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The American Caliban

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The promised discourse [Jan. 30th, 2003|04:22 pm]
The American Caliban
[Current Mood |cheesy]

There's an idea of business that I'll call the Romantic Ideal; it's what we Americans are taught in school. Someone has an idea for a new or improved product or service, a "better mouse trap" as we call it in slang. Our hero scares up some money, builds a small business, and through hard work and attention to quality the business grows. Eventually, if the price is right and the quality is good, everyone prospers, the company goes public, and we all benefit.

This has indeed happened many times. However, the current pattern is different. Our hero is now a marketing professional, a "brand manager". Brought in at the above company 20 years later, he sees that they have become known for their quality product, and that people in many places trust their name. He then proceeds to apply something called "Brand Extension" in which the famous name is attached to hundreds of other items, licensed to other people, and in general spread around as liberally as possible.

This allows our new hero to charge a marginally higher amount for all of these items, because the good name of the original company justifies it. However, there is nothing necessarily good about the stuff they're now selling. In fact, the cheaper the better, to maximize this new margin.

The result is that the world is loaded up with crap with a good brand name on it. To give a good example: The Land Rover Defender was the vehicle of choice if you needed to drive the length of Africa. Twice. Backwards. It was amazingly tough and resilient. Pricy to be sure, but this little truck over the last few decades became a synonym for "off road vehicle for remote nasty environments".

The next one will be a rebranded Ford Explorer. This is a car that is fun and ok to go to the market in, if you don't mind several safety recalls per model year and tacky, downmarket switchgear, and a crap suspension. It's a box for consumers. But all you have to do is pin that Land Rover badge on it and PROFITS! occur.

I submit that this is bad for business and bad for our culture. Not only will the pyramid collapse at some point (hopefully imprisoning the marketers), but a lot of our ideas about "quality" are tied up in commercial brands, and having them all despoiled for a few bucks can't be good.

In any case it pisses me off.

List of examples:
  • Steinway pianos
  • Fender guitars
  • Mercedes-Benz cars
  • Gucci
  • Van De Kamp's Bakery (here in CA)
  • Every chain restaurant, ever
  • The Kennedy Family

[User Picture]From: frobisher
2003-01-30 10:23 pm (UTC)
I actually find the fact that Guild is now made by Fender to be somewhat more worrying, since Fender makes really crappy acoustics.

But the guitar thing has been a crapshoot for at least 20 years. I got my Telecaster in '83. People poo-pooh'd me for not trying to get a Pre-CBS Fender. You know what? It's a really good guitar. I tried a bunch and found one I liked. Mind you, this is ages before they started having the low end ones made in Japan and (IMO of worse quality, overall) Mexico.

You can still get a good fender, but you have to look for it. And I get the impression that going for the "main line" version rather than the "brand extension" version isn't as much help as one would hope. I know a lot of people who prefer (and get a much better deal) by getting a japanese model that feels good and just replacing some of the hardware and pickups.

And, frankly, the Kennedy name has pretty much always been kind of inflated beyond its actual quality.

Hm. when's the next guitar show...
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[User Picture]From: citizenx
2003-01-31 06:54 am (UTC)

Hear, hear (or here, here.. whatever)

Now, there are things I like about Fender. Primarily, the guitars are made for customization, and that is damn' cool if you're into that (which I plan to be one day). I don't like how guitar stores have almost become Strat-and-Tele stores, however. There's something about that level of popularity I associate with wrongness; maybe there's a poseur indie bastard in my trying to get out.

I'd link you tp my most commonly used example to show what the hell is wrong with Fender today, but their website is a pile of crap. Instead, I'll tell you: the d00d from Blink 182 has his own custom Strat. Yes, Fender stamped their name on it to get money from all the neo-skate-punk craptastic kids.

Some might argue that this is just a way to speak to the kids who like Blink 182 and are desperately seeking a way to get into playing music and bringing their message to the world. I've got this to say to you: Ascribing any minute level of caring in that respect to almost any corporation is beyond me at this point. I'm either too old or too young or too hateful or too elitist or too cynical or too something, but I am it. They want the money, and making a copy of the crappy guitar some crappy player uses is a good way to do it. And even if it were true, Blink 182's message is, well, they're too vapid to have any discernable message, and if you're going to be inspired to be a "musician" from them, think about it first. There are far too many kids out there who think they want to play guitar until the first month/week/day/hour of practice goes by and they chuck it.

I really don't know if more people go through this with piano or guitar, but I'm willing to bet those are the two highest turnover instruments simply because of the visibility. The worst part of it is that they're all getting Fender Squiers or Gibson Juniors and so nothing worth looking at ever crops up in the used section at the stores. (There are exceptions, of course, but I'm guessing it's not some titchy kid who got rid of my Rickenbacker 330.)

Back to substitute's point, this is terribly detrimental to our culture, but probably not as bad for business as we would hope. The thing is, well, our culture is some sort of pocket of difference we share with okay individuals in the greater whole that is America. You'll agree with me that we're separate from these folks, right? And while we think it's bad for business, it's thanks to the others that it really isn't that bad for the businesses. The crux of the matter is this: they do it because they can. Sadly enough, the market is there now.

On the vehicle front, don't get me started on the Hummer thing. And I don't think I know what's going on with Gucci, but there's good ol' Armani Exchange.
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[User Picture]From: frobisher
2003-01-31 12:33 pm (UTC)

Re: Hear, hear (or here, here.. whatever)

The worst part of it is that they're all getting Fender Squiers or Gibson Juniors and so nothing worth looking at ever crops up in the used section at the stores. (There are exceptions, of course, but I'm guessing it's not some titchy kid who got rid of my Rickenbacker 330.)

Who the hell are you to deserve a 330 when I don't have one??? :-)

This is a good point, though. Buying a second hand guitar at an actual shop is becoming impossible, because the shops all put ridiculous prices on them. Fortunately, here in nyc, there's a second hand show at a church twice a year. A lot of the "good" stuff is still fairly pricey, but you can find some deals, and there are some el weirdo guitars that are cheap, but still quite good players - and have the advantage that people look at them and go "what the hell is THAT??". I've built up a small collection of those. :-)
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[User Picture]From: flipzagging
2003-01-31 04:44 am (UTC)
Nothing new here. Pilgrims in the Middle Ages bought Holy Land tchotchkes for the folks back home, didn't they? So authentic.

Come to think of it, the Catholic Church is the ultimate in brand extension. They have a good logo, I hear.
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From: uninvention
2003-01-31 05:27 am (UTC)
you prophesize that "the pyramid [will] collapse at some point." you neglect the fact that people are stupid.

not to imply that i'm not part of or trying to be part of The Herd.
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[User Picture]From: halfjack
2003-01-31 10:20 am (UTC)

Re: p.s.

I applaud any and all such snootiness! It's worth mentioning that while the supermarket is indeed awhirl with Instant Crapulux, we also have Mad About Food down the street which is basically the exact opposite! Yay! So while there's not enough demand for great food to see it in 100 convenience stores, at least where we live there is that one oasis down the road.

Let's keep them in business by buying more parmesan crackers and ginger cordial! Mmmm, and thos assorted olives. Holy moly I'm hungry now.
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[User Picture]From: halfjack
2003-01-31 10:42 am (UTC)


I don't think preferring quality makes one snooty at all. But I do think that some people secretly know that they have "settled" for a sub-standard life and that might make them feel defensive.
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[User Picture]From: flipzagging
2003-01-31 12:21 pm (UTC)


You hit the nail on the head there, sir. Once you start shelling out $$$ for 'convenience' foods, you have an incentive to believe you don't have time for cooking. And that such foods really are convenient and worthwhile. Counterexamples are threatening.
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[User Picture]From: frobisher
2003-01-31 12:28 pm (UTC)

Re: p.s.

"Snooty" is often just a term used by people with no standards for people with standards.

You have my, admittedly snooty, permission to ignore them. :-)
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