Q&A: Brand Authenticity Is Contagious

Does your brand still have an old-school factory in its arsenal? If so, it might be time to dust it off and use it in your advertising. 

A new study from the Yale School of Management finds that such links to the past may be a secret branding weapon for increasing consumer perception of authenticity. But the reason has less to do with beliefs about quality, and more with the idea of contagion, a kind of magical thinking in which people believe products can actually pick up a place’s essence.
In other words, your brand has an aura, and some consumers think it’s catching. George Newman, co-author of the study and assistant professor of organizational behavior, fills Marketing Daily in on the details.

Q. First, what initially interested you in this topic?



A. I had done some other work earlier looking at celebrity memorabilia, and why people valued JFK’s golf clubs, for example, or a dress Marilyn Monroe had worn. We learned that some people really do feel these items carry some bit of aura of the famous person. We wondered if the same thing exists for brands.

Q. And it does?

A. Yes. We found that people believe Godiva chocolates made in Brussels, Belgium, where the company has operated since 1926, are more authentic than those made Reading, Penn. We also looked at Levi’s jeans and Louis Vuitton handbags, and found participants were willing to pay significantly more for products made in the original factory than those produced in a newer factory. And they viewed them as embodying the brand essence more than products made elsewhere.

Q. There’s been a strong trend among consumers to act as detective, to sniff out whether a brand is truthful about ingredients (like GMOs) or labor practices (like sweatshops in developing countries.) Is that part of this interest?

A. There does seem to be a greater interest in sussing out the origins of a product. But in this study, the benefit was much more positive. It wasn’t that people felt products from other locations were fake. It was more that Godiva chocolate from Belgium would be extra good.

Q. But then it turns out to be not as simple as you first thought, that it’s more than the factory. Could you explain?

A. We started to see evidence psychologically linking the factory perception to contagion, a kind of magical quality. People believe that the special aura or essence of a source—the essence of the brand in this case—can be transferred to an object through physical contact. And then it turns out that some consumers are more sensitive to this concept, and they are more likely to have a stronger preference for products made in the original factory. (We primed them to think about contagion by having them read vignettes about the spread of laughter or poison ivy.) In some people, it enhanced their preference for products made in the original factory.

Q. What are the practical implications?

A. Some brands, like Louisville Slugger, New Balance, Hershey’s, and Fuller’s Brewery of London, already prominently promote the fact that their products are made in the original factory, and may capitalize on emphasizing that physical connection. But it only works if the brand has a good reputation. If they were perceived as negative, contact with the original factory may turn off consumers.

Q. But some brands should consider making more of their factories?

A. Yes. They may be in a position to capitalize on those origins stories, and get a big boost. And it raises an interesting question, from the standpoint of organizational decision making, that there might be fallout from moving away from original factories and facilities.

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