The label on the bag of coffee stated that it was "private reserve" as if it were a glorious handmade cabernet sauvignon that had been lovingly and fastidiously set aside by the proprietor and made available to an appreciative soul such as me who had discerning taste and an extra dollar or two to spend on a hedonistic treat.
"Private reserve" suggests exclusivity and finite availability, but my hunch is there were countless bags of beans sitting on countless pallets in countless warehouses around the country. The coffee was pleasant and drinkable, but I'm sure that was the case for the myriad other bags and brands on the shelf, even those not purporting to be private reserve or "special blend" or the like. The coffee was likely "private reserve" in the same way that car companies sell lines of their products as "Limited Edition" (for instance, the 2011 Jeep Liberty Limited Edition). The only thing limited about those editions is the number of people who are enticed by the manufactured cachet to open their wallets a little wider.
This marketing pitch of exclusivity based on implied finite availability and superior quality gets my vote as the successor to the last century's Madison Avenue mantra of "new and improved." This hyperbole can be both annoying and absurdly humorous as merchants shamelessly affix the label of "limited edition" to almost anything. Fire up your favorite search engine and you'll find we can buy limited edition belt buckles, watches, shoes, shampoo, maple syrup, tanning lotion, even cheddar bratwurst (seriously—could I make that up?).
In the world of art, a lithograph is a numbered copy of what is truly a limited edition of prints. All too often with consumer products, though, it's an appeal to status, prestige, and distinction, and has little to do with supply.
Even in the world of wine, "reserve" or "private reserve" is not an official designation except in a few countries such as Spain and Italy. In Spain, for instance, the law states that a wine must have been aged for three years in the cask and the bottle before release, to be designated as "reserva." In the U.S., while "reserve" is a designation for better wine at most well-regarded wineries, it ultimately means whatever the winery wants it to mean.
California-based Kendall-Jackson, for instance, makes oceans of uniformly decent wine, but even its entry-level wine is branded as "Vintner's Reserve." Reserved from what? They don't sell any "non-reserve" wine, so the designation doesn't tell the consumer anything.
This is not advocacy for stronger consumer protection labeling laws. After all, the creation of hype to push product has been with us for a long time. It is, rather, a "heads up" for all of us to apply the common sense test whenever we're filling the shopping cart.
Mike Hoban is a management consultant in his day job and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
[Image: Flickr user maistora]