Market View: Be Authentically Authentic

Understand what authenticity means to consumers in your specific category; then use it, don't abuse it.

By John Stanton, Contributing Editor

For as long as I can remember, whenever I would study food attributes and benefits, taste was always No. 1. Convenience has been the runner-up for the past 20 years, and then a variety of different attributes would appear as the latest "in thing."

However recently I have seen one attribute across a variety of product categories make a run at third place: authenticity. Consumers are looking for "authentic food and authentic spokespersons." I'm not sure why I'm surprised, as everywhere I go I ask the waiter for a "local, authentic meal." But I guess I thought I was an exception. So my quest was to find out what "authentic" means to consumers.

After doing focus groups and various quantitative studies, I concluded that authentic means a number of different things to consumers (what else is new in marketing?). One meaning was traceable to a specific source. Thus consumers seemed disappointed when they discovered that much Italian oil olive actually is blended from olive oil from all over Europe and therefore not authentic; but they think balsamic vinegar from only Modena is authentic.

Food companies need to be very vigilant when it comes to authenticity. Quite often we see a small successful brand/company that is very authentic. Its success is based on consumers' belief that it is the real thing.

I discovered that authentic can also mean that the product is what it claims to be. For example, if consumers want local food, they would consider it authentic if it comes from a farm or plant within a few miles of the store or at least from the same state. Some supermarkets in my area, such as Wegmans, make a big deal of saying who the farmers and producers are in the store with pictures and stories. The local products are perceived to be authentic.

On the other hand when Frito-Lay had a campaign in my area claiming that its potatoes were local, the snack food behemoth had no authenticity with this claim. (BTW, I think the company is a great marketer.)

Authentic is relative to a location. I found that Chicago-style pizza is authentic in Chicago but is often viewed as a substitute for the real thing everywhere else. The various national pizza chains can sell Chicago-style pizza but they can't sell Chicago pizza.

Consumers don't see the national chains as being authentic Chicago pizza. Pizzeria Uno might make a great pizza but it also may not be perceived as authentic when it's in another state.

I find examples here in Philadelphia, where I live. We have authentic Philly Cheesesteak on every corner. Yet I am hard pressed to find authentic Philly Cheesesteak anywhere in the supermarket or on the streets of other cities. The Walmart brand of "Philly cheesesteak" may be OK but Walmart and authentic should not be said in the same breath.

Let's be clear: Walmart may not need to be authentic. Every company doesn't have to jump on the latest consumer trend. Frito-Lay makes great products and it doesn't need to try to convince consumers that this national company is local and/or authentic.

Food companies need to be very vigilant when it comes to authenticity. Quite often we see a small successful brand/company that is very authentic. Its success is based on consumers' belief that it is the real thing. It is then purchased by a big food company with intentions to expand this small, authentic brand to every part of the U.S. In many cases the niche product loses its authenticity and becomes stagnant rather than growing.

Digital-age consumers are very aware of authenticity. When the bloggers talk about products on-line they are expected to be authentic sources of information and untainted by promotions. Young consumers flock to these new products. Having a well known blogger fall in love with your product is better than almost any other form of promotion. However if the digital audience believes that the blogger is nothing but a paid spokesperson for the company, then they lose the authenticity of the recommendation.

I don't think that having the late (great) Michael Jackson promote a soft drink he never drank would work today.

I believe that success leaves clues and we can learn a lot about authenticity by looking back. One lesson is that you must understand what authenticity means to consumers in your specific category. No question, it means different things depending on the category. While I am not a fan of qualitative research this is a perfect situation to use that approach.

You have to remember that you get the right to make product claims from the government or your company but the right to have claims positively influence purchases comes from consumers. If you find that consumers will permit you to make an authentic claim, do it, and do it with vigor (that means money) and quickly. Who knows when fickle consumers will turn their attention elsewhere.

If you find you are not perceived as an authentic, don't try to fool consumers with fake claims. Consumers really do see through the nonsense. This often hurts more than helps.

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