Curiously Strong Brand Identity

25th July, 2007: Posted by glpease in Enjoyment

The other day, I was compelled to pick up a couple tins of the Original Celebrated Altoids, the Curiously Strong peppermints that have been an almost constant fixture in my house since I was a lad. I can easily remember the first time I popped three of the little lozenges into my eagerly waiting gob, and thought my head would leave my neck, and rocket into orbit from the rsulting blast of curiously strong peppermint multiplied by three. Lesson learned. Even a single Altoid was intense enough to make the senses take serious notice. Peppermint isn’t a match for capsaicin for a pure incendiary wallop, but it freshens the mouth, settles an upset stomach, and can be pleasantly refreshing. Altoids did their job with aplomb, if not a bomb.

Why the past tense? Some time ago, it now seems, my beloved Altoids were emasculated, and for some reason, I never noticed it until tonight, when my not-quite-five year old brought the tin from the kitchen, and asked, “Daddy, may I have a mint?” I unwrapped the tin, now clad in the cellophane condom that has become almost ubiquitous on any item meant for human consumption, flipped open the lid, and offered them to him. He took one, popped it into his eagerly waiting gob, and delivered nary a wince.

At first, I was impressed with what I thought to be an already well developed poker-face. When he then proffered the tin to me, I, manly man that I am, at least in the little guy’s eyes, took one and prepared for the showdown; I’d beat the tot at his little game of gustatory poker. As the mint began its slow dissolution, I became aware of two things. First, I can sometimes be far to competitive. Sure, it’s not like a chili eating competition with that peculiar woman from India who has pursued a world’s record eating the bio-hazardous Bhut Jolokia, but he’s just a little guy, and engaging in even this harmless “contest” borders on the ludicrous. Okay. Another lesson learned.

But, second, it hit me that Altoids just don’t seem all that Curiously Strong any more. What happened? I read the inner liner, which described in some small detail, the history of Altoids, the original recipe having been developed at the turn of the 19th century by London’s Smith & Co., later becoming part of Callard & Bowser, “a prestigious English confectioner established in 1837.” Interesting to know. Certainly, this prestigious firm was the one that produced the mints that both delighted and tormented me as a child, and through most of my life. Reading on, I learn that Altoids are still made to the “same exacting standards as the original Altoids recipe developed more than 200 years ago.”

The construction of that sentence is informative. Something being made to the same standards is not the same as something being made to the same recipe. Standards establish the formulae, the protocols, the manufacturing methods used, and as long as they are adhered to, exactly, the product will be the same, exactly. And while this sentence clearly labors to lead the consumer to infer that the recipe is the same, it doesn’t quite say that, literally. To my palate, the recipe has, in fact, changed. I took two more mints, making a total of three, the same number that threatened to launch my noggin when I was little, and was repaid with something close to the experience I remember, not all that long ago, from a single lozenge. I can live with that. When I want the genuinely Curiously Strong blast of peppermint, I’ll take three, though I will continue to feel slightly deceived.

After examining the box carefully, I found the once familiar “Made in England” appellation had gone missing. So, these still pleasant mints are different from the old ones in more ways than one. Doing a little fingerwork, I discovered that the brand had been purchased by Wrigley in 2004, and towards the end of 2005, it was announced that they would close the factory in the UK, moving all production to Tennessee. These, then, aren’t my father’s Altoids. What’s next - Marmite made in Minnesota?

Brand identity is an interesting thing. I’ve consumed hundreds of tins of Altoids over the years, and, apparently, have simply missed the fact that, over time, the mints may have changed. The packaging looks pretty much as it always has, and I’ve simply wandered the dark hallways of assumption, not noticing that something may be different, until my attention was called to this fact by the reaction, or lack of reaction, of a not-quite-five year old.

This led me to begin thinking about other products that have endured change through the careful management of brand identity. I’m often asked if I produce any blends similar to the venerable Balkan Sobranie. Today, I ask in response, “What vintage?” It’s not meant to be glib, but is a question informed by something that I’ve become aware of after studying that particular blend for almost a decade.

When, in about 1980, I experienced my first tin of Balkan Sobranie, I began a love affair with it, and with similar Balkan and English mixtures, that was to last through the present, and hopefully, will linger for a few more decades. Everything about it appealed to me, from the timeless label art, to the little paper disk hiding behind the pleated paper insert, to the beautiful presentation of the tobaccos inside. I loved the smell of a freshly opened tin, and the wonderful aroma that wafted from my pipe as I puffed contentedly from first light to dottle. I always had a tin open, and a few more in the cellar for aging. And, that’s where it gets interesting.

When I began G. L. Pease, one of the things I set out to do was to understand the classic blends in a deeper way that I had before. I wanted to learn more about the effects of age, and how memories can influence taste experience. Revisiting some of those old tins of Balkan Sobranie seemed a great place to begin the study. I pulled tins from the cellar from different years, and acquired older ones to fill out the “research.” (Of course, this was just a thinly veiled ploy to smoke a bunch of wonderfully aged vintage tobacco, but humor me, please.) What I discovered was quite interesting; over the years, the blend had undergone quite a few changes - some subtle, others, not so much. And, if I noticed any of the changes, I didn’t take notice of them.

The most obvious difference was the cut of the leaf. I found everything from a fine ribbon in later tins, to a fairly chunky cut in earlier ones. But, there were other, qualitative difference through the years, as well. Of course, the pre- ca. 1960 blend relied on Syrian Latakia, while that which was made later was formulated with its Cyprian cousin. And, at some point, the Yenidje that was so distinctive in the earlier tins was replaced by some other, more generic oriental leaf. The virginias, too, seemed different when I examined and tasted the blends critically, doing my best to subtract the effects of time. Not big changes, but noticeable ones, especially when looking backwards.

How could I have not noticed these differences during all those years of enjoying this classic? The answer must lie in the management of the brand identity. The tins looked the same, so, as with Altoids, I assumed the contents were constant. Changes were made gradually, so as not to call attention to them, and this, coupled with a consistency of presentation and my subconscious, brand managed illusion that the status quo would always be preserved, led me toward the bliss of relative subjective ignorance.

Now that I’m much more objective in my exploration of tobacco blends, these things would probably not escape my attention, but, that’s what I do for a living. I wonder how many other products have changed over the years without my awareness - or permission.

The tired old adage is true; you really can’t judge a book by its cover.