Consumer behaviour, and the ways in which advertisers seek to influence this behaviour, is a subject which has received much attention from psychologists, sociologists, economists and many others. However, consumer behaviour is constantly changing, trends come and go, new brands are introduced with colourful and prolific advertising campaigns and yet may disappear in months. On the other hand some older brands seem to have been consistently successful for decades without any discernable advertising or promotion. There are no hard and fast rules by which consumers make decisions. On the contrary, consumer decision-making behaviour is influenced by a myriad of factors. These include values, attitudes, culture, family, income and motivation. However this is by no means a definitive list. Advertisers and marketing professionals aim to affect our consumption decisions by appealing to factors which they think we value and will pay for. Among these, authenticity is important and in recent years has become even more so.
We live in an age where we are constantly bombarded by advertising, where products are marketed on a global scale and where we can purchase the exact same meals, shoes, and clothes in almost any country in the world. The so-called McDonaldisation effect refers in part to a standardisation of products and services throughout the world, or at least in the developed world (and to a growing extent elsewhere). We can sip our Starbucks coffee in similar Italian style coffee house surroundings whether we are in Belfast or Beirut. We can order a Big Mac and Fries in Moscow or in Mecca and know that what we eat will taste the same and is produced to the exact same specifications. Shops such as Ikea, B&Q and Woodies seem to mushroom on the outskirts of larger towns and cities creating a sameness that is at once comforting and repellent. Hence the backlash against the mass-produced consumer must-haves and the yearning for the original, the genuine, the human and the authentic. People have become sceptical about many things, politicians, the media and religion included. They have become desensitised to advertisements and are attracted to products which reflect something more meaningful, more original and which hark back to simpler days gone by. As Mastercard puts it, ‘the best things in life are free’. This is where authenticity comes in. And yet, how authentic is ‘the genuine article’ (Miller), how real is ‘the real thing’ (Coke) and what makes either of them genuine or real?
In this paper we will examine consumer behaviour and marketing in general. Then we will focus on authenticity, what it is exactly and how it is achieved, or at least how the notion of it is achieved. Lastly we will explore whether the trend towards authenticity will continue in the context of today’s society.
According to the American Marketing Association, marketing is ‘the process of planning and executing the conception, pricing, promotion, and distribution of ideas, goods, and services to create exchanges that satisfy individual and organisational objectives.’ (www.marketingpower.com) For marketing to occur, three main criteria must be met.Firstly, there must be two parties, each with unsatisfied needs or wants. On the consumer’s part this is a product, good or service. On the marketer’s part this is normally (though not always) profit. Secondly, each side must have something to exchange. When a consumer buys a flight at £15 on Ryanair, he or she values that flight more then their money at that time. Likewise, Ryanair value the money more. Thirdly the parties must be able to communicate, whether in person, online or by the wink of an eye in the auction room. For marketing to be successful, the four Ps are often invoked: product, place, promotion and price.
Marketers aim to persuade consumers. Consumer behaviour refers to ‘the psychological processes that consumers go through in recognising needs, finding ways to solve these needs, making purchase decisions (whether or not make a purchase and if so, which brand and where) interpret information, make plans, and implement these plans (e.g., by engaging in comparison shopping or actually purchasing a product). (Baker, 2000, p19) Many factors influence this process. Cultural influences may prompt me to buy a certain book or magazine. My social environment may influence my choice of car, especially if I am trying to keep up with my peers. Certain brands may be influenced by family, a type of toothpaste or soap powder which I have always used growing up perhaps. On the other hand I most definitely do not want to be seen wearing the same brand of shoes as my mother!
As one of these many factors, how does authenticity affect consumer behaviour? What is authenticity? And how do we know its real?
Lewis et al cite the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of authenticity as ‘genuine, reliable, trustworthy, real, actual, original and of established credit’ (2001, p24). It is not surprising that the definition above contains many words which occur again and again in ads for anything from premium larger to building societies. Moore states that ‘human authenticity is about saying the truth as you see it’ (2002). The term is almost easier to define by listing what it is not. Authenticity is not fake, it is not imagined, it is not lies, and it is not mass-produced. However, the paradox is that many of the products which brand themselves as authentic are mass-produced in factories.
Consider the add for Magners (also known as Bulmers) Cider. The soft autumnal lighting, the harvesting of apples from the trees in the evening sunshine, the unhurried pace of life where nature dictates the timetable of the cider production, the satisfaction of the farmer that his trees have produced the healthy and ripe fruit that go to make the cider. It is a far cry from the industrial and chemical processes which go toward making our favourite summer beverage. A quote from a copywriter in the 1920s cited in Naomi Klein’s No Logo illustrates the rationale,
‘If you are advertising a product, never see the factory in which it was made…don’t watch the people at work…because, you see, when you know the truth about anything, the real inner truth- it is very hard to write the surface fluff which sells it’ (Boyle 2003 p259).
There is no doubt that authenticity is therefore an important element in marketing. The unprecedented success of the Levi’s 501 ad campaign in the late 1980s is another example of the importance of authenticity to the consumer. Levi’s launched a campaign using images of the 1950s, complete with a soundtrack from Marvin Gaye, which emphasised Levi’s as the original, longest lasting jeans. Using icons such as James Dean and a young Marlon Brando, Levi’s managed to increase its sales by 800%. Edwards (1997) points out that Levi’s claims to be the oldest and the original jeans were only partially true and comments, ‘this is of secondary importance as it hardly mattered whether the claim was true or not, for it remained and important part of the marketing campaign and, in implication, an equally important part of its success.’
The drinks industry and in particular beer and larger seems to stand out as one which utilises authenticity again and again. Miller is ‘the genuine article.’ Budweiser is simply ‘true’. Stella Artois is ‘reassuringly expensive’. The Campaign for Real Ale signified a move towards beers which were brewed locally and thus gained authenticity, Newcastle Brown Ale, Boddingtons (the Cream of Manchester). Boddingtons played on the down to earth appeal of their beer with the ad which had the catchphrase/ punchline ‘By ‘eck you smell gorgeous tonight love’, delivered of course in a strong Northern accent.
There are countless examples of how authenticity is important in advertising and marketing, but why is this so? Lewis and Bridger suggest that contemporary consumers see authentic products and services as offering the best value for money as a result of being of superior quality and as more reliable in use and therefore more likely to retain their value over time (2001, p28). However, this is not all, according to Lewis and Bridger,
‘underlying the lure of authenticity…is something far more central to the soul of New Consumers: self-fulfilment. In their quest for the authentic, New Consumers are really seeking to discover themselves. Not the people they feel themselves to be at this moment, but the kind of men and women they aspire to be and feel it is within their power to become’ (p28).
Moore argues that the thirst for authenticity is a reflection of society itself. Trust in authority is waning, people no longer unquestionably accept what they are told by politicians or the media. Large corporations are increasingly viewed with disdain and cynicism. Their messages, logos and slogans are subverted in the internet and elsewhere, even on t shirts. This sense of distrust has of course also affected how we view brands. Moore quotes an article by Hamel and Sampler in Fortune magazine, ‘as advertisers have pegged the hype-o-meter at 100, consumers have developed their b.s. detectors. No wonder more and more consumers are looking to get their information from someone who is unbiased’.
The reality is that consumers are subject to so much advertising in their day to day lives that they ‘filter out and ignore most of what companies try to tell them, or translate it into what they assume is real’ (Moore 2002).
This has led to a situation where companies more than ever emphasise that their product is indeed real and simple, the implication being that this makes their product different from the other similar products available on the market. The ad for Ronseal Quickdrying Woodstain is a case in point. It does exactly what it says on the tin. No hype, no nonsense- just quick drying woodstain.
The drive for simplicity and ‘realness’ has especially affected larger brands and products. In 2001 a Business Week poll found that 41 out of the top 74 brands had lost value in the previous year. According to Martin Hayward of the Henley Centre, ‘mass marketing has become a very hard thing to do because people don’t want to be seen as ‘normal’ anymore- they all want to be seen as individual…the bigger you become, the less appealing you become. It’s a dilemma: somehow, you have to find a way of exploiting the behind the scenes benefits of being big, yet at the point at which you touch the consumer, you have to be seen to be small’ (cited in Boyle, 2003, p13). Halifax Building Society and B&Q have both acted along these lines by having genuine employees appear in their advertisements. A quote from www.howies.co.uk sums up the paradoxes: ‘Big corporations pretending to be small. Small companies pretending to be big. Chains pretending to be independents. Independents are pretending to be chains. Towns are pretending to be cities. Cities are pretending to be towns.’
More often than not then, authenticity is something which is bestowed on a product or service by the marketer. However this is not always the case. Gregson et al comment on the value of vintage clothing compared to newer second-hand clothing. ‘It is as if distance, history and the authenticity encoded in such purchases over-ride the potential contamination of the body here’ (2000, p118). Miller also comments on this phenomenon. ‘The value of such clothes is that they are authentic, i.e. they really were actual 1960s clothes as opposed to the fake 1960s clothes one could buy in new clothing shops. It is their past which gives them authenticity which gives them value’ (2000 p80).
The value of authenticity or even the value of the appearance of authenticity has been proven above. So, our next question must be how do we achieve it? Lewis and Bridger list five ways of achieving authenticity. Firstly they advise your product must be located in place. ‘Tap water drawn from an anonymous reservoir is a rootless commodity that attracts no premium’ (p40). Not so for water which has been filtering through glaciers or drawn from a highland spring. Guinness is unmistakeably associated with Ireland- or is it the other way round? The brand association is so strong, sometimes it is difficult to tell.
Secondly it is advised to locate the product in time. For hi-tech products, this may well be the future. For other products it is in the idyllic past. Hovis Bread for example or Italian pasta sauces made from Mama’s secret recipe.
Thirdly according to Lewis and Bridger, marketers should make their product credible. Compare the ads for moisturiser by L’Oréal to the marketing of the Body Shop. Both achieve credibility, one by invoking modern technology - the science of fine lines, the other by invoking the natural goodness of plants, for example in the use of tea tree oil.
Fourthly, products should be original. Lewis and Bridger cite the example of the Simpsons cartoon, oddly and brightly coloured in comparison to other cartoons. Similarly, Swatch watches were a huge hit when they first appeared in their bright colours and funky designs.
Finally it is advised that products should be made fun. According to Micheal Wolf, ‘marketers must now engage, inform, titillate, captivate…in a word they must be fun.’ When entertainment plays such an integral part of our society, this is not a surprising piece of advice. Cars in particular are marketed to younger drivers in a fun way. The current Corsa advertisements are based on a cartoon format. Smaller cars tend to be emphasised as being ‘zippy’ and quirky almost, with lots of ‘va-va-voom’. These are unlike the ads for cars being marketed to older consumers and families which tend to emphasis roominess and safety.
The paradox of creating authenticity is summed up excellently in Woody Allen quote cited by Moore (2002).
‘My heart’s desire is to forge the conscience of my nation in the smithy of my soul…and then mass produce it in plastic.’
Therein lies the irony and yet, it seems that manufactured authenticity still attracts consumers.
Authenticity is a factor which is highly desired by consumers especially those who are defined as New Consumers or New Realists. Yet it is very difficult to define what exactly authenticity is. This is because often it assumes the form of an emotional reaction to a product, a sense that it appeals to something deeper than merely fulfilling the utilitarian purpose it is designed for. Part of the reason for the importance of authenticity to today’s consumers is a backlash against the increasing standardisation of products and services, even of the homes we live in. New housing developments on the outskirts of cities are filled with identical houses designed to fit in as many people in as small a space possible and yet they are given names which conjure up images of idyllic countryside and wealthy estates: Poppy Meadows, Gorse Hill, Rogan Manor. However ridiculous the bestowing of authenticity is on all that is mass-produced, unnatural and fake, it is clear that it is desired by consumers and therefore will continue to have to be invented by marketers.
Baker M J, (2000) Marketing Theory: a student text London: Business Press, Thomson Learning
Boyle D, (2003) Authenticity: Brands, Fakes, Spin and the Lust for Real Life. London: Flamingo
Edwards T, (1997)
Gregson N, Brooks K, Crewe L (2000) ‘Narratives of Consumption and the Body’ in Commercial Culture: Economies, Practices, Spaces Oxford, New York: Berg
Lawson R, (2000) ‘Consumer Behaviour’ in Marketing Theory: a student text London: Business Press, Thomson Learning ed. M J Baker
Lewis D, Bridger D, (2001) The Soul of the New Consumer. Authenticity: what we say and why in the new economy. London: Nicholas Brealey
Miller D, (2000) ‘The Birth of Value’ in Commercial Culture: Economies, Practices, Spaces Oxford, New York: Berg
Moore J, (2002) ‘Authenticity’ on www.johnniemoore.com October 2002
Jackson P, Lowe M, Miller D, Mort F, (2000) Commercial Culture: Economies, Practices, Spaces Oxford, New York: Berg
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