Dmitry Petrov on the power of stories, and how the simple things can be converted into strong memories.
The Journal of the Medinge Group, vol. 6, no. 1, 2013
So it happened. Once upon a time in America, and more exactly back in 2006, in California.
Viktor, a Russian friend of mine interested in the philosophical dimension of branding, and I are riding through California towards the Nevada border, following the route we got two weeks before from Stanley Moss at a dinner in the Ritz–Carlton Hotel, in Virginia.
We had started from San Francisco’s Beat Museum, stopped in Oakland for a brief look at the pot-shops in this town (quite unusual at the time in the USA), drove south to Tehachapi Pass, famous for its beauty and jail, and headed for the arid city of Bakersfield.
That was our first visit to the west coast. And it was fun to drive through picturesque valleys and small towns, making stops, visiting spots, talking about the stories we would tell friends after our victorious return. The importance of the stories in human communication—that was our main topic for this period of the trip. The power of the stories people tell, sometimes about very simple things, making these things amazing and popular, helping them to sell well. Converting stories into brands.
So we’ve been on the road, chatting and listening to Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘America’ (one great story, by the way). And no doubt, there it was—America on all sides.
We headed towards the mountains, through the hot day, with the air conditioner turned on, dreaming California dreams and watching the Californian sun going down. We wanted to get to Bakersfield by midnight. The final part of the route we spent in darkness, passing the string of giant trucks, afraid to squeeze our Toyota into this endless line in order to sneak out to our exit. Nevertheless—just barely—we made our way off, and soon we got a room in a local saloon. Actually, it was a Holiday Inn with its complete set of standard furniture and standard hospitality so common for this brand. But there in the room we found something not standard at all.
It was just a sheet of paper. Small, pale yellow and nice-looking. And there was something printed on it. Definitely not usual, at least for us. It was a story. A story of a ‘Holiday Inn Bakersfield cinnamon bun’. Wonderful and unique. We soon found out that such a cookie could only be found here and nowhere else on earth.
We knew something about rolled cookies. My mother-in-law was a great cook and she was very good at baking them. But I had never known that a description of such a simple thing as a cookie could be so colourful, poetic, expressive and convincing. Oh, Lord! It was magic! I regret that I foolishly did not take this pale yellow paper with me, did not frame it, never put it on a wall, never learned it by heart, and now cannot quote it to you.
It told us about the woman who invented the cookie. And how she composed this harmonic symphony of cinnamon, sugar and pastry. And how she added something of herself to every one. But it was not just a recipe. This cookie appeared right in front of us—before our inner eyes: fresh like a rose, soft like a bride’s cheek and sweet like her breath, tender like Mommy’s voice, warm like a spring morning and totally unique. When we finished reading, we could not withstand a temptation to read it again. And again. I even wanted to sing it. It was like a hymn, a hymn to a cookie that one must taste once in his life and recall forever. It was a must. I wish I could repeat at least a small part of this myth, legend, fairy-tale. It really deserved it!
But we should not be late, the letter warned. For the amount of cinnamon buns was limited and the crowd of guests quite large. And—lucky folks—we knew we could comply with its directive at breakfast tomorrow. Yes, we certainly would! We knew that it was important not to miss the experience. But at the end of a hard day we did not want to wake up too early. So we agreed to set the alarm for 8 a.m.
Tired, I fell asleep. Happy. I knew: a cinnamon cookie full of wonders would be waiting for me in the morning. Just downstairs. I can’t say for certain, but now it seems that for that particular night a California dream gave way to a Cinnamon dream, light and bright.
The morning was friendly, shining and promising delights. I woke up whistling a Glenn Miller ‘In the Mood’ thing. Then, like a child in wild anticipation, barely dressed, I rushed down to the restaurant. You know what I wanted to grab there. Yes. The cooookie!
Viktor was running ahead of me. It was a race, with a great prize at the finish line. And I entered the restaurant only a few seconds after him …
When I did, I found that something in our world had gone terribly wrong. There he was, my friend, standing by the table where the cookie tray was supposed to be. His face was pale. He looked lost. The tray was empty. Embarrassed, we gazed around the dull and standard room, full of happy people chewing our cookies. The winners. The cookie-eaters. The cinnamon dream was vanishing before our eyes. But hope dies last. So we asked the waitress: maybe there are some extra cookies in the kitchen, madaaaam? Two. Or even one…
‘Well,’ she said coldly, ‘no. You’re too late, guys.’
Silently we had our standard breakfast of fruit juice, bacon and eggs. Silently packed our things. Silently said goodbye to Bakersfield, California. And started slowly for the Grand Canyon, leaving the pale yellow paper there on the table in the room.
And talking about the mightiness of stories people tell each other. Sometimes about very simple things.