than the worthiness of the beer’s flavor.

It's important to note there are some shortcomings with this study. Tasters weren't asked to find a difference between styles, (i.e., putting a Budweiser against a hoppy IPA,) and there's no accounting for taste. People with inherently refined or well-practiced palates may be able to easily tell the difference -- label or no label.

Also, people may just buy their favorite beer because to them, it does taste great.

Still, maybe it’s time to drop that favorite lager of yours and try a new beer at one of your local breweries.

For the latest in Ohio--especially Cincinnati--beer news, follow Jesse on Twitter at @wcpojesse  and take part in the conversation at the #9beer Facebook page too.

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