Roger Cohen

The status game, where no prize is enough

The quest for status is a tremendous driver of society, at whatever level of development. It is a fundamental human desire. The new middle classes of Asia, and the new rich, are looking to assert their status. This plays out in interesting ways.

Of Vietnam's 90 million people, about 20 million are on Facebook; around half that number live below the poverty line. A society so defined inhabits many universes at once. A teenager on a scooter among the whining legions of scooters, his bike burdened with a cage full of live chickens, passes a glitzy new "Thai Tapas Bar". Global and local, high concept and the scramble for survival, intersect.

Everyone lives somewhere. A growing number of people live everywhere. Vietnam, a war-ravaged peasant society within living memory, has bounded towards a churning urban modernity that has echoes across the world.

The global rich inhabit one country, the global middle class another, the global poor a third. There is much more in common among the global rich across national borders than between rich and poor within those borders. Perhaps it was ever so. But the world lived in ignorance, most exploitable of conditions. Awareness has changed things. It is a force multiplier and a motivator. It is near irreversible once acquired. It drives the ache for status, as evident now in Ho Chi Minh City as in Hollywood.

The notion that globalisation equals homogenisation has become a commonplace. You travel 15,000km and find yourself gazing at a Domino's Pizza or a Dunkin' Donuts.

Upscale neighbourhoods are full of the same kinds of ads for personal fitness trainers. Malls are filled with the same "power brands". Children show the same tendencies towards pudginess or even obesity as their diets are changed by global fast food.

The Vietnamese rich want the same Prada bags as the rich throughout the world; the new middle class craves the same symbols of their rise; and the poor are just poor like the poor everywhere.

But these are bromides. Homogenisation is in fact far from the whole story. Perhaps it would be truer these days to say that the same thing that people throughout the world want is something different.

If they have the means, they want the glass hand-blown, the liquor slow-aged and the fabric hand-sewn. They want something with a distinctive story. They want to know how the pigs behind that succulent ham got their acorns. They want to know how the barrel behind the bourbon was made. They long to demonstrate their knowledge, now so easily acquired, and reveal their particular taste.

"Mass" is becoming a problematic word in the global marketplace. Bespoke and crafted and boutique are good words.

Better the couple of guys in Denver who start a microbrewery or the former hedge fund honcho making a superior gin near Edinburgh than the slick marketers of power branding. Integrity and authenticity are new watchwords. Globalisation, it transpires, is also about growing fragmentation. It involves consumer rebellions against being herded by conglomerates toward the same brands in the same malls.

"The same thing young people everywhere want now is originality, something with depth and a story," said Mr Justin Frizelle, the Singapore-based director of Brand Connect, a company that builds liquor brands in Asia.

"It is amazing the fragmentation through the liquor industry in choice and brands, a rebellion against consolidation. Microbreweries have led to microdistilleries. What happened with craft beers is happening with handmade vodkas and slow-aged rums. You have guys in Brooklyn making ryes. It turns out people want something different."

These developments are, of course, problematic for big industrial groups, whose partial answer has been to set up divisions focused on acquiring or developing the small breweries and distilleries able to counter the "mass" image. But consumers of ever greater sophistication may challenge the integrity and authenticity of such products.

A successful Vietnamese businessman confided to me that when he receives a gift of a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label (surely one of the world's great blended whiskies) he sends it back because it is insultingly ordinary. What he is looking for is a Gold Label, or a Blue Label, or a Platinum Label (whiskies have come to resemble credit cards and frequent-flyer memberships in their status-conferring labels), or some very distinctive, long-aged single malt.

This in the end is where the Ho Chi Minh trail led: to the familiar and universal quest for status and respect.

As Constantine Phipps writes in What You Want: The Pursuit Of Happiness, his wonderful new novel in rhyming verse:

Status gives pleasure, wholly genuine, but also wields a dreaded discipline, policing our activity far more than do the sacred scriptures, or the law.

Its stern enforcers are esteem and blame. There is no way out of the status game...