Brand expectations

MY daughter and her family are coming from California to spend Christmas with us. It will be the first time the children will experience an English Christmas. It will be very different from the celebrations they are used to, although my daughter does her best to maintain some of the traditions she grew up with.

It’s not just Frosty The Snowman broadcast ad nauseam on car radios and throughout the shopping malls, the “Happy holiday” cards, the lack of Christmas pudding and the warm weather (actually, it can be quite cold in northern California) – when we are there we miss the sound of church bells, candle-lit carol services and the familiar Boxing Day walks and cold turkey sandwiches.

They don’t have Boxing Day. They have the day after Christmas when everyone rushes to take down the lights and pack away the (artificial) tree, and the day that the sales start, with people queueing all night for super-discounted bargains. (Mind you, what used to be called the New Year sales start here on Boxing Day nowadays, so we can’t really complain.)

The most depressing spectacle is the “Christmas present returns” counters, set up in the entrance to the big stores for the hundreds of people who will come in to swop their unwanted festive gifts – a terrible indictment of the grotesque commercialism of Christmas.

Give me a bracing walk round Stourhead or the Boxing Day races at Wincanton!

But this year we have to say farewell to one little Christmas ritual – hanging bags of golden foil-wrapped Cadburys chocolate coins on the tree for the children to find and unwrap with sticky chocolatey fingers.

According to a Cadbury spokesman, shoppers have switched to cheaper own-brand versions for low cost stores. Wrapping the gold foil around the round discs of chocolate was “fiddly,” said a spokesman, and it was difficult to sell the popular stocking fillers without “Cadbury purple” to distinguish it from the other chocolate coins on the market.

Truth will out – it’s all about the brand.

It seems a rather sorry comment on the way marketing has come to dominate the retail scene to suggest that people would buy gold-wrapped chocolate coins because of a bit of purple on the label rather than the taste of the chocolate.

Cadbury’s may not tick all the boxes for fair trade and high quality ingredients that we expect from the more expensive specialist chocolate makers, but it is still a moreish sweet that we all know and love. You buy the taste and the texture not the “brand.”

Of course this is just one small example of the egregious rise of branding – perhaps the most notorious was the renaming of the Post Office as “Consignia”. This was a hugely expensive public relations disaster as the Communication Workers Union boycotted the name and the public hated it. Consignia meant nothing, despite the pompous protestations of the chief executive that it conveyed the full scope of what the Post Office does, “in a way that the words ‘post’ and ‘office’ cannot.”

The ridiculous name made a once-great public service into a laughing stock, and 16 months later Consignia was consigned to the history books, with Royal Mail bosses hoping the £2m rebranding would be forgotten.

It would be interesting to follow the progression of the word “branding” from its original meaning of making a mark by burning (wood, livestock or human beings as a brutal punishment) through the concept of a name, slogan or design associated with a product or service to the contemporary straightjacket in which brand guidelines can be so restrictive that failure to incorporate the right logo or to use the precise font or wording can bring the threat of legal action against the unsuspecting perpetrator.

So this year we won’t have gold-wrapped chocolate coins in little gold nets on the Christmas tree, but we will follow a much older Christmas tradition and take the children to the pantomime on Boxing Day. The subversive, raffish spirit of pantomime lives on, boisterous and refreshingly free from the blight of brand management!

Fanny Charles