Every once in a while, the City of Light looks a bit more like the City of Smog, and the only prescription for a head filled with Parisian pollution is a weekend in the countryside. This past weekend I found myself nestled against the Swiss border in the Jura region of France, a region famous for its interesting terrain that produces unique wines and cheeses. Most notable of these products are comté cheese, widely-lauded as one of the most (if not the most) successful French AOP (Appellation d’Origine Protegée) product in France, and vin jaune, a special wine produced only in the Jura. “AOP” (or PDO, Protected Designation of Origin for EU-wide products) is a government standard that labels certain agricultural products as protected items reflective of French cultural and geographic heritage. The system is based around the idea of “terroir,” the specifically French concept of the interaction between land and people to produce a particular taste tied to place. There are rules that regulate production of these special products to ensure their high quality and reverence to tradition. Obtaining the official AOP sticker means a mark of superiority and assured quality for each product, an automatic marketing boon.
It would seem like the intelligent thing to do would be to capitalize on this government-approved seal of approval and advertise around this idea of tradition and quality. But when questioned about marketing strategy, the communications director for comté cheese responded: “Comté is not a brand, it’s a patrimony.” Comté cheese is of the French soil and the French people, and this authenticity is something that makes it an “anti-brand” in a sense. While the communications department does not seek to brand the cheese, they do seek to gain publicity for it through education. It stands up for itself in quality and taste.
In a way, haute couture can be compared to comté cheese. A French regulatory body, the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, creates a system of rules for designers awarded Haute Couture status designating production methods and timelines. There are a certain set of standards that must be followed in order to qualify as haute couture, just as comté is bound by a set of taste characteristics judged by a taste jury. And just like comté, once a designer has reached haute couture status, branding is not necessary. The product becomes the brand; quality speaks for itself. Both French traditions – cheese making and fashion – have more in common than first meets the eye, and both can perhaps teach other industries something about successful branding strategies. Quality is key, and attaining superior status occurs through a careful combination of structure and craft that ultimately results in a product that needs no advertising or explanation.