Cereal thriller, caffeine capers and sauce Hollandaise

The milk on my breakfast cereal tastes better this week. And yet, it’s exactly the same as I had last week, the week before, and every week for several years. So what’s changed? The packaging, of course. Being an incurable cheapskate, I opt for Tesco’s Value range whenever I can. Not always – Value meat can be decidedly dodgy, so I steer clear of of that. But for most things, I can’t really see the point of paying more for fancy packaging. And since I shop online and have my groceries delivered to the door, I don’t suffer the social stigma felt by some people when they pick a Value product off the shelf. But social stigma there is. And that’s why Tesco, as part of of its aggressive fight-back following dismal results, has decided that it’s out with the old (Value) and in with the new: Everyday Value. The new packaging looks more upmarket, with jaunty clip-art images. It’s warmer, playful and more friendly. And of course it influences how people perceive the range of products. And how they taste. The new milk, splashed liberally over my bran flakes, tastes creamier (though it’s skimmed) more expensive (though it’s not) and new (it isn’t). Funny, isn’t it? Not really.

From bean to cup…

We see what we want to see, and what our senses, emotions and conditioning allow us to see. And touch, taste, feel. Just last week, I had a friend round for coffee. “Isn’t this wonderful?” I asked, gesturing to the drink he’d just taken a sip of. “It’s a new Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Guatemalan coffee. It’s really expensive, but it’s worth it.” He agreed. And he could taste the difference, he said. It was rich, deep, aromatic and evocative of the lush plantations of Central America. And just sipping it conjured up images of happy workers toiling in the fields for a decent wage (it was Fairtrade, I told him) to create a delicious beverage. Except it wasn’t true. Any of it. It wasn’t Guatemalan, it wasn’t Fairtrade, and it wasn’t any different to the coffee he’d had the previous week. Cynical, manipulative, scheming – moi? Well, yes and no. You see, my friend had set himself up for this particular challenge. He’s a devotee of high-end brands, and wouldn’t be seen within 10 yards of a mid-market product. But it’s not just the cachet of the label he appreciates, the bragging value and the kudos he earns. He genuinely believes that these expensive luxury lines are discernibly different to those lower down the hierarchy. And he feels the same about ethical brands. They taste better because they are better – and they make him feel better, so everybody wins. When I’d said the previous week that his perception was all down to positioning and storytelling, he’d dismissed it with an imperious wave of the hand. It was a challenge I couldn’t ignore. And last week, he became my unwitting victim.

Assume the position

How you tell a story – the story of your company, products, brands, services, news – is as important as the story itself. We’ve all experienced the same joke told by two people, one to hilarious effect, the other met with a wall of silence and polite bemusement. It’s all down to how you frame it, how you position the offering, and how you mete out the facts. Just look at what’s happened in France. We’re in the worst economic crisis since the 1930s, or possibly ever. The facts (debt, deficit, flatlining growth) are public knowledge. And yet François Hollande has managed to spin them in a way that’s captured the Gallic imagination. Out with austerity, fiscal compacts and hairshirts. In with dreams, hopes and bright new socialist dawns. How he’s going to do this remains to be seen – and very soon, reality may just come knocking on his door. But on Sunday night, in the Place de la Bastille, it was déjà vu all over again, with echoes of Mitterrand in 1981. Never mind the facts: the story was good, and it hit home. We’ve seen that on this side of the Channel too. Just two short years ago, everybody had the catchphrase ‘I agree with Nick’ [Clegg] ringing in their ears. The Lib Dem leader was more popular than Churchill, the polls told us. He was riding on an unstoppable wave of popularity. Two years on, the Lib Dems achieved (if that’s the word) the worst score ever in local elections. Stories, positioning, and perception. The three cornerstones of politics, life and love. Oh, and marketing, of course. Don’t forget marketing. As for my friend, well he’s coming around again next week. That’s when I’ll break the news to him – over a delicious cup of bog-standard coffee. Learn more: