A year ago, I wrote about “authenticity”. I was concerned not only with how important it is in communications, but the fact that the marketing community rarely gets it.
Many marketers think it means claims for products or services need to look or feel authentic, when the whole point is that it needs to be genuinely authentic.
My point was that with the internet and a more cynical, impatient population, if you are not genuine you’re likely to be found out quickly – and ridiculed.
Has anything changed? I singled out BP’s Beyond Petroleum and the Alaskan pipeline and Texas refinery disasters. Lord Browne has since gone and his successor, Tony Hayward, has quietly dropped the line. But it was only afterwards that I learned it got worse before it got better. While touting its green credentials, BP enraged Chicago city officials by applying to dump 54% more ammonia and 35% more “suspended solids” into Lake Michigan.
Chicago’s chief environment officer said: “We’d like BP to live up to its advertising.” Quite so, if rather mildly put.
A brand’s authenticity is undermined if its communications do not match its actions – and if its communications are irrelevant to the brand and stretch it too far.
Financial services company ING Direct, for example, launched cafés to “live its marketing mantra of ‘sip, surf and save’’’.
It gets better. “The cafés are brand ambassadors,” we were told, with “employees trained to sell ING financial products as well as snacks and beverages.”
If you’re not convinced ING Direct understands authenticity, next try estate agent Bushells and its introduction of Emily.
“Emily has been introduced because she describes the personality of our company… she is friendly, warm, welcoming, helpful, honest, reliable and trustworthy.”
But, oh dear, then Bushells leaves us devastated when it tells us: “Emily is not meant to be the type of person you are, she is meant to represent the type of people we are.” Sathnan Sanghera in The Times described this as “the corporate equivalent of being chatted up by a barely functioning robot which has been programmed, incompetently, to communicate with humans”.
How far can you stretch a brand before its core positioning is undermined? ITV recently announced it wanted to work with a pub owner to launch a chain of Coronation Street’s Rovers Return. Dawn Airey, then ITV’s director of global content, said: “We are looking to exploit all our brands in a more commercial and efficient way.” But the drive to “exploit” and the need to be “authentic” are often in conflict. My guess is that Coronation Street is a very real world for followers, but only in their heads, helped by temporary suspension of disbelief. Many years ago, I remember going into a Cheers bar in Boston – a disappointing experience that detracted from the magic of the brand.
Christian Dior and Yves St Laurent pursued the “exploitation” route for many years, but relatively recently have taken steps to recapture their original identity. For Dior chief executive Sidney Toledano, the moment came when he learnt that the company was selling more than 300 T-shirts a day. ITV needs to advance with caution.
In many cases, “authenticity” lies in the head of the consumer – middle-aged American men buy a chunk of freedom when they purchase a Harley Davidson; younger Americans buy a Corona beer and get “a vacation in a bottle”. I bought Nike for a piece of American “Can Do” (even when I knew I was buying an Asian-manufactured product); I am a Caffe Nero addict because it transports me to Italy. Not one of these experiences stands up to rational analysis. That’s OK – it’s only in our heads, but brand owners mess with it at their peril.
It is true that in many markets, “perception is more important than reality”. Few premium priced products can be justified rationally. The tangible benefits don’t add up to the premium charged. With sufficient disposable income and a positive economic climate, few will complain about that, but it should never be an excuse to con the consumer.
James Gilmore and Joseph Pine, authors of Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want, tell us not to slap “real” or “authentic” all over packaging, but to “render such representations to be perceived as authentic”. There’s that phrase again: “Perceived as authentic”. One example they give is of a packaged goods giant that – one of its own execs told me – continuously extracted value from its products to maximise profits.
Luxury goods manufacturers tread a fine line – the pretence is that they are still produced by craftsmen for an elite, yet they are mass-produced, often in China. EU rulings allow them to claim “Made in Italy” as long as part of the process is performed there. There seems to be little differentiation from brands such as Hermès, which apparently still uses genuine craftsmen, who spend 18 to 20 hours on each handbag.
How much better are these mass-produced luxury goods firms than the JWP Company, which sent me an e-mail last week headed “Top Notch Imitations of Famous Brands”? JWP told me to “Buy our copies of the high end watches, that will feel like you are wearing the original!”.
When the original is no longer original, aren’t these luxury brands playing into the hands of the counterfeiters?