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Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
"thinkAbout 2003": Strategic Horizons' yearly conference examines authenticity
Patricia Esgate (firstname.lastname@example.org ) is the co-author of The Entertainment Marketing Revolution(Prentice Hall, 2000) and the Editor/Publisher of The E-Gate, a monthly newsletter focusing on the experiential industry.
Today's consumers are jammed with thousands of marketing messages per day - as if the simple tactic of endless repetition was going to produce the desired reaction - to get them to buy the product, to purchase the ticket to the destination, to tattoo the brand over their heart.
The problem is that consumers are ignoring marketing messages by channel hopping, turning on the TiVO, and tearing the logos off the apparel. And why not? What does "branding" actually mean to the consumer? In a world where brand extensions stretch credulity, marketers need to consider just how dangerous it is to alienate loyal customers.
Consider the once mighty, now faltering Disney brand. Five years ago its marketers could do no wrong - The Disney Store, The Disney Channel, Disney Cruise Lines, Disney movies (with Pixar) and most important, the jewel in the crown, Disneyland and Walt Disney World. In sum, brand extensions meant big dollars, big reputation, and big bonuses for executives. But today the Disney Store is on the block, Pixar has plans to do its own thing, and theme park attendance is down - way down. What happened?
At the Strategic Horizons' 2003 annual "thinkAbout" conference held recently in New York, the consensus was that Disney ignored its heritage and adopted a reckless strategy of disconnected brand extension. Its management team forgot that first and foremost, they were a place in people's hearts and minds - and a destination. And most important, a destination that promised a world of charmed imagination, a special place where magic happened. They left that behind and became a product - one that you can find literally everywhere. Now there's even Disney paint at Home Depot.
In short, its marketers lost track of the authentic Disney, and in doing so, lost a portion of their audience. Similarly, in many corporations around the world the alienated segment of their market seems to be increasing. And as a result, "authenticity" has become the latest strategic issue.
So why is "authenticity" now so important to today's brands, businesses, destinations? Why has it become the subject of so much executive attention, the "thinkAbout" conference in New York City, being just one example? Because today's consumer has changed - and if business leaders don't change with them, their brand is at risk.
First and foremost, the delivery of your message needs to change. Brand strategy of the last few decades has produced an incredible clutter. Incessant marketing has produced consumers skilled at turning off marketing noise. You want to cut through the clutter? Then stop creating it. Focus on what your audience is asking for: a real belief in your product. Stop the catchy slogans and the clever jingles, and wrap your arms around the consumer with an authentic experience of who you are and what you stand for.
According to hosts Joe Pine and Jim Gilmore at "thinkAbout" 2003, there are three key principles that are crucial to creating and maintaining an authentic experience of your brand:
If you're authentic, then you don't have to say you are. Consider Harley Davidson motorcycles. Harley never has to use the word authentic because there isn't a Harley devotee who doesn't clearly and completely understand the strength and story of that brand. When people finally buy their Harley they revel in the experience of joining the "club".
If you say you're authentic, then you better be authentic. Consider the Olive Garden restaurant. Though your first reaction may be, "Ooooh, chain restaurant, big plates", the fact is that the Olive Garden is knee deep in their authenticity. They train their chefs at a school in Tuscany. They are true to their devotion to creating authentic Italian food, and delivering it in a comfortable, family-friendly atmosphere. They are completely true to their market base, and the people who frequent the restaurant are loyal to the brand.
It's easier to be authentic if you don't proclaim that you're "authentic". If you can't walk the walk, then don't talk the talk.
The polarity of fake and real
This phenomenon of authenticity goes deep into yet another concept presented at "thinkAbout", the polarity of fake and real. "Authentic" is a term that is self defined. No one can determine what authentic is because consumers decide for themselves. People choose to become a loyal user/consumer/visitor/guest of the product/brand/destination/experience.
To push this concept even further, according to Pine and Gilmore, there are those that revel in the total fakery of a particular product or concept. Consider the fake fire in the fireplace video available in the SkyMall catalog. Restful, Zen experience? Maybe, but it's highly possible that a lot of those videos have been sold because the overall fakeness of it drives it into the "gotta have just because it's SO fake" category. Other examples are genuine imitation leather and faux fur. Or those plastic dashboards made to look like woodgrain - why not just make them look like plastic? Because the consumer prefers the fake-fakeness of it.
The end result of the fake/real argument is that the importance lies in recognizing the authenticity of your product/brand/destination/experience. In other words, what your product heritage is; what your customers expect from you, based on past experience; and what your employees believe to be the core values and competencies of the company. As Joe Pine explained, "You can't stay true to yourself unless you know who you are". Understanding this concept has specific positive, measurable outcomes.
Specific audiences have preferences for products that are authentic to their specific tastes, values and desires. Those audiences choose those products based on their own preferences and stay with them. Authenticity is a key component of brand loyalty.
Specific audiences that fully understand a product - its heritage, its backstory, and its history of staying true to its values - will support new products related to the original, and will carry over the goodwill. Authenticity is a key component of brand extension.
The people who produce a particular product - the employees, the suppliers, and the distributors - respond to heritage. Pride in workmanship, pride in heritage, go a long way in creating workteams that support the success of the organization. Authenticity is a key component of employee recruitment, employee retention and grassroots marketing.
If you ignore your heritage, do you become inauthentic? According to the "thinkAbout" presenters, brand loyalty disappears as the core customer finds the identity being "messed with". Brand extensions fail due to this disconnect. As an example: John Deere tractors vs. John Deere snowmobiles. Consumers who admired John Deere as a solid work product did not buy the name on a play product. Straying too far from product heritage - the authentic product - leaves employees in the dark as to their role, and ultimately can set them up for failure, as they are forced to produce something that they don't feel familiar with or qualified to deliver.
Pine and Gilmore wrote the seminal work on the subject, The Experience Economy. They believe that in order for the public to respond to experiences, those experiences must "conform to the individual's own self-image to be perceived as authentic". The primary way to accomplish this task is to stay true to the heritage of the product; by doing so, you will attract not only long-time users of the product, but also new converts hungry for the same experience. Why? Because the message is consistent; it can be trusted; it speaks to the particular preferences of the user. By accepting your offering, individuals establish their own authenticity, their own unique place in the world.
In a world cluttered with marketing and me-too overload, the authenticity of your message, your product, and your venue is a unique strategic asset.