Friday, May 4, 2007

Digression, with Champagne

I don’t begin to understand how we decide to allow or deny ourselves the various gradations of pleasure or of luxury. Marketers remind us that only a select few deserve the very best but is it really a question of worth? Is there a tiny accountant in your head who suspects that your inimitable self is worth a bottle of Bollinger, but not the Blanc de Noir?

I doubt it. Consumers don’t engage in this sort of math; corporations do. According to Nick Passmore at, Champagne prices are “controlled not so much by the production cost as by what marketing executives believe the market can bear.” For some brands, higher prices are not a barrier to sales; they can actually boost sales.

In explaining the resurgence of Saks, the American department store, its chief executive notes, “Consumers want brands, and we are all about brands.”

So there you have it. The calculations described here do not involve worth, they invoke status. By buying the most expensive item in a particular category, you broadcast a range of signals to yourself and others. Your choice might indicate your membership in a particular group; it might imply a certain discrimination in taste. Depending on the context, it could display frivolity, individuality, availability—or all three.

Most of us are awake to these clues, even if we prefer not to name them explicitly. In polite conversation, a little bit of sociology goes a long way.

Sandy and Cliff are trying to do right by themselves. Like most of us, they would prefer to maintain their artistic integrity while reaping the rewards of financial success. I think that explains their aversion to the ordinary logic of branding, and their coyness about the brand’s derivation.

It’s hard to find fault with Sandy’s fundamental economic philosophy: “Buy our clothes—and then we’ll buy stuff too.”

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