In a world crowded with counterfeits, shoppers are drawn to the authentic, a characteristic that retailers must learn to earn. Authenticity has overtaken quality as the prevailing purchasing criterion, write authors James H. Gilmore and B. Joseph Pine II in a new book, "Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want," published by Harvard Business School Press.
They contend that consumers buy based on how well an acquisition conforms to their individual self images. "What they buy must reflect who they are and who they aspire to be, in relation to how they perceive the world, with lightening quick judgments of 'real' or 'fake' hanging in the balance," write the authors, who are also the founders of Strategic Horizons LLP, a consulting firm in Aurora, OH.
Gilmore said the quest for authenticity applies to stores and other shopping venues, as well as to products and brands. The search for authenticity arrives in the midst of a world flooded with fakes.
Business Week estimated that counterfeit products represented more than $512 billion in lost revenue in 2004. So if consumers want authenticity, why are they buying so many knock offs?
"If consumers didn't care about the authenticity of the original articles," the authors contend, "then the counterfeiters wouldn't have to pretend to be those originals. They would just supply cheap goods under their own brands."
They acknowledge that counterfeiting is a global problem and encourage businesses to protect intellectual rights. Yet, "Stopping the production or the trading of the fake is no substitute for innovating the real," they contend.
"The wrong place to start is thinking authenticity is just old, like Europe," Gilmore said. "An upstart may be better at providing authenticity, because they know they're fake. Authenticity has to be earned." He cited lifestyle shopping centers in general as one application of new authenticity in retail. "They make shopping seem more real."
Gilmore pointed to Legacy Village, a lifestyle center in Lynnwood, OH, which he says is reminiscent of the financial district of Boston. It opened in 2003. The environment is infused with references to a town center of the past, including fake gaslights. Gilmore said the references are so realistic that there are bold stickers posted on the parking meters that read: "This is a real parking meter," so shoppers who know the gaslight is fake will also know they must feed the meter. The shoppers are, "in on it." They know Legacy Village is not a real old town square, but they buy into the experience, because it is well rendered.
Since so much of what surrounds us is not really real, the standard for authenticity often rests on how well an imitation is rendered. Basic standards are: Is the offering true to itself, and is it what it says it is?
Since 1969, Coca-Cola's brand positioning has been centered around the, "real thing." When a new Coke was introduced, it failed, not because it didn't taste good, but because it wasn't the original real thing.
Gilmore and Pine describe five genres of authenticity: natural, original, exceptional, referential and influential. They apply to many aspects of modern life, including products, stores and shopping venues.
The popularity of organic foods, a commodity, is an example of the natural genre. Organic food has become a $12 billion industry, growing at a rate of 20 percent a year, noted the authors. The increased use of natural materials and elements in store and restaurant interiors also exemplifies the natural genre.
Apple's iPod and the Genius Bar in Apple stores are cited as exemplary of the original. They are firsts, not copies or imitations. Pop-Up retail can also be original. "It's exclusive, and as soon as everybody knows it's there, it disappears," Gilmore explained.
In the exceptional realm, he and Pine pointed to services by, "any company that encourages its people to genuinely care about customers and respond to their individual needs." Nordstrom is cited as one example. Services that are personalized fit this genre.
Referential authenticity draws inspiration from human history and taps into shared memories and longings. It is not derivative or trivial. "Theme-ing is inherently referential," Gilmore said. "You must immediately and richly know what a place or an object is supposed to be."
Influential authenticity calls people to a higher goal. One example is growing interest in sustainable buildings. Others are a retailer's recycling efforts and a manufacturer's call for fair trade practices.
The authors set forth several axioms regarding authenticity. Three chief among them are: "If you are authentic, you don't have to say you're authentic." "If you say you're authentic, then you'd better be authentic." "It's easier to be authentic if you don't say you're authentic."
Another two axioms are: "It's easier to render offerings authentic, if you acknowledge they are inauthentic." "You don't have to say your offerings are inauthentic, if you render them authentic." Of the Canal Shops at the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas, Gilmore said, "being aware of the fakeness renders it more real."
The claim of authenticity cannot be achieved through marketing. "You must earn the privilege of being deemed authentic only through the act of rendering," he said. He urged retailers to, "move away from a real estate mentality," and think of their venue as a stage.
"Marketing is a promise making machine that so often fails to fulfill," he explained. "Displace marketing with place making. In, 'place,' brands can prove what they are. Immerse people in experience," he suggested, "and the experience is the marketing."
The authors also acknowledged that because judgments of authenticity are personal and related to self image, renderings of authenticity risk alienating some people. A child who has been on an African safari, for example, would deem a Disney World safari as phony. But a child experiencing Disney World's safari for the first time would consider it real.
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