The price of (almost) nothing

14 July 2011 | By Andrea

The notion of ‘value’ lies at the heart of what marketing is all about. Yet value is also a highly problematic concept, given how difficult it is to define – what exactly do consumers value nowadays? And how can brands constantly generate value for consumers and, critically, communicate this in a meaningful, relevant, consistent and differentiating way?

Interestingly – though perhaps not so surprisingly in the aftermath of the recession – two recent books tackle the notion of value from a broad socio-cultural and economic perspective and offer some remarkable insights.

The Value of Nothing and The Price of Everything

In The Value of Nothing Raj Patel investigates the types of choices (and trade-offs) we need to make in our everyday lives in order to create a prosperous and sustainable economy and society. Opening with Oscar Wilde’s observation that “nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing”, Patel shows how the price we pay for things (ranging from food to handbags to entertainment) is systematically distorted – and increasingly so.

In The Price of Everything Eduardo Porter examines the prices of “everything”, including things that we don’t normally associate with being for sale, including votes, culture and human lives. He argues there is a price behind each product and service we buy but also, and more critically, behind each choice we make, every day.

Immersing myself in these fascinating readings – and trying to make sense of insights around “the price of everything” and “the value of nothing” in the context of branding specifically – I’ve recently come across a website selling wedding rings with encapsulated diamonds, where the diamond is concealed inside the ring.

But what is the value of a hidden diamond in a wedding ring, I wonder? Surely it is in the coding of it as a shared secret between the couple – which, in the words of De Beers, is “truly making the ring a gift of love”. The invisible diamond is also a prime example of an emergent trend in luxury (at least in the developed world) towards ‘anti-bling’ or invisible luxury (lamps with hidden decorations, anyone?).

But what is the ultimate added value that brands like De Beers are providing to consumers by catering to this emergent trend? And is it lasting, sustainable? Value is a truly ineffable concept and one deeply rooted in the specificities of different cultural contexts but, somehow, there will always be someone thinking it is worth paying a premium price for (almost) nothing.

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