Wednesday, 25 July, 2007

Curiously Strong Brand Identity

Posted in Rants & Raves, Tobacco at 1:32 am by glpease

The other day, I was compelled to pick up a couple tins of the Original Celebrated Altoids, the Curiously Strong peppermints that have been an almost constant fixture in my house since I was a lad. I can easily remember the first time I popped three of the little lozenges into my eagerly waiting gob, and thought my head would leave my neck, and rocket into orbit from the rsulting blast of curiously strong peppermint multiplied by three. Lesson learned. Even a single Altoid was intense enough to make the senses take serious notice. Peppermint isn’t a match for capsaicin for a pure incendiary wallop, but it freshens the mouth, settles an upset stomach, and can be pleasantly refreshing. Altoids did their job with aplomb, if not a bomb.

Why the past tense? Some time ago, it now seems, my beloved Altoids were emasculated, and for some reason, I never noticed it until tonight, when my not-quite-five year old brought the tin from the kitchen, and asked, “Daddy, may I have a mint?” I unwrapped the tin, now clad in the cellophane condom that has become almost ubiquitous on any item meant for human consumption, flipped open the lid, and offered them to him. He took one, popped it into his eagerly waiting gob, and delivered nary a wince.

At first, I was impressed with what I thought to be an already well developed poker-face. When he then proffered the tin to me, I, manly man that I am, at least in the little guy’s eyes, took one and prepared for the showdown; I’d beat the tot at his little game of gustatory poker. As the mint began its slow dissolution, I became aware of two things. First, I can sometimes be far to competitive. Sure, it’s not like a chili eating competition with that peculiar woman from India who has pursued a world’s record eating the bio-hazardous Bhut Jolokia, but he’s just a little guy, and engaging in even this harmless “contest” borders on the ludicrous. Okay. Another lesson learned.

But, second, it hit me that Altoids just don’t seem all that Curiously Strong any more. What happened? I read the inner liner, which described in some small detail, the history of Altoids, the original recipe having been developed at the turn of the 19th century by London’s Smith & Co., later becoming part of Callard & Bowser, “a prestigious English confectioner established in 1837.” Interesting to know. Certainly, this prestigious firm was the one that produced the mints that both delighted and tormented me as a child, and through most of my life. Reading on, I learn that Altoids are still made to the “same exacting standards as the original Altoids recipe developed more than 200 years ago.”

The construction of that sentence is informative. Something being made to the same standards is not the same as something being made to the same recipe. Standards establish the formulae, the protocols, the manufacturing methods used, and as long as they are adhered to, exactly, the product will be the same, exactly. And while this sentence clearly labors to lead the consumer to infer that the recipe is the same, it doesn’t quite say that, literally. To my palate, the recipe has, in fact, changed. I took two more mints, making a total of three, the same number that threatened to launch my noggin when I was little, and was repaid with something close to the experience I remember, not all that long ago, from a single lozenge. I can live with that. When I want the genuinely Curiously Strong blast of peppermint, I’ll take three, though I will continue to feel slightly deceived.

After examining the box carefully, I found the once familiar “Made in England” appellation had gone missing. So, these still pleasant mints are different from the old ones in more ways than one. Doing a little fingerwork, I discovered that the brand had been purchased by Wrigley in 2004, and towards the end of 2005, it was announced that they would close the factory in the UK, moving all production to Tennessee. These, then, aren’t my father’s Altoids. What’s next – Marmite made in Minnesota?

Brand identity is an interesting thing. I’ve consumed hundreds of tins of Altoids over the years, and, apparently, have simply missed the fact that, over time, the mints may have changed. The packaging looks pretty much as it always has, and I’ve simply wandered the dark hallways of assumption, not noticing that something may be different, until my attention was called to this fact by the reaction, or lack of reaction, of a not-quite-five year old.

This led me to begin thinking about other products that have endured change through the careful management of brand identity. I’m often asked if I produce any blends similar to the venerable Balkan Sobranie. Today, I ask in response, “What vintage?” It’s not meant to be glib, but is a question informed by something that I’ve become aware of after studying that particular blend for almost a decade.

When, in about 1980, I experienced my first tin of Balkan Sobranie, I began a love affair with it, and with similar Balkan and English mixtures, that was to last through the present, and hopefully, will linger for a few more decades. Everything about it appealed to me, from the timeless label art, to the little paper disk hiding behind the pleated paper insert, to the beautiful presentation of the tobaccos inside. I loved the smell of a freshly opened tin, and the wonderful aroma that wafted from my pipe as I puffed contentedly from first light to dottle. I always had a tin open, and a few more in the cellar for aging. And, that’s where it gets interesting.

When I began G. L. Pease, one of the things I set out to do was to understand the classic blends in a deeper way that I had before. I wanted to learn more about the effects of age, and how memories can influence taste experience. Revisiting some of those old tins of Balkan Sobranie seemed a great place to begin the study. I pulled tins from the cellar from different years, and acquired older ones to fill out the “research.” (Of course, this was just a thinly veiled ploy to smoke a bunch of wonderfully aged vintage tobacco, but humor me, please.) What I discovered was quite interesting; over the years, the blend had undergone quite a few changes – some subtle, others, not so much. And, if I noticed any of the changes, I didn’t take notice of them.

The most obvious difference was the cut of the leaf. I found everything from a fine ribbon in later tins, to a fairly chunky cut in earlier ones. But, there were other, qualitative difference through the years, as well. Of course, the pre- ca. 1960 blend relied on Syrian Latakia, while that which was made later was formulated with its Cyprian cousin. And, at some point, the Yenidje that was so distinctive in the earlier tins was replaced by some other, more generic oriental leaf. The virginias, too, seemed different when I examined and tasted the blends critically, doing my best to subtract the effects of time. Not big changes, but noticeable ones, especially when looking backwards.

How could I have not noticed these differences during all those years of enjoying this classic? The answer must lie in the management of the brand identity. The tins looked the same, so, as with Altoids, I assumed the contents were constant. Changes were made gradually, so as not to call attention to them, and this, coupled with a consistency of presentation and my subconscious, brand managed illusion that the status quo would always be preserved, led me toward the bliss of relative subjective ignorance.

Now that I’m much more objective in my exploration of tobacco blends, these things would probably not escape my attention, but, that’s what I do for a living. I wonder how many other products have changed over the years without my awareness – or permission.

The tired old adage is true; you really can’t judge a book by its cover.

-glp

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15 Comments »

  1. Talonr1701 said,

    It’s a shame that these changes take place. So often in the name of cost efficency- a Brand or product gets lead into disgrace. It’s done so gradually, one never notices until you get a then and now comparison.

    I love Altoids too….Listerine mit strips are stronger than Altoids now….:P

  2. glpease said,

    I’m not sure we can assume this to be a case of cost-cutting. It’s possible that a survey of customers reflected that the old recipe was too strong for the North American market. I did write to the company, and received a lovely note back from someone saying that the QA department would look into it.

    Don’t get me wrong – I still enjoy Altoids. I just enjoyed them a little more when they were could be used to power solid-fuel rockets.

    -glp

  3. a11en said,

    I also agree, Greg, there’s a huge amount of attention paid to marketplace, I suspect. A simple example- I recently took a trip to Canada (east-coast), and along the way I enjoyed eating at “The Swiss Chalet”. A fantastic rotisserie chicken restaurant with fresh-cut french-fries and a dipping sauce for the chicken which must incorporate some measure of Cocaine based on my addiction. We didn’t go back across the border on the way home to partake a 4th time in the restaurant, but had some of it near the Buffalo area in the states. Things seemed normal, up until the dipping sauce arrived. First dip, I didn’t notice much. Second dip, I cocked my head to the side confusedly and asked the waitress if this was the “new” or the “old” sauce (they had toyed with a second sauce at one point in time)…

    Lo and behold, she said: “that’s the Swiss Chalet sauce”… I took another dip, and screwed up my pucker with the intensity and saltiness of the sauce and shook my head at it. “NO, this is not the same sauce.” I never got an answer to my question, but I’m now convinced they changed the sauce into something more akin to a BBQ sauce for the US market. What a horrible horrible change it was. If you had added about 2x the water to the dipping sauce, it would have been the same (I think)… but the lack of dilution made it extremely intense, and very difficult to enjoy. I now wonder if this is the very reason that the Swiss Chalet fails to be in most cities in the US. They screwed with a near perfect thing, in the name of making it appeal, and they lost a potential market, I feel.

    Much the same thing happens to Americanized Chinese food… eating the real thing has always been a taste-treat to my senses. Eating the americanized version has been nice, but just not the same at all. “American’s don’t like spicy food.” was the retort some gave me… so I now insist on “Thai Hot please, and I mean it.” and the like in all asian food restaurants.

    It’s a shame that the marketers do the hard worked for recipes a disservice in these ways.

    Appreciated the post, man!
    -Allen

  4. glpease said,

    A-eleven-man, you have to watch out around here if you order food “Thai spicy.” A friend and I eat once a month or so in a Thai place in Benecia. They know us as the “Crazy white guys,” as we always are on about spicy food. One day, Richard shot his mouth off about things never being spicy enough, and the result was a dish with enough heat to make Chernobyl look like a giant ice block. We literally could not eat the stuff. He said he’d take it home, and have it for breakfast with eggs. He binned it.

    There’s a place in Albany that serves a “1000 chili soup.” It comes to table in a clay pot, and the top inch, literally, is a teeming mass of red chilis. They scoop them off before serving the soup. Surprisingly, the heat is not overbearing, but the FLAVOR is unbelievable! Amazing stuff.

    Of course, theres’s a flip side to this branding thing. Sometimes, a manufacturer will change a label, and all hell breaks loose. Customers assume the contents have changed, not just the package, and will go on about how they liked the “old version” better than the new. Perception is at least some high percentage of reality. 😉

    -glp

  5. Neill said,

    This is a terrific post, Greg, and it underscores several truths brand and marketplace. The first is that products are not acquired; brands are acquired. A product’s value is infinitesimally tiny compared to brand value. Yet when the product – let’s take Altoids – fail to deliver on the brand promise (curiously strong mints), the brand value is eroded, and may easily be destroyed.
    In my work (branding), I see this happen all the time. Ford bought Range Rover and Jaguar and thought somehow that consumers wouldn’t notice. Now, who really wants to pay Range Rover prices for a Ford product? Consumers aren’t stupid, but companies who merchandise and sell persist in believing that they are. What it comes down to is that there are great ways to build on great brands and make them even better, and there are many more ways to gut the essence of a brand and destroy its value equities.
    As you so expertly pointed out, all products change and morph, even when people work very hard for consistency. What matters is not so much a commitment to exactitude or precision in replicating products, but rather diligence and discipline in striving to deliver on brand essence and the brand promise.
    What’s really disturbing is that very many companies have never actually figured out what their brand promise (or their brand essence) actually is. What these people have a commitment to is not so much consistent delivery of value as consistent delivery of profit. The business model eclipses the value proposition.
    This is why – so very often – I experience junkyards as cemetaries for promises as opposed to repositiories of refuse. People will always discard that which fails to comfort, enthrall, surprise, amuse, or delight them. This is as true of Mercedes as it is of mints.

  6. Hunter said,

    Ok, while it may be true that they have lost their strength, I just discovered, during my weekly jaunt to Costco, that they now make a version of them that are covered in dark chocolate. May not be a fair trade, but these things are curiously addictive.

  7. Hunter said,

    So I was lounging about on the couch last evening, watching “Hero”, when I decided I wanted an altoids. So I grabbed a tin, and popped a couple in my mouth. And you know what? You’re right, they aren’t “curiously strong” anymore. In fact, they’re downright weak. I hadn’t really noticed it before.

  8. a11en said,

    A small update for ya- I found out that the Walgreens brand mints in the little metal tin are actually quite strong!! Much stronger than Altoids. Now, three of those might hurt… they’re a bit smaller, so you might have to pop 4 or 5 for the equivalent in mass, but they pack a bigger punch than Altoids.

    I hear ya about the heat-thing, Greg. I have been hurt before in the past, but it’s getting fewer and far between these days… I’m positive you could do it to me, though, with your expertise in peppers. 😉 I’d love to have a dish that was almost too hot to eat, but just not too much. 🙂 Almost too much… that’s perfect. 🙂

    hahaha

    Yeah, the asian fellows and gals look at me funny when I say: Spicy, Thai Hot!… they say: “Well, we make Thai Hot very hot.” and I say: “Good, bring it to me!” 🙂 hahaha

    Funny thing- my GF wasn’t really big into spicy food at all, until I started her in on the mild/medium (now she’s up to medium- quite tame). Now her line is: “Some things just need a little heat!” 🙂 She used to only like Chinese/Thai like that, but now is learning that Salsa is also good with some serious Jalepenio in it (although I usually prefer habeniero) – sorry for the sp.

    Hope you’re doing well, man! Sorry it’s been a while since I e-mailed ya!
    -Allen

  9. I find it sad, and disheartening at times. Being young, I hear so often that I will never know how some product tasted, or I will never get to experience the quality of yesteryear.

    Take for example what happened to Dunhill tinned tobacco. I constantly hear from former die hard fans, that I will never get to experience what they truly tasted like, since I didn’t come to smoking any, until after Orlik took over.

    There are so few original things left in this world. So few surprises. Everything is so mass produced, and owned by everyone else.

    I love high-end audio. I recently decided to purchase a new center channel, and went with Jamo, as I remember their reputation, and the sound that came from those beautiful Danish cabinets. I was not only shocked at the lack of clarity, how much the company itself had changed. Since I had listened to them last, they had been bought out by Klipsch.

    Don’t get me wrong, I am a huge Klipsch fan, so I am surprised that the Jamo brand suffers so much, from what I consider inferior sound for the money, but also that like everything, so much has changed. How can a Danish company continue to make Danish products, with Danish sound, when owned by a completely different brand?

    I instead, just returned the first speaker, and instead purchased a Klipsch reference series. I figured if I was going to pay that much, I might as well just get the real thing, as the Jamo brand is no longer what it used to be.

    I find the G.L. Pease brand to be refreshing, as it embodies that same original spirit that help to create brand icons such as Dunhill. I hope that it stays close to it’s roots, and never becomes another mass marketed consumable, a rapidly faded memory of what life used to be like.

    Thank’s Greg, for always giving a chance to think a little deeper about my world, and always being a representation of that voice inside my head.

    JPease

  10. Bill Wagner said,

    Yep.

    “They” did the same thing to Ocean Spray. When it first came out, it was incredible. Almost too tart but not quite. Tangy, lively stuff that really tasted like cranberry juice. Then the marketing guys told them if they’d water it down and sweeten it so it’d taste more like kool aide, they’d sell more. So they did.

    Yuck.

  11. Simon Bray-Stacey said,

    As a fellow lover of the strong mint, I can identify with your disappointment. However, I might have a solution:

    http://www.fishermansfriendusa.com/

    Give them a go Greg, I’m a big fan. Lofthouse is still a family company and so quality should remain high. Plus these little lozenges – produced since the mid-nineteenth century – weren’t available outside their home town until the late 20th century, so they haven’t made it to commodity status yet (I don’t think!).

    Regards,
    Simon.

  12. Balkan Sobranie!
    Ah, it brings back such wonderful memories. I tried to get some when I was in London last and none was to be had. I have been wondering if it is gone for good.
    I see it here and there – some “aged” for horrific amounts. However, it was a beautiful blend that I discovered through my uncle and it always bring back pleasant memories.

  13. folloder said,

    Start blogging again, dammit…

    You’ve been tagged…
    http://folloder.wordpress.com/2008/06/14/memeattack/

  14. glpease said,

    Yeah, um, well…

    I’ve been spending most of my output time on the Briar & Leaf Chronicles. I suppose it wouldn’t hurt me to figure out something worth writing about here, as well… 😉

    -glp

  15. Will Wright said,

    I tend to fall on the side of the argument which holds that attempting to appeal to a wider audience is likely to tone down a rich product. In the case of brands that have gained considerable recognition by offering unique gustatory delights, one after another seems to have had it’s magic removed when the recipe was changed out of a desire to increase market share. Altoids are a good example. Another is the black Licorice Vines made by the American Licorice Company. This is the same company that makes the ever-popular Red Vines. As I was growing up, I used to spend just about all of the money I could earn comic books and licorice. I would buy licorice almost every day, but I rarely had a sizable stockpile because I had such a ravenous appetite for the stuff. I continued in this manner far past childhood. As a teenager, I was still buying licorice whenever I could. Then, sometime in the mid-nineties, the recipe of Licorice Vines was radically altered. The change was not subtle. Furthermore, I had plenty of evidence that this was not just a matter of perception. I was buying licorice so often that I worked my way right through the phase when some of the licorice on the shelves was still good, but the new stuff was becoming more and more commonplace. I could compare the two side-by-side, both because the old stuff could still occasionally be found, and also because I had plenty of it stashed away. One was delicious and melted in the mouth. The other had a more mild taste and a plasticine texture, somewhat like Twizzlers. This change was a major shock to my system, and it left me with a sense of betrayal that I’ll never forget. Overnight, my favorite candy had become nearly unpalatable to me.

    I must say that I was very happy to see how you conducted yourself when your precious Syrian latakia burned up. You could have followed the example of Balkan Sobranie by simply substituting ingredients in blends with a large following. Such a betrayal would have been pretty obvious in the case of Bohemian Scandal, but you might have pulled it off with a couple of the others. I think your decision to cease production may have helped to cement your reputation as a true master of your craft. From my perspective, you come across not as a businessman trying to boost the popularity of the names of your various blends, but as an artisan in the business of crafting and selling specific recipes. The names of your blends seem to be inextricably linked to precise recipes, and if the ingredients were to radically shift, you would no longer be able to sell them under the same names. Of course, many of your blends are not exactly the same today as they were when you first produced them. There is less dust at the bottom of your tins today than there was when you first began producing them. Even some recent blends, like Fillmore and Embarcadero, are presented differently today than they were at their inception. But I see all of these changes as having been done in the service of the original recipes, rather than in any effort to change them. The presentation is enhanced, for example, without the contents or proportions being changed, and I imagine that you are just striving to get the final product closer to your original intention.

    Pardon me for blabbering on and on in your praise. I’m sure you get enough of that already. What is most interesting to me about your post is its emphasis on the effects of perception, assumptions, consciousness, etc., upon your experience. I am not currently qualified to offer you as much help in such musings as I would like. But once I have gotten out of grad school and done a fair amount of research, I hope to zero in on some insights that are at least peripherally related. Taste and smell are very physical sensations, and I would like to work on disentangling the mystery that lies between conscious awareness and the physical body. Over fifty years ago, Moshe Feldenkrais made some admirable efforts in that direction, but in all the time that has passed since then (and despite our maturing understanding), very few have travelled farther down that path than he did. We live in a world so full of industrial products designed without heed to the biomechanics of the human body that we are nearly forced to become decreasingly aware of physical sensations in order to retain the illusion that we are comfortable. Perhaps this same numbness has something to do with our tendency to completely miss the dilution of Altoids as it is occurring.

    Or, perhaps we just like to take some pride in the idea that we’ve gotten tougher. I know my ego tends to be boosted by the occasional mild pepper in a batch of hotter ones.

    By the way, I thought the Dorset Naga was the hottest pepper on the planet. Is this “ghost pepper” truly even hotter!?


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