Artisan, my a***

Two thoughts came to mind when I was casting around for something to write about this week.

Thought 1. I’ve just got back from a week in Brittany where I was reminded how every town of any size at all in France seems to boast at least one artisan boulanger and boucher-charcutier. We crave the artisan and the real too but get Greggs and Tesco Metro instead. Why?

Thought 2. A report in The Times this week revealed how reputation management agencies (the ghastly lovechild of PR and marketing comms) are being paid by leading brands to create hundreds of false Facebook friends and Twitter followers to flatter those brands. A timely warning about the downside of the social media revolution?

Which led me to Thought 3. Isn’t it a rich irony that, at the very time marketers are imploring consumers to value the ‘authenticity’ of food products, shopping experiences etc, they are simultaneously developing ever more sophisticated ways of faking it?

We’re so good at fakery in Britain you wonder if it could become one of our leading exports. A typical (and real-life) food retailing example would be the pack of supermarket bacon featuring a photograph of a ruddy-faced British farmer leaning on a five-bar-gate in front of some rolling Sussex downlands — where the Bacon actually came from a Dutch factory farm. But it’s not just fake imagery that we’ve got to deal with, it’s also the breathless ease with which fakers switch from one writing style and vocabulary to another when posting fake customer testimonials. You’d really think that Mrs. E Nibbs was alive and well and totally living in Leighton Buzzard.

Back to matters artisanal. Those French boulangeries and charcuteries have to be part of accredited schemes to use the term ‘artisan’. But the evidence of their authenticity is all there to see, smell and taste. And if you happen to walk past a boulangerie at 3am you’ll probably see some actual artisan boulangers crafting their pain au levain or complet.

Sadly, elsewhere the term artisan is every bit as elastic as that other marketing buzzword ‘ethical’. As well as artisanal bread, cheese and furniture (all fine I’m sure), a quick Google will highlight artisanal chocolate, cupcakes, hairdressers, chewing gum, vinyl flooring and PR (yes siree) — although for my money it’s ‘artisan software’ that takes the craft-baked biscuit.

If I’m sounding a tad sensitive, perhaps a little tiny bit John Humphreys-ish about this, it’s only out of sheer frustration that another perfectly good word that has been hijacked by marketers* and left for dead through shameless opportunism and overuse.

Just don’t even get me started on ‘iconic’.

* Apologies to 100% ethical, unfalteringly professional and non-cynical marketers everywhere

By Jim Manson

Natural Products editor and environment journalist
Jim Manson is editor of Natural Products magazine. He’s written widely on environment and development issues for specialist magazines and national media, including the Financial Times, The Guardian and Time Out.