One morning twenty-five years ago I found myself interviewing a prospective new arts marketing hire. “Why do you want to work here?” I inquired of the woman seated across the conference table.
“I love the arts,” she responded. “We all have the same information,” she continued. “We act on what we value.”
She got the job. As impressed as I was by her brevity and her clarity, her insights about human nature equipped her admirably for a career in marketing. Some people spend their entire lives and never learn that behavior is a consequence of what and how we value. They tell themselves that they are rational creatures, that they act in response to the dictates of logic and fact. While the rational self is certainly important, recent advances in brain science tell us that it is the emotional self that is the decision-maker within us.
This is not to say that reason doesn’t matter. Far from it. We use our rational skills to understand and navigate the world. We use them to make sense of ourselves and others. But, in a contest, the rational self will often find itself overmatched by the emotional self. So it is with facts and values, too. In many contests, facts find themselves overmatched by values.
The current political milieu exemplifies what I’m writing about here. Everyone has access to the same facts, yet liberals and conservatives resist creating solutions from any mutuality of purpose. Instead, each side demonizes the other. Conciliation and compromise are characterized as weakness or as “selling out.” These polemics are driven by extreme conflicts in values.
We can observe the same dynamics at play on a smaller scale within the pipe world when people argue about the relative merits of high-priced versus low priced pipes. The heat and anger that emerges during these discussions – especially the flame wars that ensue inside online pipe communities – is so extreme as to render the pipe smoker’s amiable and thoughtful persona a ridiculous fiction.
When these arguments erupt, it is as if we witness, in real time, Dr. Jekyll transforming into Mr. Hyde. Warmth and affability are supplanted by cold, sneering, hostility. Churlish accusations of snobbery and reverse snobbery are hurled from one side to the other. Ugly alliances form. Friendships collapse. Feelings are bruised.
Class warfare is prosecuted on a virtual battlefield, fueled by hateful jealousy and self-righteous loathing. It is an ugly and saddening thing to see, especially when one considers that nothing that occurs changes the facts a whit. That one believes that pipes should not sell for more than $250, $500, $5,000, or $50,000 has no force in the real world.
There are more than a few people within the pipe community who purchase pipes costing thousands of dollars. Some purchase pipes costing tens of thousands of dollars. A pipe with a price tag of $10,000 or more is beyond my means, and it is beyond the means of many others. I have wondered whether I would pay so much if I had the means to do so. I honestly don’t know. I can’t know. In any event, real choices are hard enough to make without further confusing myself with the hypothetical.
One does not have to be a part of the pipe community for long to conclude that these battles have resolved nothing. The same struggles reoccur over and over. This begs questions:
- Why can’t (or won’t) we resolve our differences?
- Why are we so attached to our points-of-view that we would sacrifice friendships and good will for nothing?
- Why do we become so hateful in making our points?
In William Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Exeter proclaims, “When Envy breeds unkind division: There comes the ruin, there begins confusion.”
Are these conflicts in the pipe world driven solely by envy as so many claim? Maybe among some. Others, however, seem less consumed by envy than by outrage. They cannot imagine that any pipe can be worth so much, regardless of rarity or beauty. In their world–where hunger, disease, and homelessness ravage the innocent–such seeming profligacy in spending is tantamount to sinful self-indulgence. This is not envy; it is outrage.
The outraged person sees himself as someone expressing virtue. As perverse as the expression can seem at times, attributing envy to that person is likely to incite anger. With that anger comes the same ruin, the same confusion. That confusion breeds anger, and anger breeds more anger.
These conflicts emerge from value differences. Because values establish our framework for meaning, morality, and behavioral norms, they are extraordinarily powerful. They are the suns and moons of our identities. Sometimes they light our world, and other times they eclipse the light by which we might see things differently.
As I have observed in the “Snobbery Wars,” often people argue past each other, neither really hearing the others’ points-of-view, debating within different frames of reference. More importantly, sometimes the arguers fail to notice that they value pipes according to different dimensions of quality.
For example, one person may argue that their favorite corncob pipe smokes every bit as well as another’s $3,000 artisan-made, straight-grained pipe. And, even if there is a difference, the artisanal pipe doesn’t smoke 300 times better than the cob. Intended or not, those who have spent lavishly on their best briars hear this argument as an affront to their judgment and intelligence.
Another person will posit that his old basket pipe with fills smokes far better than a (name expensive brand here), explaining that this point has been proven by experience. That the generalization of the whole is induced from the specific–reasoning that is often, but not always, flawed–escapes notice.
Whether one is correct or not in making one’s argument is less useful than examining the basis of valuation upon which one’s conclusions are drawn. In both cases, the argument pivots upon value based on function. While how a pipe functions is important, it is not the only dimension of value that drives what is considered precious.
Valuation is an artifact of human nature. Products–pipes included–do not intrinsically possess value. Value is assigned and valuation is accomplished by people. While pipes may have features that benefit their users, how or whether those benefits are valued is up to the user of the pipe. For example, if I don’t notice a cooler smoke coming from a reverse-calabash-designed pipe, then the feature may not be valued by me.
In the end, the only value that matters to a consumer is the value the consumer is able to unpack (and enjoy). If a product has a feature you don’t use (think pivot tables or certain statistical functions in spreadsheet programs), then it has no value to the consumer.
To further understand how consumers value products–pipes included–it is useful to understand how marketers begin the value creation process by positioning a product in the marketplace. When marketers position products to succeed in a competitive marketplace, they choose among three strategic options:
1. We can position functionally, illustrating how a product or service solves problems. Using this strategy, we relate benefits to function. This positioning usually relies on design differences that presumably improve functionality. Falcon and Kirsten pipes have been positioned using this strategy. Both brands are designed to smoke cool, to be easy to clean, to be durable, and to provide the smoker with a no-nonsense, good value for the money spent.
2. We can position experientially, illustrating what a product or service makes one think or feel. Experientially positioned products stimulate cognitive and sensory experiences. In the pipe world, we are more likely to see tobaccos positioned experientially rather than pipes since flavor and aroma are connected to the senses.
Where I believe experience comes into play is in the aesthetic realm. Pipe collectors will pay substantial premiums for what they consider exquisite examples of artisanally or naturally created beauty.
Consider the much higher sales price attached to straight-grained, smooth pipes or to perfectly detailed ring-grain sandblasted pipes. Consider the premium prices placed on certain difficult-to-execute shapes like Alex Florov’s Calla Lily, Eltang’s ivory calabash, or Kei Gotoh’s pierced whale. Grading systems and their correlating pricing structures are predicated on aesthetic value. Do these pipes function better? In some cases, they function worse. In other cases, their extreme beauty presents a barrier to the smoker who avoids smoking them in order to preserve their beauty.
3. Finally, we can position symbolically. Symbolic positioning relies on how a product or service enhances one’s self-image, creates a sense of belonging, or helps one self-actualize. Over the last several decades, we have seen increasing use of symbolic positioning as marketers have learned that people will pay a high premium to buy products that convey status or that have meaning or story embedded within them. As product consumption has increasingly become less about fulfilling needs and more about being a modality of self-expression, symbolic positioning has become more commonplace.
What something means has become far more important than what it does or how well it does it.
To understand how powerful the notion of product-as-symbol is, consider this example. If you need a pen, you can buy a Cystal Stick BIC for $2.29. Why, then, would anyone consider paying $950 for a Princess Grace de Monaco Mont Blanc fountain pen? The BIC is easier to maintain, less painful to lose, and will meet every functional need a writer could have.
The Mont Blanc is not a better pen than the BIC. Thus, to evaluate the Mont Blanc in functional terms misses the point completely. The Mont Blanc is embedded with considerable symbolic value. It is associated with one of the most beautiful, elegant, and mysterious women of the 20th century. The essence of what Princess Grace meant is as much a part of the product cluster as is the nib and barrel. Not just anyone can own one, either, because of its high price tag. It conveys status. People will pay considerable sums for what owning such a pen means to them.
In the pipe world, it is easy to identify those pipe brands that are analogous to owning a Mont Blanc: Bo Nordh, Sixten Ivarsson, Lars Ivarsson, Jess Chonowitsch, and Jørn Micke are examples within the artisanal pipe category.
A Mental Model to Consider the Overlay of Positioning and Valuation
I’ve been thinking for years about the relationship of product positioning to how consumers value things that they purchase, wondering whether the valuation process begins with the marketer’s influence on how products are perceived when purchased. Recently, I’ve been thinking about that dynamic as it relates to pipes and to pipe collecting, especially with respect to rapidly increasing valuation in the rare collectibles market.
As I pondered the dynamics, I realized that valuation is not just related to function, and not just to experience (in the pipe model, it is aesthetics), but also to symbolic value. I realized that the mental model I had been trying to create must be 3-dimensional so that all the combinations of functional, aesthetic, and symbolic could be represented. To me, this model helps me understand previously perplexing fluctuations in price and value.
Not too long ago, Fred Hanna posted a thread on Smokers Forums where he noted several remarkable recent pipe sales, wondering whether or not the seemingly extraordinary sales prices were anomalies or perhaps indicative of trends within the pipe world. A Sixten Ivarsson banjo with a charred rim sold on eBay for $4,050 and a Bo Nordh pipe recently sold in Europe for $40,000.
As Hanna makes obvious, the sales prices of some very notable pipes have skyrocketed of late. These pipes have not become functionally or experientially better over the last several years. They have not become appreciably rarer, either. However, their symbolic value has strengthened considerably as more and more people have discovered the myth and meaning that are embedded in these pipes.
Some of these people, for example some affluent Chinese and Russian collectors, are relatively new to both pipe-collecting and to pipe lore. As these collectors have become interested in high-grade pipes, they have also undoubtedly learned what is what and who is who. So, what we see is a new cohort of affluent buyers entering a marketplace where the totemic is already highly valued. They may understandably feel late to the party, so to speak, and seize the moment when Ivarssons, Nordhs, or other are pipes become available. They wisely make high offers to ensure buying success. No wonder these pipes are fetching extraordinary amounts.
In any marketplace, symbolic value emerges from story. Sometimes that story is related to history. Sometimes it is related to perceived quality. Story and history are as powerful–perhaps even more powerful–in the pipe world as in any other art or collectibles marketplace. Consider Sixten Ivarsson.
Sixten Ivarsson is the father of the modern artisanal pipe movement and the originator of the Modern Danish school of pipe making. He sought perfection in the design and production of his pipes. Other very important artisans like Jess Chonowitsch, Hiroyuki Tokutumi, and Kyoichiro Tsuge, among others, apprenticed at his side. He founded a pipe-making dynasty that now stretches three generations through his son, Lars, and granddaughter, Nanna.
To have a Sixten Ivarsson pipe within one’s collection is to own not just another pipe, but a piece of pipe-making history. Sixten Ivarsson pipes, like Bo Nordh pipes and Lars Ivarsson pipes, are so embedded with meaning that they are talismanic. Thus, their very high cost reflects their symbolic value, not their functional value. It may also be argued that there is experiential value as well. Those who believe in metaphysical aspects of things might feel differently while smoking a Sixten, a Lars, or a Bo.
In the world of the symbolic, value is not always reflected in price. Sometimes, embedded meaning makes a pipe priceless.
Personally, I think about those pipes my father gave me a couple of years ago, particularly the bent meerschaum I bought him for Christmas when I was sixteen. This pipe wouldn’t fetch $50 in an eBay auction, but I would part with my Sixten Ivarsson before I would let go of my father’s pipe. Likewise, I have a Dunhill Shell dublin that was a gift from a friend. Whenever I smoke that pipe, I think of my friend and about the preciousness of friendship as a whole. This pipe, as well, is priceless to me.
Few pipe smokers wouldn’t love to own one of Mark Twain’s Peterson pipes, especially those of us who revere the cranky humorist. I feel the same way about having one of Faulkner’s pipes, not because I know they might be great smokers, but because they symbolize something meaningful to me. They are not just pipes. They are totems.
The most precious pipes are those that combine various dimensions of value. This is why I believe that Bo Nordhs, Jess Chonowitsches, and Lars Ivarssons are so highly prized. These pipes combine functional value, aesthetic value, and symbolic value. In the mental model above, they would be represented by the salmon-colored box on the upper right corner: High Symbolic, High Aesthetic, High Function. Great smokers, beautiful objects, and they were born of the hands of legends.
Speaking personally, I very much value pipes that combine great smoking quality with wonderful aesthetics. Over time, I find that I make my own meaning as I experience the pipe with friends and loved ones. The pipe becomes increasingly mine as it becomes associated with special memories, good times, and meaningful moments.
There is little doubt in my mind that of all the ways we pipe smokers assign and create value that nothing impacts us more powerfully than the symbolic. As human beings, we are creatures in search of meaning. When we find it, it is priceless.
It is a sad thing that our community suffers so much ruin and confusion from these senselessly unproductive arguments about price and value. As individuals, we cannot help but bring different histories, different values, and different contexts to the issues under debate.
When one man values function above all else, he may scoff at the man seeking beauty and learn to discount beauty’s rewards altogether. When another man values the symbolic over the straightforwardly functional, he may fail to discover and appreciate the simple pipesmoker’s steadfast love of a savory smoke.
It is our value diversity in our community that makes it such a rich and noble place. If we are dismissive toward one another’s values and motivations, we are dismissing not only each others’ passions, but the possibilities inherent in embracing a perspective different from our own - if only for a moment.
It is my hope, by creating and sharing this mental model that I might lend some helpful insight that might diminish some of the rancor and hostility that has been such a sour feature of our landscape. In any event, I thought it worth the effort.