We recently spoke about how unique is our taste with Aniello Buonincontro, who wrote the book, “Degustazione Razionale”, which means rational tasting. He researched anthropology, sociology, neuroscience and psychology. He also studied the issues concerning the characteristics of the premium cigar in relation to marketing and consumption.
Aniello is a certified sommelier and a Cigar Journal panelist. He has been in charge of the most renowned cigar courses in Italy (Catadores courses by the Cigar Club Association). He actually is an aeronautical engineer. Nine years ago, he left his job as production manager in a multinational company and became sales manager at Cigars and Tobacco, one of the biggest, if not the biggest, Italian importer and distributor of new word cigars.
Among his role’s activities, he provides training and guidance for events and manages the relationships with many producers, retailers and enthusiasts.
You can find Aniello’s articles and videos (mostly in Italian) here.
Today we want to deep dive into some important aspects that relate to the behavior of the premium cigar consumer.
The cigar can have many different meanings, as cigar lovers have many different interests, needs and desires.
A cigar can be many different things:
- a bunch of tobacco leaves that are rolled up to be smoked
- an agricultural product, hard to regulate like industrialized tobacco products
- an artisanal product
- an economic power for most producing countries
- a gourmet product
- an experience product, as each of us may have a different experience when smoking it
- a sample
- an analysis object
- a commodity
And it can also be:
- a cultural heritage
- an object for social media consumption
- an obsession for serial smokers
- a leisure companion
- a relaxation accessory
- a wealth show off tool
- a symbol
- the catalyst of emotions
How can this take shape for a cigar importer/distributor?
For professionals the cigar is a commercial product. When talking with consumers, they need to talk about quality, which is a very important characteristic of the cigar. A professional doesn’t talk about his/her own emotion connected to the cigar. In theory you can sell cigars by emotion to consumers, but this is not possible to do when you deal with other professionals. S/he will rather treat the cigar as a commercial product, and provide information by strength, price, consistency, flavor, … In fact, talking about the aromas that a cigar displays can be enlightening, provided they are accurately described.
The label or band
The other characteristic is a bit stronger, it’s the symbol that the cigar represents. We cannot forget that the cigar is made of tobacco, but also of the label, the band, which takes along the information on the family, the factory, the field, the country, … If you take two samples of the same cigar, one with the band and one without band, and you ask someone to choose, that person will most likely choose the cigar with the band. There is another pleasure when smoking a cigar with the band. Many people will deny this, but the band gives an additional pleasure during the smoke. We cannot say this is wrong.
Never say this is right or this is wrong, it’s just a different way to look at the world around us.
The must-have status symbol
There are sensory qualities, very important, but there are many other attributes that you can associate with a cigar.
For example, there are people who always look for the best deals. Why does that happen and why are cigars in this case not chosen based on specific qualities?
When we start smoking cigars, we know very little, a lot is about our imagination. And for quite some time, perceiving aromas, tastes and so on is something difficult. Beginners typically can sense one aroma, maybe two. Maybe they sense something they cannot name. In the beginning people generally start smoking cigars for the symbol, not for their organoleptic qualities. This is normal, the issue is maybe that you may stick to the symbol and not go and discover the senses world that is linked to the cigar. This depends a lot on the type of people that are around you, how they influence you. Influencers on social media today are not able to help, as they are usually interested in something different from the sensory experience.
The cigar arrived in Europe as symbol for people that had a commercial interest with America. It was interesting to show people “I smoke cigars because they come from my colonies in America”. This was the beginning. The cigar can be a way to show people something: I am rich, I have power, I am a member of a famous club, and so on. The cigar can be used as an accessory, like a tie, to be elegant. This is a way to communicate.
There is nothing wrong in this, it’s just a choice. Sometimes this choice is done in a conscious way, sometimes you follow someone you like and do the same thing.
The relational control
Everybody has a role when we’re dealing with a cigar, just like when we’re dealing with anything else in life.
One of the 3 types of relational control is the one referred to as “one level up” relationship. When somebody talks about a cigar and we see that person as an “expert”, that person could tell us anything. If we don’t have our own awareness, our own views on the cigar, our own experiences, if we are just learning, it’s very easy to just follow and imitate. We see very easily how that happens in social media: people like or even love something just because an “expert” is posting. Followers don’t even look at what that person is writing or sharing. If they did, they might be in total disagreement, but just follow the flow.
There is a difference between people that see the cigar as a sensory experience and people who see the cigar as a status symbol. The latter use the same language, the same words, but for everyone that word has a different meaning. If you ask what is quality to someone who sees the cigar as a status symbol, the term has a certain meaning.
What is an “expert”?
Quality vs. quantity, here again, play a big role. Most people that are considered as “experts” have been smoking for a long time, they smoke expensive cigar. They smoke a lot of cigars. They go to a lot of events. If you consider this, all this is something you can measure. But quality is hard to measure.
An “expert” might have learnt by heart all the shapes and dimensions of cigars, all the history of brands. Today you can easily find many “experts” and all shapes and dimensions of cigars on the internet.
And it is important to expect experts to only talk about the measurable characteristics of the cigar, which include flavor. The rest, whether you like or do not like the cigar, is something you need to learn, so you can make your choices without imitating others. The most difficult aspect here is probably the understanding of the relationship between you and the cigar.
Most “experts”, when they talk about cigars, don’t understand that they are not talking about cigars, rather about themselves and what is in their mind.
You can find pleasure in a cigar even if you see the cigar as a status symbol. It’s normal. What is important is not being right or wrong, but being aware of how this works.
Developing a status symbol brand
The status symbol concept drives sales. If a producer has a good quality cigar, but people do not recognize it as a status symbol, it takes a lot of efforts to sell. You need to create a story, a tradition. And this takes time. If you work through an influencer, you can start to grow the brand as connected to a status symbol. When a producer becomes a status symbol, s/he can start to focus more on marketing than on quality production. The risk is to start selling more and fermenting and aging less. Good marketing is less expensive that a good fermentation.
The market gives its answer after years. What can happen is that the market understands that quality is in decline and it’s then difficult for a brand to go back and focus on quality again. In fact, when judging a cigar and we have a bad first impression, it’s very hard to revisit and gain a good second impression.
Maybe the best producers are the ones who don’t show up too often on social media. Because they are in the factory and focus on tobacco and quality aspects, they often don’t speak English very well.
Younger consumers or beginners
Younger cigar smokers who prefer quality over quantity and branding are increasing. They enroll in courses to understand the qualities of cigars. They seek pleasure. Sometimes they are not able to express their liking through sensory terms. However, they are able to identify the difference between a good quality and a bad quality cigar.
Smoking for a long time can be important, but there needs to be attention and focus. And interest in quality definitely helps the latter.
This explains the difference between and alcoholist and a sommelier: maybe an alcoholist drinks more than a sommelier, but does not necessarily understand the product. Equally, smoking a lot is not a guarantee that we understand the product. Having a good method is what counts. It’s not easy, it’s not just about filling in a sheet.
Another benefit for younger smokers or beginners is that a lot of misconceptions have not been ingrained (yet) in their behavior and thinking. This allows them to much more easily focus on what they really are interested into. And they have a lot of opportunities for education and learning so they can look at things in a different way rather than repeating misconceptions. They want to be aware of what they do.
Unfortunately the cigar world seems to still be a world for men, even if many women work in the industry and/or smoke cigars. Women tend to respectfully play by the rules and rules are still made by men.
When you divide, then you have to work harder to make it stick. It’s probably better to talk about quality than about men vs. women, Cuban vs. non Cuban cigars, and so on.
My taste is the best
Everybody believes to have the best taste in the world. And when there are some people that start to be looked at as “experts”, their taste becomes recognized. The error people frequently do in our society is imitating somebody else’s taste just because that person is perceived as an expert. This is a very bad approach to learning: pretending that someone blindly follows us is like training a dog rather than a human. Followers are not about education and culture.
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