Of vinegar and value

minus 8.bmp

I got an email from a CBC journalist, Jeff Buttle, asking me to comment on Minus 8 Vinegar. According to Wine Spectator, Minus 8 is a big deal in the culinary world.

What started out as a hobby for two Ontario foodies has become an ingredient much coveted, and consequently, guarded by some of the nation’s preeminent chefs.

Minus 8 vinegar, named for the temperature at which the grapes are picked to produce its base wine, shares company with sweet wine vinegars, though those who use Minus 8 say it has much more depth and complexity than its balsamic and Sherry-based cousins.

The problem with Minus 8 is — although it tastes great — you can’t have any, unless you eat at some of the country’s best restaurants.

Everything about Minus 8 is clandestine. The vinegar is produced in Ontario’s Niagara region (the exact location is a secret) by a couple who wish to remain anonymous (we’ll call them “Rick” and “Karen”).

Jeff asked me to comment on this trend. My reply:

I like the way Minus 8 vinegar creates scarcity. In a market place with national brands and perfect distribution, there is almost nothing we can’t get. (You remember the days when people were flying cases of Coors out of Colorado because it didn’t exist in the rest of the US.) But scarcity creates intrigue, interest, conversation, bargaining, in sum, a kind of specialness.

Or to put this another way, one thing that’s scarce in our marketplace is scarcity itself, and we prize it when it comes our way.

I also like the idea that the vinegar is being made in small batches and slightly mysterious circumstances. This too is something that capitalism doesn’t do particularly well: make mystery.

But this is very much the coming trend. We are no longer quite so interested in perfect transparency. (You may or may not have seen those 1950s documentaries on the production line, proof that capitalism had nothing to hide!) Mystery, too, creates intrigue, interest, conversation and specialness.

In sum, the market doesn’t do scarcity and mystery very much these days but we wish they would. And then along comes a little wine vinegar by “Rick” and “Karen.”

The rise of the national brand has created several kinds of value but, in the process, it destroyed another. It destroyed the particular savoring that came from knowing that this case of beer (or bar of soap or bag of bagels) was spirited across the country, that we were the only locals now to have it, and that when it was gone, it was gone for good. It’s the difference between the small, exquisitely chosen dish and the all-you-can-eat banquet. In one case we treasure, in the other we just eat. (At least, I do. You are probably more like the great food critic of our community, Tyler Cowen.)

I especially like the social effects of this scarcity. People pleaded with a friend going to Colorado, “bring me back a case, please. Listen, I’ll get you tickets to the Mets game!” And now the recipient had a precious resource and a fungible one. With whom was he going to share his precious beer? Which friendship ties would be cemented, which opened up, and which closed down?

Wait a second. Precious beer? This scarcity makes it so. And it encourages acts of exchange that set in motion several kinds of currency (e.g., Met tickets) in the creation and destruction of several kinds of relationship (“Bob’s a fat bastard. He didn’t even give me one of his Coors.”)

Do robust, well integrated, economies tend to eliminate local variation? I am guessing they do. This is strange because our capitalism has specialized in making consumer goods mean more, and more interesting, things. But in this case, the local meaning is taken out. It no longer matters where goods come from. Place of manufacture no longer counts. (I am generalizing here. It is impossible to think about Starbucks, Ikea, or Prada without place creeping in.)

National brands will someday solve this problem. Not because they care about consumers carting things across the country. They will do it to respond to the splintering of consumer taste and the differentiation of consumers themselves. They will begin to build variations into the brand message. Our local Starbucks will have several design signatures: national, regional, city and neighborhood. This is one of the ways Starbucks, for instance, will add value for the consumer and make itself part of the “Experience economy.”

This is also a way to generate buzz marketing. (Buzz is all the buzz in marketing these days. The issue: how to use word of mouth to create demand.) Consumers will engage on this one. Imagine the conversation between two owners of slightly different models of the same Prada hand bag. “So you got yours in Frankfurt? Mine’s from Milan.”

But note in all the ink spilled on buzz marketing, nobody, as far as I know, has thought to recommend variation as the answer here. No, that was the creation of two foodies in Canada. The market to the rescue once more. Thank you “Rick” and “Karen.”

Ok, I have run out of space and time. Tomorrow, I will have a go at the “mystery” aspect of Minus 8.

References

Cowen, Tyler. 1998. In Praise of Commercial Culture. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Cowen, Tyler. 2002. Creative Destruction: How Globalization Is Changing the World’s Cultures. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Fauchald, Nick. 2004. Made Like Ice Wine. Wine Spectator. January 31, 2004.

Pine, Joseph, and James H. Gilmore. 1999. The Experience Economy: Work is theatre and every business is a stage. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

I owe the Prada image to a discussion with Pamela DeCesare of BrandMuse Inc. at the Design Management Institute meetings in Vancouver this spring.

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