How Real is the Real Thing?

October 5, 2007

I often drop in at the Gran Sitges Hotel for a drink. The hotel is conveniently located at the foot of the hill on which my house is located. Three days ago, I went into the bar and asked for Diet Coke. I was told that there was none and was offered a Diet Pepsi instead. Now I happened to know that the hotel stocks Diet Coke but that since the margins are juicier, hotel staff are under strict instructions to push Diet Pepsi instead. When I pointed out to the waiter that I was an ‘insider’ who knew what the game was, he sighed and went off to get me a Diet Coke. But, provocatively, he brought it ready-poured in a glass, with no bottle in sight. Determined not to be taken for a ride, I asked to see the bottle. The waiter, by now feeling homicidal, went and fetched the bottle.

At this point, I began to realize that what I had just done was really dumb. If Diet Coke is really that different from Diet Pepsi, why do you need to see the bottle? Won’t the difference in taste immediately give the game away? By asking to see the bottle, what I was really communicating to the waiter was my inability to distinguish the taste of Diet Coke from that of Diet Pepsi. There may well be Coke/Pepsi connoisseurs who can not only discriminate between the tastes of the two drinks, but can also tell you in what region they were bottled, and in what year. I am not one of them. If so, why was I making such a fuss?

The answer, of course, is branding. I may lack the powers of discrimination that allow me to directly experience the difference, if any, between Coke and Pepsi, but, hey, I can read labels, and knowledge of the label partly dictates what I experience. My hotel experience got me thinking about brands. We think of brands as validating the knowledge that we gain through experience, which if positive, directs us to further experiences of the same kind. What I was beginning to realize, is that brands can also shape that experience. So when people buy a US $ 400 commodified T-shirt that is only distinguishable from other commodified T-shirts by the word ‘Versace’ spread across its front, they are not the fools I have been taking them for. No. The words ‘Versace’ transform their experience of the T-shirt – and, more importantly, that of those that are looking at them – into something else. We are effectively dealing here with something akin to the trans-substantiation of a piece of textile.

Branding as a religious experience. Now there’s a thought.

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