Drinking the label

Lee Lantz was an American fish wholesaler.

He was constantly on the lookout for new kinds of fish to import.

This was difficult, as the most desirable fish were obviously in great demand.

Lantz knew what anyone involved in marketing knows, the answer is always in one of two places: the product or the consumer.

It’s not a secret formula, you must have supply and demand: a good product and people who want it.

So the job is twofold: discover (or make) a good product, discover (or create) a demand.

In 1977, Lantz managed to tick the first box.

On a trip to Chile, he discovered the Patagonian Toothfish.

It was known amongst fishermen as "trash fish", which meant when they caught it they tossed it back, because they couldn’t sell it.

It was the ugliest fish he’d ever seen: huge googly eyes, a massive jutting lower jaw full of teeth, and it grew to be roughly the size of a human.

But that didn’t matter to Lantz, no-one needed to see the fish in its original state.

All the customer would see was the flesh, and the revelation for Gantz was the taste, it was white and creamy, rich, buttery flakes that melted in the mouth.

He solved the first half of the equation, he’d found the product.

But the second part was the problem, demand, no-one wanted something called a Patagonian Toothfish.

It sounded ugly and scaly, and full of bones and teeth, it sounded totally unappetising.

What Gantz had to do was solve the consumer problem, by making it appetising.

So he changed the name, he named it the Chilean Sea Bass.

Now it sounded fresh and salty, now it tasted of the ocean and being freshly caught.

And the identical fish that had been thrown back into the sea, became the most sought-after item on the menu.

Gourmet magazines wrote about this new discovery, restaurants like The Four Seasons and Nobu had to have it on their menu.

Establishments that wouldn’t even sell it as Patagonian Toothfish, were now charging up to $50 for it as Chilean Sea Bass.

Over the next decade, demand for the renamed fish increased by up to 40 times, until overfishing became such a problem that it had to be regulated.

What Lantz had understood was what all chefs understand, presentation: before you eat a dish with your mouth, you eat it with your eyes.

Although in this case it was: you eat it with your ears.

The name creates the image, the image creates the taste.

There’s a saying in beer advertising: you drink the label.

I used to teach students about this with a cigarette.

I’d hold it up in front of the class and say: "OK, this is a Dunhill King Size, before we taste it, what do we know about it, what’s the image?"

They’d shout out : "Traditionally British","Bowler hats", "Leather-top desks", "Wing-back armchairs", "Rolls-Royces", "Savile Row".

Then I’d look closely at the cigarette and say: "Whoops sorry, I got the name wrong, it"s Marlboro. Now what do we know about it."

They’d shout out: "Cowboys", "Saddles", "Belt buckles", "Cattle drives", "Pick-up trucks", "Country and Western music".

Then I’d say: "OK, I’m still holding the identical piece of tobacco and paper, but by changing the name we changed everything about it.

"And that’s how brand works."

Dave Trott is the author of Creative Blindness and How to Cure It, Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three


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