It all started when E&J Gallo Winery brought out a line of wine coolers under the fictitious Bartles & Jaymes banner. The products were hawked by two good ol' boys who called themselves Frank Bartles and Ed Jaymes. Nowhere did the ads say who really made the stuff. And then Liggett & Myers briefly ran lush magazine ads for Chesterfield Tobacco Co. in an effort to resurrect one of the most popular brands of a bygone era.
Now Philip Morris is employing the strategy on two products. For its Icehouse beer the company's Miller Brewing Co. has concocted Plank Road Brewery as the beer's purveyor. And Philip Morris has just put into test markets Dave's cigarettes from Dave's Tobacco Co.
What's going on here? Market researchers say that consumers want to hark back to a simpler, less frantic time when home, hearth, family values and spirituality prevailed. The mythical companies are trying to re-create that golden era.
Or is it more a matter of trust? People, tired of bureaucracy, would rather deal with the guy whose name is on the door. They yearn for control of their own lives, and that means not getting the runaround from faceless corporate automatons.
One manifestation of this trend is that power dressing is out and casualness is in. As we pointed out the other week, when three Hollywood moguls announced plans for a new studio, they looked as if they were posing for an Eddie Bauer catalog. One wore a cotton plaid shirt, another an old-fashioned button sweater and the third-the former president of buttoned-down Walt Disney Co.-wore a tie but no jacket.
"Casual living is the most modern way of approaching life. It's the defining character of the '90s," said a top designer.
That's what the big companies that have invented fake little companies want to capture. The big companies are part of the stuffy, over-dressed establishment, and so feisty counter-establishment types go against the grain.
Listen to the copy for Dave's cigarettes: "Dave was fed up with cheap, fast-burning smokes. Instead of just getting mad he did something about it ... Dave's Tobacco Co. was born."
There are a lot of people out there who share Dave's sense of outrage against bigness (Dave probably feels the same way about big government and fits the profile of the typical Republican voter in last month's elections). Once it gets around that Dave's cigarettes are sold by the worldwide consumer products behemoth Philip Morris they will feel deceived.
Legitimate small companies like Ben & Jerry's and Snapple Beverage Co. have earned consumers' respect and trust because they prevailed against the big boys with a good, honest product.
The big companies are now trying to muscle in by masquerading as one of them-witness Coca-Cola's Fruitopia line of soft drinks. Philip Morris says Dave's is a "tale of fictional imagery." I say it's a tale of blatant deception.