Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Why Cookies By George Will Always Remind Me of Joseph Stalin



Before I begin, I should preface that this post is neither a foaming-at-the-mouth anti-capitalist rant, nor is it a glowing product or brand endorsement. I've gone both ways on this blog, but this is neither. This is simply a meditation on the strange permutations of brand association and the weirdness of nostalgia.

When Edmonton International Airport (my workplace since the end of July) opened a Cookies by George outlet a couple of months ago, I was utterly delighted. Cookies By George, for those of you yet unfamiliar with it, is one of the world's few food outlet chains about which I will readily wax poetic. Its much vaunted made-from-scratch gourmet cookies are without fail the baked good equivalent of a Tangerine Dream album - complete and total taste bud candy, or, to put it more crassly, food porn. My only fear is that I will be busting out of my pants in short order working in such close proximity with it.

In Soviet Russia, the cookie eats you!
There is, though, a dark side to my attachment to Cookies by George - one that causes me a certain amount of cognitive dissonance. As a history major at the University of Alberta in the late 1990s, Cookies by George was a weekly treat that preceeded an 8:30 am seminar class on 'Topics in Soviet History' led by Dr. David Marples, a man well known as one of the world's leading experts on the political convections of modern-day Ukraine and Belarus. Every morning I had this class (I think it was a Wednesday), I would grab a coffee and a couple of cookies from CBG in HUB Mall at the U of A and then settle in for three solid hours of discussion about the Gulags, the Purges, the Ukrainian Famine and Stalin's cult of personality with the caffeine and sugar spike helping to keep me wired and attentive.

The upshot of this is that since that time, everytime I've walked past a Cookies by George outlet, I've instantly been reminded of the 20th century's most murderous dictator. It's an unfortunate association, but I guess an inevitable one. Fortunately, for the sake of my own intellectual and moral clarity, the reverse does not seem to be the case and I seem to still be perfectly capable of reading a book or an essay on Stalin and being suitably repulsed by his reign of terror and carnage without starting to salivate with visions of milk chocolate chunk cookies in my head. Were this the case, I might consider therapy.

If any communications people from Cookies by George are reading this post, I don't really think this unfortunate product association is widespread. In fact I would be willing to bet that I'm the only person on earth who associates your company's products with Joseph Stalin. But it does make me wonder about the power of unintended brand associations. Much has been written about the potential hazards of juxtaposed images, such as the use of celebrity endorsements. This works very well if you're Rolex and you have Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in your corner, but less well when you have Bruce Willis endorsing Seagram's Golden Wine Coolers, as he did shortly before entering rehab in the late 1980s.

Sometimes brands come under siege when they get caught up in major news events, as happened to both Adi­das and Dolce & Gabbana in 2009 when the former became associated with anti-government vio­lence in Iran and the latter with the notorious Australian crime matriarch Judy Moran. And then there's the case of Japan Airlines in the aftermath of the horrific 1985 crash of JAL Flight 123, which I discuss in my March 12 post on the communications consequences of the 3.11 disaster. In this case, the disaster triggered the slow decline of one of Japan's most iconic corporate brands in spite of the fact that it was shown to be in no way responsible for the disaster. In fact, with the Boeing company's faulty repairs to the 747 in question and the Japanese government's botched rescue efforts, it was undoubtedly the least culpable stakeholder - and yet it bore the brunt of reputational damage.

"Talk to the cookie 'cuz AHS ain't listening!"
By contrast, a strange association can sometimes do wonders for a brand or company. Returning to the subject of Edmonton-based cookie purveyors, Paradise Cafe and Bakery was a little-known baked good provider in Edmonton's downtown core before its profile was raised by a spectacular on-air kamikaze act by former Alberta Health Services CEO Stephen Duckett in late 2010 when he refused to speak to the press on the grounds that he was 'eating a cookie' in a display that was caught on video and quickly went viral. The Edmonton press were quick to find out where Mr. Duckett has purchased the oatmeal and raisin cookie in question, and Paradise did very brisk business for a while thereafter. Sometimes one person's triumph is more often than not someone else's triumph, but not always in the way you'd expect.

In the meantime, I will continue to enjoy Cookies by George's fine cookies, even at the risk of being reminded of one of histories worst villains. I wonder, too, if anybody else has any personal stories of strange product associations along these lines. I'd love to hear about them.

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