The Tao Te Ching seems an unlikely source of inspiration for the corporate rebranding of luxury products. This spiritual guidebook written by Lao Tsu, a peer of Confucius, contains lines such as I am aimless and depressed, There is no greater sin than desire and (my personal favorite) Ruling the country is like cooking a small fish.

But last week, there was Jay Witzel, head of hotels and cruises for Carlson, beginning his address to the press, key suppliers and agents by discussing the Tao of Regent to describe the philosophy behind the newly blended cruise-and-hotel brand.

Tao was defined by Marilyn Carlson Nelson, in her remarks, as a path of virtuous conduct. Freedom, choice and service figure prominently in the Tao of Regent (far, far better options than depression, sin and small fish). The Tao of Regent answers the questions that havent yet been asked, serves others as if serving oneself, hears and sees needs before a need even forms in a guests mind.

Given the high-end target demographics for Regent, the brands Tao is both virtuous and opulent.

I wish we had a different word [for luxury], Nelson said, ruing that the term has been overused. She offered, if not a new word, a new definition of luxury for this generation: choice, access and intimacy.

If the guardians of the new Regent brand focus on the word choice in particular, they will have something at least as valuable as the blessing of Lao Tsu -- they will have the blessing of researchers at Stanford, Columbia and Swarthmore.

In an article about choice and social class that ran in the New York Times Magazine last month, authors Barry Schwartz, Hazel Rose Markus and Alana Conner Snibbe cited studies done at those universities that contain lessons not only for marketers of luxury brands but contra-lessons for marketers of mass brands.

The studies support the hypothesis that if youre educated and have money, youll equate choice with freedom. That is not so surprising. But what may be a revelation was that the word choice inspired insecurity and uncertainty in the working class.

One study showed that among people whose parents had no more than a high school education, the word choice was more closely associated with fear, doubt and difficulty than freedom, action and control (the latter being descriptors that the offspring of college graduates chose).

When presented with a choice of pens they could keep as a gift, the working class felt no more attachment to the pen than if they had been given one at random. But college-educated folk assigned special value to a pen simply because they had chosen it themselves.

Likewise, if the neighbors of college grads should buy the same type of car that they own, they will value their own car less -- their copycat neighbors will have diminished their sense of individuality. On the other hand, a working-class car buyer was likely to feel reassured he or she made the right choice if a neighbor purchases the same make and model.

But too much choice is too much of a good thing, even for the educated elites, the article concludes. They, too, will begin to feel an increase in stress, anxiety and dissatisfaction if presented with an abundance of options.

In other words, in the words of Lao Tsu, in fact, He who knows that enough is enough will always have enough.

And for the working class, Lao Tsu looks with dignity at their lack of desire for differentiation through material consumption:

I have three treasures which I hold and keep. The first is mercy; the second is economy; the third is daring not to be ahead of others.

The Tao of Regent is not for the masses, but there are plenty of other industry brands where the masses can find happiness -- perhaps, interestingly enough, within the portfolio of a company called Choice.


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