Sunday, November 11, 2007

What's in a name? The Brand Snobbery Syndrome

"So how come don't you have one of those handbags with the little monograms marching all over them that everyone seems to favor these days?"

Nothing escapes my mother's right eye. She lost peripheral vision in the left eye many years ago, so one would think she might miss catching at least some of life's smaller details. Not a chance!

She's talking about the branded `designer' handbags that with-it women have been slinging nonchalantly over their shoulders for years. You know the ones, with the C(hanel), D(ior), P(rada), D&G or LV initials on them.

"Nope, I've never aspired to own one, for two compelling reasons: one, why would I want to use a bag with somebody else's initials on it? And two, why would I want to pay some ridiculously inflated amount for their initials?"

But my mother's not satisfied with my response; she's in bear-baiting mode, and would like to hear me growl. "A branded product is a branded product, right? You're so finicky about your brand of coffee, how is that any different from people being finicky about their brand of handbag?" she prods.

This is a trick question. I pause for a long moment before I respond, thinking, ohhh no, you don't want to start me off, Mum! "Ohhh yes, I do!" she shoots back, reading my mind like a pro.

"Okay, then, here we go. Yes, I'm a brand-snob too, particularly about consumables like the coffee I prefer or the shower gel I use or the mineral/fire water I drink, that sort of thing. But the whole `brand-name accessory' concept? Defeats me!

"You choose a brand, any brand, because you identify with it, you like what it stands for. The taste, smell, cut, values, standards, whatever. My local brand of coffee is top quality. It's locally produced, roasted and packaged; I buy my freshly ground weekly supply, sniff it all the way home, and store it in the fridge so it retains its aroma. (Yes, I'm a borderline fanatic about my coffee.)

"I refuse to pay outlandish sums of money for some trumped-up global brand that buys beans on the cheap from subsistence-level coffee farmers in Africa and Latin America -- and then charges a premium for "value added" (snob-value added?) lattes and cappuccinos, in throw-away containers with a fancy logo, that everybody wants to be seen drinking from.

I mean hello, people, Java is famous the world over for its coffee! When in Java, drink Java!

"As for handbags, if it were just quality that people were after, they wouldn't give two hoots who else saw the initials. Branded accessories are designed so everyone can see exactly how much you paid for them.

"Besides, how about you? Why don't you have one of those fancy branded bags yourself? You've been using that grotty old hand-woven jute bag since the year dot, and you won't even let me replace it for you. It's so full of holes your keys are going to drop out one of these days!"

My long-winded monologue is going to take her a while to counter, so I wander off in search of a caffeine hit while she gathers her thoughts for another assault. I jump out of my skin, nearly smashing my favorite Bodum coffee plunger; she has stealthily followed me into the kitchen and is waggling her index finger at me, an old habit that triggers my Pavlovian "garrrh" reflex even now.

"I'll have you know I bought that jute bag six years ago, from the artisan's bazaar, so the money went to the person who made it, and not some sticky-fingered middleman. It might look a bit shabby, but those holes are the weave pattern and it still has some good years left in it, just like I do!"

My mother has finally lost it. She is now comparing herself to an old jute bag full of holes? I refrain from following that train of thought through to its logical conclusion, for obvious reasons.

"Here, I bought you one as well. They're useful when you go supermarketing, so you can tell them you don't want those infernal plastic bags," she says.

"Oh, nice! So why didn't you junk yours and buy yourself a new one, too?"

"I gave them all away, this is the last one and it's for you."

"You drew my initials on it?!"

"With permanent marker. You like them?"

"Yes, particularly the wonky twisted ones!"

"I thought you would."

I look at her. I look at the bag. "Don't you start!" she warns, waggling her index finger at me again. "Ha!", I said, "your old bag just gave me a brand new bag!" And we're both hooting with laughter. As I've just shared an inside joke, I might have to pay the price in blood later. Anybody out there Group B+, in case I run short?

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