In a previous post (“Give a Man a Fish…”) I concluded with a promise to do a post in the spirit of James Burke’s great Connections television series, in which he showed the little-known historical connections among various scientific and technological advances. Fans of our sister blog, Brighter Products, are aware that I’ve done a few like this already (see, for example, “Where Is Blake Edwards Now That We Really Need Him?”), but this time I’m going to see if I can top myself, and do James Burke proud.
Starting with Yuengling beer. This has come on to our radar for several reasons. For one thing, we had mentioned it in the Brighter Products post “…Not Only Queerer Than We Suppose, But Queerer Than We Can Suppose.”. For another, Athol noticed that Dan Daub, Mayor of Tower City, PA, wore a cowboy hat crafted from a box of his hometown beer, Yuengling, at the Republican National Convention.
Apparently, Athol spotted this in the context of his interest in hard-to-pronounce (or spell) Chinese names. I have the advantage of being a Pennsylvania native, and knew at least the rough outlines of why he was off-base; for more, here’s an excerpt from the Wikipedia Yuengling page:
“Yuengling is pronounced YING-ling, and is an Anglicized version of Jüngling, its founder’s surname and the German term for “young man”. Many Americans who aren’t familiar with the brand often mistake it for a Chinese import because the name Yuengling sounds Chinese when pronounced correctly.”
So—not every Chinese (or even “Chinese”) name is hard to pronounce. In fact, an easy-to-pronounce Chinese name is at the top of my personal list of Reverse and Perverse Winning Names. These are names, often from family names of the founder, that all but scream: “This has to be a good product, because nobody would ever try it based on the brand name.” My favorite? If you ever find yourself in Hawaii, do yourself the favor of trying Yick Lung (yep—pronounced “Yick Lung”) potato chips. Their barbecue chips are the best I’ve ever had.
Other strong contenders include two now-defunct outfits: Crass Soda, and another gem from the Keystone State, Harshbarger’s Dairy. IMO, the slogan “Harshbarger’s—A Lactose-Intolerant’s Worst Nightmare” all but writes itself.
Turns out that Frédéric Fekkai is an immigrant of French-Algerian background, has had a successful salon in New York City, and is now going national with his products.
I stand by my criticism of the brand name, however, and will surprise Athol by deviating from my usual right wing, pro-free-market political stances. I would argue that the all-time greatest naming agency used to be run by the Federal Government. It was called Ellis Island. (Great at slogans, too, but “Giving the hairy and garlicky a fighting chance in the New Jerusalem since 1892” is way too P.I. for today’s mealy-mouthed history books.)
To fully appreciate the value of the services that Ellis Island used to provide, consider the following counterfactual: Frédéric Fekkai moved from France to New York in 1979, and is just now (2012) launching his products nationwide. Had he had to go through Ellis Island, by now every second home in the U.S. would have Figby’s Shampoo in the bathroom, and Figby, Inc. would have bought out rival Garnier Nutrisse. I bring up the latter just to see if anyone agrees with my contention that Garnier Nutrisse is an okay name for a shampoo, but a GREAT name for a really gay secret agent. Think Paul Lynde instead of Sean Connery (younger readers: Carson Kressley instead of Daniel Craig): “Nutrisse…Garnier Nutrisse.”
The Reverse and Perverse category is not original with me; I was introduced to the concept in an article I read some time ago, which cited the example of Hellman’s Mayonnaise, a brand name that left no doubt that, at one point, there really was a Mr. Hellman mixing up batches of this stuff. “Hellman’s” couldn’t possibly have been the output of naming consultants and focus groups—unlike, say, the bland, near-generic Best Foods brand.
The hipper readers are already on to this one: Best Foods and Hellman’s are exactly the same product, with the two brands used in different geographic areas (see their shared Wikipedia page). I happened to be thinking about this as I ran across some actual Hellman’s—not Best Foods—mayo in a recent run to Grocery Outlet.
Grocery Outlet is worthy of a full post on its own. Short version: it’s a Western-states deep-discount grocery chain specializing in bargain-priced overstocks and closeouts. Their opportunistic (their word, not mine) buyers wind up stocking their shelves with products from just about everywhere. On my first visit, I wound up with a bottle of house brand Winn-Dixie salad dressing. The closest Winn-Dixie supermarket is in Louisiana. I still have no idea how that bottle made it to the Bay Area.
But Hellman’s and Winn-Dixie aren’t the prize winner: that honor goes to Authentic Asia™ Tom Yum Soup (mentioned in Brighter Products post “M-m-m-m-m…Meat!”), which, according to the Authentic Asia™ web site, isn’t even sold on this continent…but that didn’t stop the adventurous types at Grocery Outlet.
So it will come as no surprise that Grocery Outlet is the global, cosmopolitan outfit that enabled me to join the august company of Brighter Products’ wine expert, Deep Creek Cellars’ Paul Roberts, in tasting an Argentine Malbec.
Regret to say, I came away rather unimpressed by the 2009 Espiritu de Argentina. On the other hand, we probably should consider that:
1. The wine cost $2.99 a bottle
2. It had a screw-top.
3. I bought it at Grocery Outlet, for Pete’s sake!
Do the kinds of things in the list above affect our judgment of consumer goods such as wine? You betcha, Red Ryder. A number of studies have been done, showing different reactions to exactly the same wine, when presented as priced higher or lower, or as coming from different places (California vs. North Dakota), or simply with a fancy vs. plain label. (The last one was what got me started on this, from a Science Channel program that I saw on cable, but was unable to locate on their web site…Science Channel, please contact SV Marketeerfor web design services.)
In fairness, I decided to push the boat out a bit by springing for a $3.99 bottle of the 2011 Falling Star Malbec. IMO, a slight improvement over the Espiritu de Argentina, but it’s also from Grocery Outlet, and also with a screw top, so my expectations weren’t overwhelming. Would I have liked it more had I purchased it on-line from the Wine Legacy web site, where it enjoys a better review, and goes for $8.50 a bottle? Depends; the findings from the Wired Science study, and the logic of Art Poulos in Brighter Products post “Tetter and Kibes” point in opposite directions.
So…if you’re in the wine business, you need to pay attention to marketing and packaging, as well as the quality of what goes into the bottles. You know who else knows this? The Chinese! I recently participated in a Mechanical Turk study that asked my opinion of various candidate labels for Chinese wine. Fortunately, no one had the bad taste to suggest “The East Is Red”.
And…those of you who have been paying careful attention will note that we started with Chinese/”Chinese” names for adult beverages…and are winding up on the same!
Over to you, Mr. Burke.