I was wondering recently how a trendy restaurant came up with a popular, new lobster nachos dish. Someone I know was talking about it. No, they were raving about it. Unreal, they said. Lobster and nachos. Together at last?
Then, reading the Globe and Mail (online of course), I came across an article on “hot wine brands” and the $8 sensation, Fuzion brand – a bottom-dollar, zero-margin Argentine red. How, I wondered, did it become a hit? And which came first, the wine or the appetite for it? In other words, were consumers screaming for a horribly cheap wine, or were we drawn to it out of some sort of perverted lust?
Does anyone think it’s weird that we not only consume, but make lobster nachos in the first place? Or that in a world with hundreds of thousands of wines priced $10 and up, that it would be a bottom-line $8 Argentinian product that wine lovers would flock to? How does this happen?
The conversation that happens between consumers and the products they buy is self-perpetuating. Something is made available to me; me being a member of my community too engaged in making money and living my life to think past what my friends are doing or what is advertised on TV; and because of the nature of our society, I feel obliged to consume it. Sometimes products are bred out of innovation or value, but increasingly I am being preyed upon thanks to my predictable demographic consumptive patterns. This cycle and it’s climax are all too familiar these days, beginning with a market-focused, consumer-driven product meant to grow profits and a raving public victimized by unadulterated social engineering.
In the restaurant example, we have a luxury item – lobster – being sold in an innovative way. As nachos. Sure, I’d try it. I love lobster and I love nachos. (See, I’m easy prey.) But truly, who is thinking outside the box here? What relevance does this new product have, is it tapping into or contributing to our culture and will it still exist in a few years? I guess this can be boiled down to one question: what is the purpose of this dish?
My thought is that no one is thinking outside the box. The restaurant, appearing innovative, is only concerned with making money. Ultimately that is the case. The consumer is interested in eating what he thinks is popular. We don’t need lobster in our nachos. But we want it, because we’ve become trained to find pleasure in extraordinary things.
And so, the restaurant begins by scheming ingredients that are sure to draw customers and start a conversation amongst the populous. Perhaps it goes something like this:
How can we make money? By drawing a large customer base. How can we draw customers? By offering unique food that is exotic and decadent. What are people spending money on right now? Well, it would seem that truffles, sablefish, seared ahi tuna, yam fries and lobster are in vogue. Sure, but how can we do them different – because they can go anywhere and get truffle in their wild mushroom soup, or seared ahi tuna on a bed of arugula. How about we put lobster in nachos? Would people go for it? Maybe. And then we can take what is traditionally a $15 dish and make it $25 or even $30 and take a 30% cut on each purchase. And we’ll be the only ones in town doing it.
So after the decision is made, word gets out that this restaurant is serving lobster nachos. It’s a hit. People love nachos and they love lobster, and what’s more, they especially love to tell their friends that they’re trendy and eating something their friends aren’t (yet). But what’s actually being done here? Are we actually learning anything, or is our community becoming a better place because this restaurant has figured out a way to get us to spend money on a plate of nachos adorned with lobster? Is the restaurant or are its consumers contributing to our culture and society? Or are we more interested in making a fast buck and feeling dignified as we bloat our Visa cards? Maybe this trend-based consumptive pattern is an identifier of our culture? Sure hope not.
In the example of the wine, on the opposite end of the pricing spectrum, we have an extremely inexpensive product that consumers have latched on to, because it tastes alright (God forbid even ‘good’) and costs less than a two-zone transit ticket. And it is the new flavour of the month. Being cheap has, for the moment, become trendy. Someone has correctly supposed that a super-cheap and mediocre wine will be a big seller (the profits drawn from which are questionable) and that media attention and exponential sales will ensue. All of a sudden, cheap imported alcohol is dominating our critics’ attention and taking space in our food and wine columns. Heck, even I’m talking about it!
But what are these scenarios doing for the larger cultural conversation? How do our culture, our food and wine industry, and our social prowess benefit from consumers latching on to these trends? Moreover, what cultural responsibility do our marketers and entrepreneurs have in contributing to our society? How do we benefit by being offered and then purchasing cheap wine or expensive nachos, and what does it mean in the long term? What are consumer buying habits transforming into? As I stated before, I think the trend is self-propogating. Businesses are entirely focused on profit and people become susceptible to flavours of the month. It takes a savvy consumer – one who sees through, over or around these schemes to further their own understanding and growth. In my opinion, ultra-cheap wine is not a cultural trend nor even a headline. The decision someone makes to buy this wine has taken place faster than it has taken me to type this sentence. And it will be forgotten even faster. But in the cumulative time it takes for our wine drinking public to experience and then get over this product, we have not grown our culture, its sophistication nor our identity. We are not learning. We are reacting. The need to make the sale is forcing insignificance upon us and as a community we are learning and retaining nothing.
I’ve come to the conclusion that the meaning of life is to make a difference during our time on Earth and to make the world a slightly better place. I suppose the point of this post is to suggest that these transgressions fly in the face of the meaning of life as I see it. Marketing in contemporary North American form is influencing our cultural dynamic in significant ways, and the knee-jerk requirement for quarterly sales growth and hitting targets means that the quality time needed to offer our culture quality product is being stolen in order to sell us things that we’ve become conditioned to desire, but that are entirely irrelevant to the larger cultural conversation. This probably fits into my less-is-more and less-but-better mantra. Our culture’s consumptive practice is suffocating our growth and development.
And that’s all I have to say about that. For now…