Monday, 10 December 2007

Hard Rock Cachet

I was born in England to an Austrian-born father with Israeli nationality and a German mother of Polish descent, and I live in Belgium. Whenever I am asked what nationality I feel, I point to my disdain for the French to prove that at heart I am British. Nevertheless, I must confess to harbouring a sneaking admiration for the Gallic marketing savvy.

Sparkling wine, as we know it, was probably first invented at the end of the seventeenth century by an Englishman, Christopher Merrett. It is however a Benedictine monk or Dom, Pierre Pérignon, born around the same period in the Champagne region of France who has taken much of the credit for creating this fizzy beverage. It was probably to play into this legend that in 1936 Moët & Chandon chose his name to grace what would become one of the world's best known extravagant tipples. In the late 1800s Dom Pérignon's producers shrewdly ran an ad campaign establishing the myth that the eponymous pastor cried out "Come quickly - I am drinking the stars!" when he first tasted what we now know as champagne.

The claim that it was he who discovered it is actually quite important to the Champagne region. An area in Fance that dominates the world market for sparkling wines, in prestige if not quantity, to the extent that it has managed to make those from any other place seem second rate. Indeed, it isn't the bubbles in the wine that make it suitable, even vital, for any festivity, but the magical word champagne that injects the mood of celebration into any event.

There are more regions well known for their produce. In France alone think of Cognac and Roquefort to name but two more of many. And it was the fiercely chauvinistic French, as early as 1824, who were the first to register a Geographical Indication, or a GI in legal parley, in a bid to legally protect their region-distinctive cheese varieties from copycats abroad. Today the French GIs are valued at almost 200 million Euros.

Marketing techniques have developed since then and GIs are an integral part of our consumer lifestyles today. The Scots have made Whisky their very own although if you want to call it Whiskey you can make it anywhere you like. Scotch smoked salmon is recognised as superior too, and it seems many consumers agree it is worth paying a premium for. Interestingly, GIs remain respected and perceived as relevant despite the intelligent consumer being well aware that with modern science and production techniques there is no reason why practically any product cannot be reproduced identically almost anywhere else in the world.

GIs are mostly limited to food, maybe reflecting the French priorities in life. However there are many examples of the same methodology being used to promote both a region and its produce at the same time with one reinforcing the other. The Japanese very successfully harnessed their national reputation for technical prowess and excellence, to launch the Lexus, a top level car brand that shot almost effortlessly into a position other and equally good carmakers have struggled for years to attain.

Taiwan is successfully building its reputation as a manufacturer of quality goods as its sister, China, struggles with its shoddy image. The tagline 'Made in Taiwan' is usually prominently displayed even as Chinese-made goods languish on the shelves. The Swiss have cleverly parlayed their national passion for pedantic, mechanical perfectionism into the recognised world benchmark for watches, while their German cousins, no less meticulous and equally technically proficient, have been far less successful in marketing this fact, maybe due to the fact that the eastern half only relatively recently fully entered the western marketplace.

With the steady deterioration of the cartel for diamonds and its associated promotional clout, the onus has fallen on the individual companies to market their own wares. Branding is indeed one way of generating prestige and exclusivity, but as all those who have tried it will know, it is prohibitively expensive and risky. One alternative could be to set up mechanisms that would allow groups of companies to pool their expertise and muscle into a single marketing umbrella that would add value to their wares without arbitrarily dividing up their market and setting competitors in head to head conflict.

The circumstances exist, yet for this to happen and in the absence of a declared leader, authorities that have hitherto been passive participators are going to have stand up and start pulling their weight for the common good. So, for the sake of an industry that is waiting for a guiding force, isn't it time for he who has clout within to please cast the first stone?

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