This tale of me duping my friends into drinking $5 whisky under the guise of it being $130 whisky, serves to underscore what I believe to be a basic truth, the fact that perception is reality – never more true than in marketing.

Early in my advertising career I was let go during the fourth round of layoffs from an agency I really enjoyed working for. The overall US economy went into a recession and while my employer didn’t lose any clients during that time, they did all cut back on budgets and postponed projects. With payroll marching on every two weeks, my job was eventually eliminated. It was a scary time personally as I’d never lost a job I depended on before. As the economy continued to suffer, I was unsuccessful in finding another position in advertising or marketing, though I had several interviews. Regardless, my layoff led me to taking a two week bartending course, then immediately landing a job at a local bowling alley bar. I spent six months tending bar until seemingly out of the blue I was recruited back into the advertising and marketing business. But that’s a story for another time, this tale all starts with my bartending days.

Interestingly enough, I was hired by the bowling alley in part due to my advertising background. However, the person hiring me didn’t understand the difference between client service experience and design experience. They had hoped I might be able to design a few flyers or banners for events. Regardless, I was hired and earned my keep by excelling at the job I was hired for, namely pouring drinks and customer service. My time behind the bar gave me some insights into the practical application of marketing theory, beyond what I’d been exposed to in school or the agency world. In particular, the concept that perception is reality was firmly driven home for me, in may ways, but the most memorable being this story involving Johnnie Walker Gold Label scotch whisky.

The bowling alley I worked for is now a hardware store, but when it was open, there were 48 lanes of thirsty patrons who drank a lot of beer and the occasional cocktail. Like most bowling alleys, we had leagues that bowled each week on the same night, so I got to know a lot of regulars and their particular drink of choice. One group we had was a Japanese-American league who’s drink of choice was Johnnie Walker. They were perhaps the exclusive drinkers of these bottles, and the bar normally stocked Red Label and Black Label. On Johnnie Walker’s spectrum of blends, Red Label is the least expensive and Black Label is the next step up.  This whisky-loving league hosted an annual tournament each fall. A large contingent of friends and relatives of our hosting league would fly in to participate. It was a big event for them and the bowling alley, with special arrangements made to ensure it was a recurring success.

One such special consideration for the tournament was to procure a higher-end blend of their preferred spirit. Thus, moving up the Johnnie Walker spectrum, at the time Gold Label was one step below the truly expensive, top-of-the-line Blue Label. The bar purchased two bottles of Gold Label. I seem to remember the retail price on this bottle was about $130 at the time.  We likely were dispensing it $15 – $20 a serving, perhaps more. The point was this was far and away the most expensive spirit we had and orders of magnitude above the $5 pitchers of Pabst Blue Ribbon we poured by the keg on a typical weekday evening.

The weekend of the tournament, I worked both Saturday and Sunday. Saturday saw most of the first bottle of Gold go to jubilant bowlers. When I was starting my Sunday shift, I got an order for several shots of the good stuff, and that meant I got to open the second bottle. I was careful in opening the box and while Red and Black Label have metal screw caps, Gold has a cork stopper with an elegant foil wrap. I carefully pulled the cork and foil straight off, never damaging the foil. I then capped the empty with the cork and foil, and put it in the box. Poured some drinks and at the end of my shift, I left with an empty bottle in an as-new box.

Reminiscent of the TV campaign Folger’s ran in the 1980s for their instant line of coffee, Folger’s Crystals, I secretly replaced the Gold Label with the cheapest scotch I could get at the liquor store on my way home. I paid about $5 for whatever I ended up pouring into my empty bottle of Gold Label. I did this without telling any of my friends, and I recognize now that if I’d intended on selling this, it would be fraud.

The boxed bottle of Gold Label went into the liquor cabinet in the butler’s pantry of the old duplex I shared with my roommate. We had a great bachelor’s pad and thus had friends over routinely. Establishing the sense of value for the bottle with my friends, I made it known that with the bowling tournament in town, I’d made good tips and simply felt “wealthy”, so I bought the bottle of Gold Label as a reward for myself. It sat unopened like a trophy in a glass case for all to see. In about a week, I decided the time was right to test if the perceived value of this expensive scotch would pay off in the reality of my friends drinking it. With a gathering of a few close friends, I put some showmanship into opening it. When it came time to uncork it, I tore the foil to take the stopper out. This “broke the seal” in front of my gathered brethren, and cemented the idea that what I was about to generously pour was the real deal. A good friend had the first pour and first sip. His reaction was priceless. A genuine look of satisfaction and an exclamation after savoring the first drink that “That’s some good sh*t!”.  It was a well scotch in top-shelf clothing, but the ruse worked.

Over the next month or so we drank the whole bottle, always coming up with a “special occasion” where I’d be convinced to break out the good stuff. I’d succeeded in duping everyone that drank any of it, and nobody was the wiser. Perhaps this had to do with the sophistication of the palates of my friends when it came to scotch, or it may have been simply that they trusted me. But, I didn’t tell anyone for at least a year, and when I did, the reaction was a bit of disbelieve and good humor.

Fast forward to today, and I count this experience as proof of the importance of perception in anything we do. While there is a difference in the quality or process required to put Gold Label in a bottle compared to Red Label, at the end of the day, it’s all whisky. In our society of surplus, when consumers are faced with more choices than they need, the perceived value of your brand and products should be held in the highest regard. The use of your product and the customer’s satisfaction with it can have as much to do with what they expect of it as is does with what benefits your product actually delivers. Whiles tastes are subjective, I’ve witnessed first hand the reality that the perceived value of a product has on the consumer.

So, are you marketing for Red Label or Gold?