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Have you noticed that we rarely order a regular cup of coffee anymore? If you’re an American Starbuck-er, you may request an authentic Tall Caffe Americano, a mellow Grande Caffe Latte, or, if you’re a veteran, a Venti Whip White Mocha. If you’re a Canadian Tim Horton-ian, you quickly learn the deep significance of a liberal Large Double-Double versus a conservative Medium Regular. In India, Café Day and Barista are trying to win converts to their own special offerings.
It’s not only coffee. Bread is not just bread anymore but white, brown, baguette, cracked wheat, sourdough, multigrain 7, or, for the more mathematically adventurous, multigrain 12. Nor are all handbags created equal: consider Gucci, Coach, Louis Vuitton, the list goes on …
Sporty types and students wanting to be in the inner circle choose from amongst Nike, Reebok, Converse, Brooks, and many others I’m not cool enough to know about.
Why has our society become so picky? What explains our desire for the right name, the right logo, on what we eat, wear and carry?
Brand obsession seems to be the natural progression of a more affluent society with greater access to more information: we can be pickier because we have greater knowledge and more options at our fingertips. We get to choose not only from our neighborhood, but from the world. When picking a wine for the evening meal, most of us can easily get our hands on an Australian Shiraz, a Californian Merlot, or a Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon. And we can pair those with Gouda cheese from Holland, Cheddar from America, Feta from Greece, not to mention the mind-boggling number of other more exotic and smelly varieties.
Granted, buying a branded product or a very specific item can assure us of a certain standard and level of quality. A Coke the world over seems to taste the same and a Mercedes anywhere is a very sound car. But is it more than that?
In an era where Tom Friedman warns us that the world is getting flat, brands let us create our unique topographies and help to define us. They are a quick way to show a fast-moving, low-attention-span world just who we are—our interests, our affiliations (real or aspired), our priorities and our ideals, not to mention our financial capacity and our level of success. Owning a brand meets an intrinsic emotional need to distinguish ourselves from the masses. It fulfills a yearning to be part of an elite group, and helps to establish a hierarchy. In these days when simple old-fashioned systems like caste and class and skin color and accent are no longer reliable indicators of one’s status in society, brands fill that gap.
This pickiness and brand pursuit seems to be a new phenomenon, though. Maybe there were unrecorded cases of an undaunted William Tell buying his lederhosen only from Mr. Schmidt or of the wise politician Chanakya getting his dhotis only from Sri Sivaraman, but I sense our ancestors had not discovered brands. It is not written “Thou shall not covet thy colleague’s Montblanc.” Cleopatra didn’t say “Give me my Oscar de la Renta robe, put on my Tiffany tiara; I have immortal longings in me.” Even Elvis didn’t sing “Blue Suede Adidas.”
But today, as Tom Peters said, “We are no doubt in the great age of the brand.”
What does this mean for the future? We may no longer be satisfied to use that old adage “the moon is made of green cheese” but will need to more specific: “the moon is made of aged Emmental.” When you’re proposing to your loved one and promising to keep her in the lap of luxury, you may have to define luxury as a Lamborghini. When you’re dangling your granddaughter on your knee and telling her that age-old story of the Emperor’s New Clothes, she may in innocent childish curiosity ask if his underwear was Calvin Klein or Fruit of the Loom … or Victoria’s Secret.
Granted, our current global financial crisis may impact this somewhat: brands themselves will not go away, but what’s considered “in” may change. Conspicuous consumption may become unpopular. Flaunting your Jimmy Choo’s may get your feet stamped on. Your Birkin handbag may begin to get you more glares than envious stares. And driving up in your Ferrari, you may receive the same greeting as an AIG executive come to boast about his recent publicly-financed bonus. Instead, the new badge of honor may be Wal-Mart’s store brand or Loblaw’s “No-Name” brand or a return to Quality ice cream.
Maybe I’m being too pessimistic. Brands are not a sign of regression in our culture but a natural evolution. We are not becoming less appreciative, simply more refined. After all, man does not live by foccacia alone. It’s okay to see the world through Armani-colored glasses. The quickest way to the man’s heart can be through his Dom Perignon and beluga caviar-filled stomach, and his better half will be happy to accept the de Beers diamond, tainted or not.
Despite my attempt to play devil’s advocate by arguing both sides, this trend still doesn’t sit easy with my more socialist leanings. Are we getting more spoilt? Are we becoming fixated on details at the cost of the bigger picture? Are we trying to differentiate ourselves from others instead of striving to find common ground? Are we losing our grip on the truly important things in life? Am I asking too many questions?
I realize there’s no easy answer to this but surely such a global phenomenon deserves further analysis. So I’d be happy to discuss this further with you over a cup of coffee—provided it’s an Illy espresso, with a Le Delizie di Caterina almond biscotti on the side.
Ranjani Iyer Mohanty is a writer, editor, and irrepressible coffee-drinker, and currently lives in New Delhi.
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