On a recent trip to China, I was surprised by the preponderance of Haagen Dazs cafes in both Shanghai and Beijing. These “cafes” were pretty fancy affairs: sit-down restaurants with menus focused solely on dessert. There was waiter service, the dishes were beautifully plated, and each “designer” dessert cost upwards of $10. The whole thing was very lovely, but also very different from the Haagen Dazs “cafes” here in the US. Our “cafes” tend to involve counter service and a pretty standard menu of sundaes and shakes. While the brand does strive for a somewhat upscale feel in the U.S., the Chinese cafes made Haagen Dazs seem even more luxurious than usual. My friend and I thought it was interesting, but we didn’t really give it much thought beyond that. After all, the McDonalds location I visited in Rome was way nicer than any other McDonald’s I’d ever seen. So, I’d moved the experience to the back of my brain until this weekend, when I read an article over at The Money Spins about “fauxscaling.”
The Money Spins describes “fauxscaling” as “creating a fake brand story/legacy and using tactics to create an image inconsistent with the brand’s more downmarket image in its home market.” In other words, fauxscaling occurs when a brand tries to characterize itself as a luxury brand in a new geographic market, regardless of whether that perception holds true in the brand’s original market. The Money Spins noted that Asia seems particularly ripe for this approach, and cited several examples of brands that have introduced themselves as luxury in Asia, despite a less-than-exciting reputation in the US. Examples included TGIFridays, Buick and, yes, good ol’ Haagen Dazs.
Now, I’ve talked before about the way that consumers jump for products made in a certain country, regardless of quality, simply because specific countries sound good. And to be fair, I don’t think the majority of the U.S. population has any idea that Haagen Dazs is not in fact an upscale European brand (Surprise! It’s run through a partnership between General Mills and Dreyers/Nestle! And the name is nonsensical…look up “foreign branding“). So I’m really not too surprised that A. Chinese consumers are not aware that HD is actually American and B. Chinese consumers get excited about a brand that seems European and upscale. The stuff tastes good, it looks good, and in all it’s pretty believable that HD would be a luxury brand.
The Money Spins points out potential missteps brands could make as they fauxscale, and he’s completely right that there are risks in establishing different brand identities in different markets. But does it really matter if a brand seems nicer in one country than it does in another? Is there anything unethical about the practice? Personally, I don’t think so. The issue of “faux” isn’t limited to international brands: even within a home market, there’s plenty of brands that thrive off of faux legacies, intentionally or unintentionally. I can think of tons of products named after fictional people, or companies that run hyperbolic ads. It doesn’t bug me in the least. Some of it stems from psychology, some stems from creative license, a lot of it is pure business strategy. Perhaps it doesn’t bug me because I could always determine the truth if I cared to try. Haagen Dazs may sound exciting and exotic, but it’s right there on the carton that my ice cream was distributed by Dreyers, based in Oakland, CA. Really, it says that: I went and checked a carton. And then I ate some of the ice cream, too. All for the sake of research, of course. And when you check out the HD Wikipedia entry, the brand’s history is written in plain language. Most people never bother to read labels or research brands, but there’s no reason they COULDN’T, if they wanted to.
I’m going to end this post with another picture, because it made me smile: Dove chocolate bars, all locked up behind bars at a grocery store in Beijing. Dove bars are delicious, don’t get me wrong- but would they ever be locked up in the U.S.? I think not.