As the title of this enterprise suggests, I like nice things. While financial necessity sometimes (often!) intervenes, I appreciate luxury, from scent to food to drink to clothes and shoes. However, a conversation with my stepfather recentlt raised an interesting philosophical question: can the power of a brand overcome the shortcomings of a product itself? The subject which sparked this off was the automotive industry. Can a good product by an everyday manufacturer (in this case the Ford Mondeo Vignale) beat a so-so product by a prestige manufacturer (the now-late Jaguar X Type was the example we chose)?
It is a question which is relevant in these times when the middle classes laud bargain outlets like Aldi and Lidl, even for luxury items such as champagne and smoked salmon. Are consumers willing to pay a premium for the brand, or is the canny shopper to be found in these cut-price retailers?
To some extent, the latter must surely be the case. Last year, The Daily Telegraph reported that a Which? blind tasting had rated Aldi’s champagne (a tenner a bottle) more highly than Laurent-Perrier and Moët & Chandon. You would be a fool, a snob, or a very expert connoisseur to choose the big names and their attendant big prices. I will leave the reader to decide into which category he or she falls.
A word at this point on champagne. I am as much of a fan of a good dollop of fizz as the next man, but it can be hideously overpriced. Cava and, more recently, prosecco have, of course, made real inroads into champagne sales, and the market for English sparkling wine, such as the excellent Nyetimber, is booming. However, sometimes only the genuine article will do. Forget Moët & Chandon: it is overpriced and unremarkable. If you do drink it, please at least remember that the ‘t’ in Moët is hard and should be voiced. I’m not a huge fan of Bollinger, either, despite its legendary status (thanks in no small part to the appalling Absolutely Fabulous). Taittinger I do like, but it’s more than £30 for even the standard non-vintage, which is a lot to pay for a famous name. If you are willing to make the financial outlay, Billecart-Salmon is excellent, and the rosé is particularly good (a friend of mine bought a bottle on the day I had my viva, and it was a lovely treat: of course, the PhD remains unfinished… but this is The Year).
Champagne is probably the most obvious product for which people are still willing to pay for the brand name. Yet there are areas in which there exists no discount option for even the savviest bargain-hunter. A good example is aftershave (and, I daresay, perfume too). I favour Acqua di Parma, though I also occasionally wear Creed’s Green Irish Tweed, which was used by Cary Grant, apparently. But they’re expensive. A good deal can be had when travelling by buying at duty-free, but there is no Aldi equivalent for scent. If you want a particular product, you have to pay.
Falling somewhere between the two, for me, are watches. Clearly, one can have a timepiece for very little money, one which will accurately and reliably tell you the time without offending aesthetic sensibilities. So the bargain marklet exists. But I am, I suppose, a bit snobbish about watches. I’m sure there are many people for whom they are purely functional items, to allow them to track the passage of the sun across the sky, but for me they are about display too. Therefore brands matter. When that EuroMillions win comes, for surely it will, I will be off to my local horological dealer to buy a collection: a Cartier Tank, for sure, and a Dunhill facet; probably a TAG Heuer Monaco, and maybe a Rolex Oyster Perpetual. For the moment, until Croesus-like wealth falls into my lap, I have an Omega Seamaster which was bought for me many years ago, when Pierce Brosnan was re-popularising the brand in his Bondian pomp, and a relatively modest Rotary, which is smart and unfussy.
Back to cars (a field on which I can hold forth at enormous length). There is little doubt that the Vignale range of Fords is very good. Personally, I think Ford are going great guns at the moment, and have a well-designed set of models, from the Fiesta to the Edge. The Focus RS is a ridiculously fast car and really recalls the hot hatches of the late 1980s. However, there will always be people who will not be comfortable saying they drive a Ford, and will pay more money for a perhaps-less-capable Mercedes or Audi. It is a strange marker of accomplishment, the brand of car you drive (if any), and I think it is probably a male trait. It always makes me think of Seventies swingers throwing their car keys into a bowl. I’m not immune to the arms race myself; I would very much like a Maserati Quattroporte, partly because it’s a lovely car, but partly so I could say to people, “I’m sorry I’m late, I was just parking THE MASERATI”. (Not an excuse to use at the synagogue on a Saturday, by the way. Awkward.)