The article below was first published in the NZZ issue dedicated to brands.
An entertaining feature of commerce is that, like chess, insect societies and fluid
mechanics, it generates complex behaviour from simple rules. For example, only
two motives are required to make it work: self-interest and enlightened self-interest.
These alone have produced everything you've ever bought or sold. All
other motives eventually crash and burn, as the twentieth century has shown at
huge human cost. In this field as in others, enlightenment means resisting
temptation, having the courage to forgo immediate rewards in exchange for later
ones. But why be enlightened ? Because trust, i.e. the gradual subsidence of our fear
of getting screwed, works wonders but takes time to build. Once you have the trust
of your customer, you can run a great business on it. Example: Hermès, a thousand
beautifully made objects, easily half of which are ugly, but none shabby, every
single one arguably worth the money. You can also scam him, take the money and
run for the border, but that means starting again from scratch: look at Pierre
Cardin, the oldest fashion brand of them all, now so prostituted that there is no
"real" stuff left to buy. But the greatest unenlightened scam, the one they teach in
business schools, is the one where a) you screw the customer, b) they still trust you
and c) they come back for more. Example: Louis Vuitton luggage. Rubbish quality
(the Thai fakes are better than the real thing), dubious taste (to reverse Marx, what
started as a '30s farce, "let's put the lining on the outside", is now a tragedy),
outrageous price. And yet they sell. Why ?
To borrow terms first applied by 19th century journalist Walter Bagehot to the
monarchy, brands have both an "effective" and a "dignified" function. One effective
function is to elicit rational expectations: you only need to take one pair of jeans
with you on travels, in the knowledge that wherever you see the Levi's badge you
can get another one just like it. This also works well for burgers, beer, wine, hotels
and medicines. The dignified function is image: the buyer advertises his purchase
to others. Sometimes, this can be rational. Suppose you want to advertise your
wealth to people too poor or inexperienced to know quality when they see it, for
example to gain their deference. Not only do you buy something expensive and
beautiful, but you also need to wear the label on the outside, so that everyone will
know. That label, not the white baby sealskin bag to which it is attached, then
gradually comes to mean "money". In other words, it becomes a currency.
Once you have a currency, you can do lots of fun things with it. You can debase it
(real Vuitton bags); you can counterfeit it (fake Vuitton bags); but best of all you
can play on the fact that all currencies work by mutual consent. In other words, if
you can persuade the rich to use your debased coinage, then the poor who buy real
fakes and fake fakes will not feel shafted or silly and the scam becomes selfsustaining.
This requires a steady supply of people with more money than sense,
but a buoyant economy will do that: sense takes longer to acquire than cash. This is
what is called brand "mystique" and it works best when those who produce the lies
believe in them. As Marx (Groucho, this time) said of sincerity, "If you can fake it,
you've got it made". You have to believe, and to communicate the belief, that there
is something intrinsically different about an object that bears a particular name.
This is not a new trick: the aristocracy has practiced it to great effect since the
French Revolution. A titled name used to mean having, it now means being. Titles
are, in marketing terms, the human limited edition. What this means in practice:
you've just bought a frog, but the ads swear it's a prince.
Luckily for the scammers, lies have a built-in inertia: victims who should have
known better are reluctant ever to acknowledge that they were suckered, and even
complain loudly when the sorry tale ends. Take Bentley. No decent car of that
name was produced since the late 1920's when Rolls Royce bought it and used it as
a badge. Since the war, Bentleys have largely been ugly, poorly engineered, soggy
barges. Now a remarkable thing has happened. Bentley was bought by VW and
appears to be run by people who want the cars to be the real thing: beautifully
built, scary-fast, gorgeous. You'd think the punters would be grateful. Not a bit,
many in the UK bemoan the dilution of the Bentley "mystique" by "foreign" input,
which is a bit like complaining to your alchemist that his lead has lately become
contaminated with gold.
After haste, lies and ignorance, the next greatest threat to enlightened self interest
is "Strong Brand" syndrome. The CEO starts hearing voices: "Everyone out there
just loves your antifouling paint, they'll go nuts about your tinned mussels". Left
untreated, this condition can lead to Bugatti fragrance, Porsche Design
"engineered" smoking pipes, Ferrari red sneakers, BMW jackets, Aston Martin
carbon-fiber luggage as well as lesser flotsam like Victorinox watches, Virgin Cola,
Harley Davidson lighters, in short shedloads of future landfill. Enlightened firms
that stick to what they know must feel like the girl in a black one piece swimsuit in
a Tampax ad. Gresham's Law says that bad money drives out good. Such is the
general acceptance of debased coinage as legal tender, that the notion of a
sensational product worthy of love is met with amused disbelief. I, for instance,
have been hopelessly in love with my Macs since 1986 for the best of reasons:
gratitude for having changed my life. I am in good company: the libertarian
thinker Guy Kawasaki, probably best-known as a tireless Apple "evangelist", once
said "I believe in God because there is no other explanation for Apples continued
existence. Is this a cult ? No, and here's why.
Someone recently suggested we should wear Bluetooth-enabled jewellery that
broadcasts our tastes fifty or so meters around us and lights up when a good match
is within radio range. Just think, though, how dangerously easy it would be to
make sure the lights stay off: all you'd need to do is to put Respighi's Poema
Autunnale as favorite music and Irkutsk as favorite holiday destination, and spend
the rest of your life in Byronian isolation, grimly changing the batteries on your
gadget at regular intervals. Clearly, what is needed is an enlightenement indicator.
This could in principle be another efficient function of brands, and so far Apple is
the only example, though everyone from Patagonia to Smart would like to join.
Crucially though, enlightened choices must be money-neutral. Computers are
good, since unlike polo shirts and cars they all cost pretty much the same.
Choosing the most original, the most beautiful, the easiest to use and the most fun
is therefore not a trivial choice: it correctly suggests a set of principles at work. The
fact that Apple's market share is less than 4% makes this choice cool at no extra
Curiously, so-called "cult" objects are often the ones that least require irrational
faith. Some examples from the distant past: Opinel knives, as fine, honest and
durable a piece of design as one is likely to see. Their website is refreshing: a few
knives, no fancy nonsense, just the facts. The Citroën 2CV, probably the greatest
cheap car ever made, phased out for the saddest of reasons: other, less clever cars
beat it to a pulp in collisions. The Quad ESL-57, still the best small-room
loudspeaker ever and the clearest demonstration that if you can't beat the laws of
physics, you had better join them. If these are the object of a cult, then it must like
very early christianity, mostly miracles and word-of-mouth. _The distinguishing
feature of these objects, of course, is that whatever they do, they do it better. This
criterion rules out handbags, etc. and most everything to do with fashion, since
iceman Oetzi was arguably as well dressed as anyone today. Where there can be no
efficiency, only the dignified will do. This is why fashion needs irrational cults. But,
as biologist David Armstrong once said, "The thing about God is, there's no new
data". Many parts of the commercial landscape resemble religion in that respect,
bleakly calling the old new against all odds. But sometimes the New and Improved
really is just that, the result of a thousand small enlightened choices: "let's do it
differently', "let's make this easy to use", "there must be a better way", "let's make
this feel great". Simple motives giving disproportionately beautiful outcomes.
These deserve your love. It's OK to show it by buying them.
Luca Turin, 2005