Too Many Channels (or the Return of Brand Loyalty?)

When I was a kid, if you were on TV you were famous.  There were only about five channels when I was growing up, so I could keep up with every show that was on and every actor on each of those shows.  I still hear older generations talk about the stars from the past ("Now she was a star"), contrasting their memories of Hollywood royalty with the ever-expanding list of B, C, and D-list celebrities fighting for space in today's public consciousness.  There's a reason those stars were larger than life, just like there's a reason no band will ever again be as big as the Beatles.  Access to the audience was limited and controlled by a few companies.  Movie studios, broadcasting companies, and record labels decided who made it and who didn't.  If you made it, you were huge.  There were no side options, no independent channels to get your name out there.  Money, power, and fame were concentrated into NBC, ABC, and CBS and they only operated between certain hours ("off the air" is a forgotten term these days), which meant that everyone was watching at primetime.  It was the complete opposite of the endless selection of programming we know today.

As an adult, I barely have enough time to watch the shows I want to watch, let alone peruse the 800 channels on my digital cable box.  There are so many programs playing on so many networks that there's absolutely no standard of quality anymore.  MTV used to play music, but there's no more ad money in the music business, so now it's a 24-hour reality show network.  CMT, the country music equivalent, is following the same model, pumping out episodes of original programming like Redneck Island in between repeats of Smokey and the Bandit II.  There's no time to get hooked on a new show, or even record it on your DVR, because another new one is always popping up, then getting cancelled after a few episodes.  Almost anyone can be on TV these days, and anyone can make a movie if you can get the money together.  If you've recorded an album in your free time, Apple lets you up upload it to iTunes and if you've written the next great novel, you can sell it on Amazon in e-form.  Unlike the media world of decades past, there are no more gatekeepers.  The market is open, awaiting anyone (literally anyone) with an idea.  If you can make it, you can access the entire world rather quickly.

While it's great to offer opportunity and hope to those who might not have had a chance fifty years ago, the downside is market saturation.  There are too many channels on TV right now.  There are too many new bands in the music industry.  There are too many clips on YouTube.  There are too many webpages with useless information.  There's so much crap out there that we need someone to sift through it all and tell us what isn't crap.  My hands have been covered in crap for years, digging and digging for the great products buried under that crap. The other problem is the decline of our attention spans.  We're so used to getting new input every minute via our iPhones, that we've all become data junkies, waking up in the morning to our laptops and iPads, longing for the next fix.  New Laphroaig, new Ardbeg, new this, new that.  Every day, every hour, every minute - something new and exciting to grab your attention.  If it isn't the "best thing you've ever tasted," then it's not worth our time. You can see why people like myself have to use hyperbole with everything (although, in all honesty I've always been that way since I was little).

About a year and a half ago, I wrote an entry on this blog called The Death of Brand Loyalty, briefly noting that the days of Marlboro Men and Crown Royal drinkers were over.  There were too many exciting new spirits being released to limit oneself to a single brand.  We were entering a time when people wouldn't even purchase the same bottle twice, choosing to constantly experiment with fresh faces and new experiences.  A new gin from Siberia, why not?  Whiskey made fifty feet under the earth's crust?  Sure!  However, once the market got wind that a new craft explosion was underway, there was liquid gold rush fever, and now we're beginning to saturate the accomplishments of true artisan production in a giant sea of incompetence.  A giant sea of crap, asking you to sample its wares, taste its new pomegranate and chocolate-infused tequila, begging for a spot at K&L, "just for a month to get things going."  You'll see!  People are going to love this!  We're already big in Fresno!  Here's a big bag of shelf talkers and information sheets.

There are numerous reasons for brand loyalty.  Image would be a big one, as Mad Men has taught us.  However, most of the impulse for buying the same product over and over derives from the dependability of its quality.  The consistency of taste.  A history of doing right by the consumer.  With booze, a product that offers so many unique and intriguing flavors, the only reason to limit one's experiences would be if the majority of them ended up being negative.  Therefore, if a customer continued to try new whiskies, yet found them consistently underwhelming, they're going to eventually get tired of wasting their time, flipping around all these channels, and finding nothing but crap on TV.  Like me, they'll record Breaking Bad every Sunday, while they wait for The Walking Dead to start in a few weeks.  There comes a breaking point where too many options and too many disappointing choices take their toll on the consumer.  That's where affordable brands with consistent flavor thrive.  They may not be the most interesting, but at least you know they're not a waste of time.

It's not easy convincing an adult to try something new.  We're fixed in our ways.  Getting me to watch something new on Netflix rather than a rerun of Revenge of the Nerds is hard enough ("You've already seen that a hundred times!"  "I know, but I love it!"), let alone getting me to spend money on an untested liquor brand.  Nevertheless, we've got people hooked on North Shore, Leopold's, St. George, and Blade instead of Bombay, Tanqueray, and Gordon's.  Older men come looking for Ballentine's and Famous Grouse and I give them Bank Note or Isle of Skye.  They love it and they've been coming back for more ever since.  Getting people at K&L to try new brands of liquor isn't so hard, as long as the products they're getting are truly superior and worth the extra few bucks.  However, I'm worried that the next wave of inferior distillation is going to undo some of that growing enthusiasm. 

There's already a small backlash growing against craft whiskey because it's young, expensive, and often not nearly as good as what the larger distilleries offer.  It needs time to prove itself, but these guys don't have time to sit around and wait.  They need to recoup expenses.  Releasing white whiskey for $50 and flooding the market with more products it doesn't need isn't helping their cause, however.  It's only re-enforcing the idea in the mind of many consumers that they should stick with their tried and tested brands.  Over the last two months, I've tasted many new whiskies that simply didn't need to be made.  They're not offering anything new, they're not cheap, and they're not all that good.  It's like a new version of the Jersey Shore, except this time they're in Nebraska and they're all teenagers hooked on meth.  I don't need another inferior reality show.  I don't want more channels on TV.  Too much bad programming makes me long for the good old days, when stars were larger than life ("Now Van Damme, that guy knew how to make an action film!) and life itself was more simple. 

Too much selection can be overwhelming.  There's a limit to how much input we can take as human beings.  Right now, the spirits industry is testing that limit and I'm beginning to see where it ends.  If we overdo it, I hope the damage isn't irreparable.  The smaller companies struggling for the attention of the modern whiskey drinker might be pitching their show before it's ready.  With so many new options coming out every week, you could only have one chance in front of that audience, so you'd better have your best stuff to show.  If it isn't something bold, daring, and better than the average whiskey, they'll just change the channel and watch a rerun of The Simpsons instead.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll