How sure are you that your products are better than the competition?
How confident are you that your company will not be disrupted by a smaller competitor?
This story shows how an entire industry was so convinced of their superiority that they weren’t even aware that they were being overtaken.
It is about the French wine industry, and then the global wine industry.
It all happened in Paris on 24 May 1976, when renowned French wine shop owner Steven Spurrier invited a Who’s Who of nine French Wine Experts for a blind taste test, in a bid to prove the superiority of the recent crop of French red and white wines by comparing them to a selection from California.
At the time, the aristocracy were still claiming that French wines and French cuisine were the finest in the world, as they had been for decades, simply due to the fact that everyone knew this was true. The blind test was seen as a formality to prove this dominance compared to the upstarts from America.
In fact, during the blind tasting, where everyone was given a glass at a time to rate but not told which wine it was, the French judges were not shy about openly showing their bias towards French wines in general:
“Ah, back to France,” one judge sighed after tasting an American Napa Valley chardonnay. Another, sniffing a French Bâtard-Montrachet, declared: “This is definitely California. It has no nose.”
However, once the tasting of all 10 bottles of red wine and 10 bottles of white wine was complete, the results shocked everyone.
The highest rated reds and whites were both from California.
This would likely not have been a problem, except that a single reporter from TIME magazine was invited and attended, publishing the surprising results in the June 1976 edition of TIME under the now infamous article Judgement of Paris.
This single article proceeded to give credibility not to just the 12 bottles of wine from California at the tasting, but to the entire field of new entrants to the wine industry in “New World” wine countries like the USA, Australia, South Africa and many others.
It was no longer a requirement to come from a domaine or region with hundreds of years of wine-growing history to mean you could produce world-class wine.
So how did the French Wine industry react to the tasting?
Did they use it to learn about what was happening in other parts of the world, and use it as motivation to improve their own wines through innovation?
They tried to deny the tasting ever happened.
The French wine press didn’t even report on the tasting for months.
And then when they couldn’t deny that, they claimed that the results were meaningless and not to be taken seriously anyway.
But behind closed doors, they were even more in denial. The horrified and enraged leaders of the French wine industry then banned Spurrier from the nation’s prestigious wine-tasting tour for a year, apparently as punishment for the damage his tasting had done to its former image of superiority.
Eventually though, as the New World wines gained prestige and prominence around the world, and even within France, it led to many in the French wine industry looking inward and reviewing traditions that were sometimes more accumulations of habit and expediency, and to re-examine convictions that were little more than myths taken on trust.
So why am I telling you this story in a blog about innovation?
Well, it is common for companies to think that disruption won’t affect them, because they feel that the quality of their current products or services are exactly what the customers want.
After all, their current customers are indeed buying them.
But unfortunately, this is never guaranteed to be the case forever.
Once new innovations from other companies, startups or unknown overseas competitors become available, all of a sudden the customers have much more choices.
And it might be the case that one of the other options meets their perceived value criteria much better.
If a company chooses to just rest on its status quo, then it usually won’t be able to react fast enough to disruptive changes in the market.
It is much better to actually assume that every other product in the market could be better than your own, and relentlessly innovate to find ways to more effectively meet your current, and unmet, customer needs.
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