Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Type Brands

Next to my computer sits a bottle of champagne. The real stuff: Champagne S. Coquillette à Chouilly, from grower Stephane Coquillette in the Marne. It’s not a brand you’ll find stateside. It came as a house gift from Philippe and Christiane Holtzweiler of Freiburg, Germany, when Philippe visited us this past spring.

This is different way to look at brand types – as opposed, say, to manufacturer brands and own-label brands. Think of a type brand as a product descriptor that has become so familiar that it lives and breathes on its own. The European Union strongly believes “Champagne” is a geographic indicator that should be used only for wines made in the region of that name. The same is true of names like “Sherry” and “Port.” (“Escalator” is the reverse – an actual brand name that became a generic term. “Band-Aid” narrowly escaped this fate.)

The US believes champagne, sherry, and port are “semi-generics.” It’s important to the concept of type brand, because it’s taken the EU and the US more than 20 years to approve a wine-trade agreement. (This is reported in last Thursday’s Wall Street Journal, page A18, reported by Sarah Nassauer.)

Technical details aside, some European winemakers accuse various US sparkling-wine makers of purposely misleading consumers. That is, American wineries put “Champagne” on their labels when the wines are actually made in California or Texas or Washington State. Real champagne should come from…Champagne.

It’s pretty serious stuff. According to Ms. Nassauer, 43% of Europe’s wine exports came to the US last year. That’s a lot of money. Think about it another way. Would the Disney Company willing have used DisneyTerre instead of “Disneyland Paris?”

Most US brand names and descriptors never leave the country. The American consumer and industrial markets are so hugeous, there’s often no need to consider the impact and meaning of terms in other parts of the world. But what happens when type brands are involved? Doesn’t the term “Washington State Apples” have a brand value when the fruit is exported to Japan? What happens when Japanese apple-growers (orchardists?) use such a term to describe their apples, in order to capture that indication-of-origin caché? Would you buy “Swiss-like Chocolate?” How much “Italian sausage” do you buy that’s actually made in Italy? When you purchase “Virginia ham,” is it really from Virginia? How about “Canadian bacon?”

Many of these terms entered American usage years, even centuries ago. My Oxford English Dictionary credits Champagne as “the name of a province in Eastern France” and notes its first use with a capital “C” in 1664. Encarta notes that the “process of making sparkling wine has been copied by wine-makers in many other parts of the world. These producers may put the words méthode traditionnelle on bottles to indicate that the champagne method has been used, but they may not use the words champagne or méthode champenoise.” (I’m using Champagne as an example – not a political exercise.)

When you go to the liquor store to pick up a little something for your anniversary, do you ask for “sparkling wine” or “champagne?” I thought so.

Producers and manufacturers have a right to protect their brands and descriptors, especially when such descriptors gain wide acceptance. Overcoming consumer habit, on the other hand, may make a brand program much more expensive and time-consuming. Ask Coca-Cola.

This seemingly obscure US-EU settlement has some impact on the branding work I do. I’ll consider it further as Barbara and I are drinking the 1998 Champagne S. Coquillette à Chouilly. Cheers!

No comments: