There’s an old joke that says, “The key to relationships is honesty and sincerity… and if you can fake that, the rest is easy.”
Paraphrasing slightly, many companies believe that the key to branding is authenticity… and if they can fake THAT, then the rest is easy.
Today’s younger consumers, the choice 18 – 29-year old audience that almost every marketer covets, is demonstrating a real desire to inject some authenticity into their otherwise manufactured, marketed, and digitally manipulated lives. And like so many generations before them, they’re using their purchasing power to express that desire — in this case, keeping it real.
That partially explains their penchant for Converse All-Star sneakers, tattoos and piercings, Jeep Wranglers, and Ray-Ban sunglasses. If the products they buy tell the world who they are, they’re going to use those items point out their authenticity. Even if it’s borrowed.
Of course the companies who sell products to these buyers are well aware of their customers’ practices. And so they’re busy developing products and narratives to scratch their audiences’ itch.
Case in point? Rum. A concoction first invented to help preserve sugar cane and ship the agricultural wealth of the West Indies back to Europe, rum has been mostly relegated to the fluorescent umbrella punches and Cuba Libres that are a far cry from the original seafarers’ grog. Because of that, rum has become the drink you might order on vacation in the Caribbean or Mexico but not what you drink when you get home and shift back to your more urbane vodka, Scotch or red wine.
Obviously, rum manufacturers would like to change that and they want to do so by attracting legal drinking age (LDA) consumers while the young drinkers are busy establishing the brand preferences that might last them a lifetime. How? Authenticity.
Captain Morgan, namesake of his eponymous spiced rum, is a flamboyantly fey pirate who supposedly swilled his liquor of choice as he plundered the Seven Seas. A fascinating story, perhaps, but one dreamt up in the distiller’s marketing department, not history books.
William Grant & Sons also created (or rather, appropriated) a colorful character to represent their rum – Norman Keith Collins, a Beat Generation tattoo artist nicknamed Sailor Jerry. In his case, the character may have actually existed but his connection to the liquor brand doesn’t go much further than the name and graphics on the label.
Little wonder then that the leader in the segment, Bacardi, would also play the authenticity card to move their inventory. But in their case, the company actually has a narrative worth repeating and a family name that still graces the business cards of the company’s top executives.
As their new commercial explains, the company has weathered earthquakes and fires and was kicked out of Cuba during the revolution. Whether or not those experiences changed the liquid inside the bottle is beside the point; Bacardi is a real brand with an authentic history and a story of hardship and triumph.
So why does this matter to the LDA consumer? Besides the compelling romance of the company’s history, Bacardi’s new brand attributes now include authenticity and resilience, things that young consumers are thirsty for. This marketing alchemy serves to endow Bacardi-drinking consumers with the romance and resilience of the brand itself – at least in their hearts and minds, and perhaps the eyes of those around them. After all, while we used to say, “You are what you eat (and drink)” today we say, “You are what you consume.”
Before you scoff, think about your prized Mercedes-Benz that tells the world that you too are well-engineered and impressive; or the Nike running shoes that announce your athletic prowess; or the Patagonia backpack that signals what an able outdoorsman you are. Consumers believe that through some weird retail transmutation the attributes of the brands they purchase and use become their own attributes.
As the world continues to become more and more manufactured and more and more digital, look to more and more products to mine their histories for stories of strength, romance, ruggedness, and improvisational derring-do. Because as products — and the people who buy them — become more similar and generic, brand stories will become more singular and exclusive.