The cost of an icon

If one of the goals of a brand – and particularly a luxury brand – is to charge a premium for their goods and services, Harry’s Bar in Venice must have a very strong brand. Last week on a trip to Venice, five of us dropped in for a quick afternoon drink and came out almost 100 Euros lighter. My quick “back of the napkin” math told me that our five 8 ounce Bellinis would have most likely cost them less than 10 Euros to make. Which meant that they were making approximately a 1,000% markup on these drinks – which is impressive for any business.

BillHarry’s Bar has been an institution since 1931 and for many years was the place to go for writers, artists, celebrities and aristocrats living in or visiting Venice. Ernest Hemingway used to have his own table and talked about the bar in his novel “Across the River and into the Trees”.  They still work very hard to keep the brand image polished as seen from uniforms of the wait staff to understated signage and decor. Something I thought was interesting was that in this age of tourist “selfies”, picture taking is not allowed in the bar “in order to respect the privacy of their patrons” but I think it really is about building brand mystique.

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Another thing that intrigued me about Harry’s Bar was the fact that it gets poor reviews for both its food and service from the official travel guides as well as user reviews on travel websites. But the brand seems as healthy as ever with lineups at the door and branded cookbook for sale. So given large markups on drinks and poor word of mouth, why did I make sure to stop by for a drink during my time in Venice? In some ways it’s similar to why I stopped for a cheeseburger at Weber’s the other week. While both occupy completely different price points and draw people for different reasons, both are icons in their particular worlds. People come to see what the buzz is all about or possibly capture, even if just for a moment, part of its mystique.

In the end I enjoyed my Bellini, a peach juice and Prosecco cocktail created at Harry’s in the ‘30s. Maybe it was the aura of Ernest Hemingway’s* time in the bar rubbing off on me, but I thought there was still a unique glow in the bar there for all to capture and enjoy – even if it meant paying substantially for the privilege.

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