Sunday, January 23, 2011

The way we are.

If the philosophically loaded title did not discourage you, I hope you are strapped-in for a rant:

I’ve been learning about Intellectual Property law recently. It is an interesting topic by its own right and invariably touches on the food industry.

The US Intellectual Property laws are mostly statute driven. Private parties set the trending terms within an industry and the judicial system is called to draw the line only when necessary. The legislatures thus set the tones and forces in the market place accordingly by the swings of many powerful lobbyists. What is protected one day may not be tomorrow.

Leaving the details aside, US IP laws are generally divided into four types: patent, copyright, trade secrets, and trademarks. My interest today is with trademarks.

The presence of trademarks is an essential part of the industrial process, unalienable from manufacturing and distribution. Trademarks are what we identify with our inherent values. It drives what we buy and who we are. In China, before its membership in the WTO, people commonly used certain marks to identify medical and food products. Because these are the fundamentals of Chinese society, the producers of these products are held to an exceptionally high standard. The popularization of these “traditional trademarks” always manifested by some climatic drama or some clever societal associations. For example, one of the Chinese people’s staple involves a steamed bun with various meats and vegetables inside. It’s sort of the Chinese’s hotdog, easy to carry and tasty. There is a meat-in-a-bun store famous to the Chinese named “Gou-Bo-Li,” literally translated to “a dog won’t even go near it.” There are a host of tales as to the origin of this iconic brand. I can’t remember exactly how it was explained to me when I was young, but here is one I found online:
History: About one hundred years ago, there was a guy who was named Gao Guiyou. Usually, people called his pet name GouZai. He was very stubborn. If he was angry, even a lovely doggy couldn't make him smile. Thus, his neighbours laughted at him Goubuli.

Later on, Gui Guiyou went to learn cooking and became a famous cook. He could make delicious and unique steamed stuffed buns. Even Ci Xi, the ruler of the late Qing Dynasty, loved his steamed stuffed buns. Then he opened a small snack house to cook his steamed stuffed buns. Many people went to his snack house to taste the steamed stuffed buns and his business was flourishing. However, he came across a problem, that is, he couldn't greet and serve each customer.

Finally, a good idea came up in his mind. He put several baskets of chopsticks and bowls on the tables. When a customer came into the house, he just needed to put his money in the bowl and gave the bowl to Gao Guiyou. Then, Gao put steamed stuffed buns in the bowl. After eating, the customer just left his snack house without asking him to pay for the steamed stuffed buns. His neighbours made fun of him and said that Gouzai only knew to sell his steamed stuffed buns and didn't take notice to his customers – that he was the dog that won’t even bother to come and say hellp. Thus, poeple named Gouzai's snack house as Goubuli – dogs won’t even bother.

Quoted from “BBQQ” from

According to Nicholas Economides, a NYU professor at the Stern School of Business, the object of trademark law is to stimulate investment in producing information about goods. The economic role of the trademark is to help consumer identify the unobservable features of the trademarked product.

This makes sense. The Chinese people, over the few thousands of years, developed a social norm to regulate these trademarks in terms of its authenticity, quality, and common trust. Over the years, Chinese people have come to accept the Goubuli mark as a mark of quality and taste because if you want Goubuli buns, you would have to visit Tianjin, the city where the only store is located.

But we may want to take a serious look at the values we, as AMERICANS, assign to our food and its identifiable marks. Why have we so proudly associate with cheap processed and synthetic food made from deconstructed corn and soy? Paradoxically, why have we been popularizing our low quality, high environmental and health costs brands?

To me, there is something eerie about McDonald’s “99 billion-served” idea. I rather cherish a man who devoted his passion to creating idealized product – one that you once could only taste when you visited Tianjin.

I recently learned that the bun shop, once only available in Tianjin, had expanded its operations not only in China, but also into the US. It's brand is protected by a US registered trademark: "Go Believe." I doubt, though, the creative translation into “Go Believe” will give me the same confidence as the old brand. Aside from asking the tough questions, one is pressing: what has happened to our values and our relationship with food?

1 comment:

  1. I'm currently in the middle of the book The End of Overeating by Kessler. It's full of these same ideas. It is an embarrassment to our country that we have so little self control and that the owners of companies don't have more guilt over serving such unhealthy products. Change comes slowly - hopefully we're starting to realize what we're doing to ourselves.