What unites luxury brands and potatoes

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Around 250 years ago King Frederick II of Prussia, who was also known as Frederick the Great, had a problem.

Frederick had learnt about a vegetable, largely unknown in Eastern Europe at the time, that had first been brought back from the Americas by the Conquistadors.

The vegetable grew easily in Prussian soil, provided plenty of calories, and offered a way to control spiralling food prices.

The miracle vegetable in question was the humble potato.

Unfortunately for Frederick his subjects were not hugely keen on trying this new food source.

Potatoes were odd looking, dirty, and so tasteless that not even dogs would eat them, the people complained.

So Frederick devised a cunning plan.

He visited a village and had a large field planted with potatoes and – as he had done many times before – delivered a dull and worthy speech about their marvellous nutritional and economic benefits.

But this time he ordered his soldiers to guard the field after he left.

The fortified field succeeded where the speeches had failed.

Where once the people had been disinterested, or even outright hostile, now they were curious.

What could be so special about potatoes that the king valued them so highly they required guards?

Before long locals started stealing potatoes for their own fields and gardens (the king had instructed the soldiers to overlook such infractions).

And before long the potato started to grow in popularity. Within a decade it was a staple food. No meal was complete without them.

It was, if you think about it, a masterstroke of marketing.

And this is the very game luxury and premium brands play today.

Value is in the eye of the beholder, and perceived value can be manufactured through beautiful packaging, exclusive boutiques, artificial scarcity, inflated price tags, and celebrity endorsements.

This is why chocolates come in such elaborate boxes, why it is so difficult to buy a Birkin bag, and why George Clooney gets paid so much to advertise Omega watches.

Sometimes we want what we cannot have. Legions of brands are built on this insight.

A version of this article was published as part of a weekly column by Guy Cookson on marketing, design, trends and strategy in the Lancaster Guardian, Blackpool Gazette and Lancashire Post. See our brand, web design and marketing recent projects.

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