SMART COOKIES: A small large coffee please - In Orwell's 1984, war is peace, love is hate. For today's consumer, cheap is deluxe, small is large. Big Brother would have just loved corporate brand speak

SMART COOKIES: A small large coffee please - In Orwell's 1984, war is peace, love is hate. For today's consumer, cheap is deluxe, small is large. Big Brother would have just loved corporate brand speak - What's prompted this topic?

by ANDREW WILEMAN, a strategy and organisation consultant;e-mail: wilemanae@aol.com
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

What's prompted this topic?

I was in a Starbucks in Seattle last week, ordering a double-shot half-full latte (shaken not stirred). The barista asked me which size, so I said 'small'. Blank incomprehension: 'Is that a Tall or a Grande?'

'What's the smallest?'

'Tall.'

'OK, I'll have a Tall.'

Actually, I admit I knew that Tall is Small. My Starbucks habit in the US costs at least dollars 10 a day - you have to give it to those guys, great marketing. But I couldn't resist a little blow for freedom from the corporate brand speak that bombards consumers all day long. Why is Tall small and Grande large? Why no Piccolo? I want a Small Coffee, please!

What's the essence of corporate brand speak?

There's a great scene in the film Spinal Tap in which the lead guitarist, Nigel Tuffnel, is talking about how, when he used to hit the peak on his solos, he'd get pissed off because his amp just wouldn't get any louder; it wouldn't go past level 10 on the volume control. But now he's got an amp that goes to 11!

A lot of corporate brand speak is like that. It's about re-calibrating vocabulary, so 10 equals 11. Or one doesn't exist, and the amp starts at 10 and goes all the way up to 20. Low is high, soft is loud.

Can we have some examples?

This morning I got a piece of direct mail from Mercedes, with the message: 'Do you want Large or Extra-Large?' What was it pushing - the C-Class, the SL-Class, the Super-Exec-Stretch-Limo? Nope. The A-Class, its mini town car.

The main point about the A-Class is that it's a small Mercedes. I don't want an extra-large small Mercedes.

The travel industry is great at starting the amp at 10 and making it go to 20. Amex was a pioneer, with Gold, Silver and then Platinum cards (I've actually forgotten whether Silver is better than Gold or vice versa). Hotel chains start their rooms at Deluxe or Superior and move on up to Super-Luxury-Premium-Concierge, or some such random-generator combination.

I'm a Prestige frequent flyer on Air Canada's Aeroplan programme - sounds good, right? But Prestige is way down the food chain, behind Elite and Super-Elite. (I suspect Prestige flyers actually risk being downgraded from Business to Economy.)

It's not just business that's going down the re-calibration route. Educational qualifications no longer go to A, they go to A-Star - and the amp doesn't start at one, since the only way you can fail is by dying. (I'd better stop ranting on this theme, before my partner Jill tells me once more that I've become too Blimpish to take to a dinner party).

Do consumers and buyers sign up to this brand speak?

Not always, certainly. Frequent travellers treat those travel examples with derision and irritation. Grocery shoppers know that 'value brand' means 'dirt cheap no-brand' (just as they know that 'new improved' ain't necessarily so, and 'pounds 9.99' equals pounds 10).

But much of the time, they do - or they pretend to, as part of a consensual fantasy. Business software is a classic example. Nobody wants to buy V1 or V2 releases - everyone knows V1 means 'lots of bugs, give us six months', and V2 means 'still a few bugs, almost there'. And nobody wants to buy anything past V8, because it's probably outdated and about to be replaced.

So software is launched as V3, and after V8 you get the old stuff re-packaged as a totally new product, or V8.99. (We can test this theory soon with AOL - it's currently on V6.) It may be a bit MAD, but it's a Mutually Agreed Deception.

There's some culture difference here. Europeans, with their hangover of the class system and knowing-your-place, probably don't mind so much being told they're travelling cheap on wooden seats in third-class. In classless America, everybody demands respect as a consumer - CostCo coupon-clippers as well as Upper East Side executives. Oprah's audience all want to fly Prestige, stay Deluxe and pay with a Gold Card.

So are you going to be a lone fighter for freedom against brand speak?

I'm working on it. I want small coffees, standard rooms and economy airline seats. My own guitar amp (quite a nice little retro transistor number) goes from one to 10.

But there are limits. Whatever the virtues of honest advertising, I'm not going to be asking at the drugstore for Small Size condoms. No, it's Extra-Large for me, thank you.

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