Being authentic

In a recent brand immersion event that I attended, one of the primary platforms identified by a client to strengthen the equity of all portfolio brands was ‘authenticity’. Being authentic can stand for many different things and its meaning / connotation / expression will vary significantly across brands. In majority of instances, brands define ‘authenticity’ by following category norms and principles. Some pathbreaking brands create new meanings and expressions of ‘authenticity’ and are able to generate consumer engagement towards these.

Going back to the very basics, the Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘authentic’ as‘being of undisputed origin and not a copy; genuine’. To weave this definition in a brand’s development strategy is a complex task in today’s corporate world. Why is the case? The complexity arises from the fact that brands today do not have a single origin or source and are manufactured through processes that are truly global in nature (multiple source points, multiple manufacturing locations, distributed supply chains etc.). On the top of this sourcing and manufacturing complexity is the fact that even if a brand does source its primary ingredients from a single place, the ingredients in many instances do not characterise the brand. The only exceptions to this rule are brands that use ‘provenance’ as their primary differentiating characteristic. ‘Provenance’ is quite close to ‘authenticity’ in meaning and is defined as ‘the place of origin or the earliest known history of something’ (Oxford English Dictionary).

Brands in the segments of food (finished or raw), alcoholic beverages, finished clothing and accessories, handicrafts etc. have successfully used the ‘provenance’ principle as an articulation of ‘authenticity’. The list of such brands across these segments is quite long and many of them have reached iconic status, i.e. even contributing to their respective nation’s brand identity.

But ‘provenance’ is a slippery beast. Let’s take the example of Gloucester cheese to highlight how elements of provenance can slip. Again using a word closely related to the subject, the ‘original’ Gloucester cheese is made using milk from a ‘once nearly extinct’ and now ‘rare’ breed of Gloucester cattle. So what happens if the Gloucester breed of cattle unfortunately becomes extinct going forward? Will Gloucester cheese lose its provenance certification? Will be interesting to see.

After establishing a rationale for the argument, let’s analyse the argument. If authenticity’s truest symbolism is ‘provenance’, then what about brands that started life in a single location but are now globally manufactured through distributed processes and systems? Let’s take an example that looks at the famed “Made in Germany” authenticity tag. BMW is an epitome of the “Made in Germany” tag and is a embodiment of German efficiency, design and engineering superiority. Below is an (illustrative) list of BMW’s manufacturing and assembling processes around the world (Source: Wikipedia and other publications):

  • Starting 2010, the new BMW X3 is manufactured by BMW US Manufacturing Company at Greer, Spartanburg County, South Carolina
  • Has local assembly operations and knock down manufacturing capabilities in Thailand, Russia, Egypt, Indonesia, Malaysia and India for different car models
  • In October 2014, BMW’s manufacturing facility in Araquari, Santa Catarina, Brazil produced its first car
  • Brilliance Auto manufacturers BMW branded cars in China
  • BMW’s state of the art assembly plant in Chennai (South India) assembles cars from different BMW series’

If we were to extend the provenance principle to authenticity, then BMW should have lost any sense of authenticity long time back? But it has not. The driving force behind the hardiness of BMW’s authentic image has been the ability to transcend the once tangible “Made in Germany” tag to the intangibles of design excellence, engineering efficiency and performance by applying the principles behind the original tag. In short, if ‘provenance’ is difficult to emphasise due to globalisation, disseminate and standardise the processes that bring that ‘provenance’ to life.

Let’s look at another example from a different (but obvious) industry. Provenance has always been a significant differentiating platform in the luxury industry. Bottega Veneta’s authenticity claim is the “intrecciato”, a leather weaving technique pioneered and perfected by the brand. Each and every leather product of Hermès is produced in one of its 12 workshops (all located in France), which employ more than 3000 skilled workers. Compare and contrast this with the Zegna Group (the business behind the Ermenegildo Zegna brand) – 8 manufacturing plants in Italy, 2 in Spain, 3 in Switzerland, 1 in Mexico and 1 in Turkey. A truly globalised operation and on the top of it, the group is also one of the largest importers of Australian wool.

The luxury industry will have numerous other examples that will fall on both ends of the spectrum – very localised and protected ‘provenance’ characteristics on one end to efficient & globalised operations on the other. Gucci, a global brand in its own right, still manufacturers 100% of its leather goods, shoes and ready to wear products in its Florence workshops.

The above example highlight another way by which ‘authenticity’ can be communicated even if the strength of ‘provenance’ has been diluted to some extent. This would be by the principle of what I would call “allure”. Over a course of time, different countries or regions of the world have become associated with specific things. France and Italy epitomise “luxury”. So an ‘authentic’ luxury brand in the minds of a consumer needs to have at least a French or Italian provenance to begin with. Those who are interested in exploring this phenomenon further should read the very interesting, thought provoking and radical “Luxury, Lies and Marketing” by Marie-Claude Sicard.

Consider the following examples as a reality check as to why luxury can have far wider provenance definitions than only France and Italy – Ralph Lauren (American), Tiffany & Co. (American), Burberry (British) and Wedgwood (British).

I have highlighted the “principle of process dissemination” and“principle of allure” as two concepts through brands can continue to build on ‘authenticity’ platforms even when the forces of globalisation have weakened the ‘provenance’ differentiation. An obvious fallout of the above two principles are the unfortunate consequences of globalisation – counterfeiting and bogus credentials. These are the two areas brand owners need to be careful of in terms of consumer perception. ‘Authenticity’ as a concept does not work ‘also rans’. It is a differentiating platform that needs to be identified, carefully crafted, nurtured and communicated. Even if one of the above principles are being applied, the underlying core value of the brand around authenticity should be very strong. 

There are numerous examples of brands that fail to apply any of the two principles above (or anything in between) and equally strong examples of brands that have been able to do so. This is because identifying unique authentic positioning platforms is difficult. ‘Provenance’ works best with localised approaches towards sourcing of raw materials, localised manufacturing processes and community engagement and participation.

The positive trend is that mainstream brands are slowly rising up to the ‘authenticity’ opportunity and fusing it with ‘provenance’. Ever noticed Starbucks attempts to sell a different ‘origin’ coffee flavour every other month? This is an example of infusing the ‘authenticity / provenance’ characteristic in a branded cup of coffee that has American origins. In short, every different brand or ‘origin’ coffee flavour we try results in Starbucks adding a layer of ‘provenance’ differentiation to its brand image. Another really relevant example is the whole ‘craft beer’ revolution that is taking Europe and North America by storm. The whole ‘craft beer’ category is a ‘provenance’ story that drives authenticity.

Each and every craft beer brand has a unique story to tell – from Islington Steam Lager to Undercurrent to Darwin’s Origin to So’hop, the brewing style and the use of ingredients is the ‘authenticity’ story (and not provenance).

So there are myriad ways brands are talking about authenticity these days, and provenance seems to have taken a lead in terms of its articulation, expression and communication. The profound challenge of maintaining and strengthening an authentic brand image is the need to be forcefully consistent. Competitive, structural, categorical, industrial and economic factors pull and push brand brand values and positioning apart. Those who remain eternally authentic are the ones who can mitigate and leverage the impact of these factors.

If anyone is interested to know the latest in the ‘provenance’ story, I would recommend checking out the website of the startup Project Provenance (https://www.provenance.org). Disclaimer: I have no commercial interest or association with Project Provenance. I feel what they are doing is beautiful and enabling, so thought of sharing

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