Readers, enjoy the following quote, and tell me that it doesn't make you utterly distrust all consumer branding and market segmenting techniques:
"In the early 2000s, Pabst was struggling financially. It had maxed out the white rural population that formed the core of its customer base, and it was selling less than 1 million barrels of beer a year, down from 20 million in 1970. If Pabst wanted to sell more beer, it had to look elsewhere, and Neal Stewart, a midlevel marketing manager, did. Stewart went to Portland, Oregon, where Pabst numbers were surprisingly strong and an ironic nostalgia for white working-class culture (remember trucker hats?) was widespread. If Pabst couldn't get people to drink its watery brew sincerely, Steward figured, maybe they could get people to drink it ironically. Pabst began to sponsor hipster events--gallery openings, bike messenger races, snowboarding competitions, and the like. Within a year, sales were way up--which is why, if you walk into a bar in certain Brooklyn neighborhoods, Pabst is more likely to be available than other low-end American beers.
That's not the only excursion in reinvention that Pabst did. In China, where it is branded a 'world-famous spirit,' Pabst has made itself into a luxury beverage for the cosmopolitan elite. Advertisements compare it to 'Scotch whisky, French brandy, Bordeaux wine,' and present it in a fluted champagne glass atop a wooden cask. A bottle runs about $44 in U.S. currency."
--From The Filter Bubble by Eli Pariser
So, to sum up: a mediocre beer is consumed by one group because it's cheap, by another group because it's expensive, and by a third group because it's ironic.
And yet it's the same beer. Just branded three different ways for three entirely separate populations.
Of course, there's also an implicit--perhaps even a desperate--presumption that these three populations never meet. After all, what would happen if our Chinese elite were to discover the "world-famous spirit" he buys as an act of identity construction was actually considered a mediocre beer in the USA? Worse still, what if he were to discover he was paying forty times the actual market price for this mediocre beer?
Do you think our Chinese national would be happy to learn this? Would he continue to buy it?
The answer is obvious: it would be inconceivable for him to continue buying this beer. Once he knows what it really is, and thus learns that he had previously been fooled into paying forty times the market price for it, the "value" of this product vanishes instantly. The next time he drinks a Pabst, he might as well also wear a bright red headband that says "I am a sucker" in Chinese characters. No one gets identity construction from being a sucker.
Finally, let's consider our Brooklyn- or Portland-based hipster. What happens when she learns the beer she drinks ironically is sold to wealthy Chinese elites at 40 times the price? For context, this would be like paying $1,000,000 for a Chevy sedan, or $2,400 for a pair of Levi's jeans. Wouldn't this knowledge make her feel icky, or worse, inauthentic?
This is all the wrong kind of irony.
Readers, if you ever want to see aspirational marketing for what it really is, please remember this painful example of Pabst beer. Do you still need more proof that aspirationally marketed products rudely and needlessly separate you from your money?
What are your thoughts?
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