Innovation & Design

The Myth of Authenticity


Somewhere in my handbag there's a bar of chocolate with mysterious links to ancient Mayans. I'm going to eat it with a mug of coffee from the "volcanic slopes and Caribbean mountains of Guatemala." My diet may not be good for me, but it's loaded with interesting background details. If I burst into spots, a quaff of Highland Spring water and a slap of Dead Sea minerals should sort me out.

Working the link between place of origin and product quality is the oldest trick in the brand book. It milks our thirst for mythology and plays mercilessly on our superstitious hope that special places have the power to revitalise and transform. But just how deep does the connection have to be for the magic to cast its spell?

In the book Wally Olins on Brand, brand consultant Wally Olins plots the rise of the so-called "fantasy" national brand against the decline of brands with a heritage that is rooted in history and place. Yet delve a little deeper and it quickly becomes apparent that the cut-off that divides spoofs from the genuine article is far from precise.

At one end of the spectrum are the tricksters; brands like H?agen Dazs, the American super-premium ice cream, which brazenly trades on the ice-cool sophistication implied, but never quite claimed, by its phony Scandinavian-sounding name. At the other extreme are genuine nobility, fine wines steeped in the mystery of terroir, single estate teas and waters prized for their local mineral properties. Somewhere in the middle are brands that mingle fact and fiction in an imaginative fusion of make-believe and authenticity. Which approach suits the brand-savvy world of the post-modern consumer? Is it all just a matter of weaving a good story, or do brands that take poetic liberties with our fancy set themselves up for a fall?

Baileys Original Irish Cream is a classic example of a brand that climbs high on the back of a provenance blending fact with fiction. Launched in 1974, Baileys is the world's top selling liqueur brand. In each and every country, the idea that sells Baileys is its Irishness. "It's hugely important," says Baileys' external affairs director Peter O'Connor. "We could produce Baileys more cheaply in New Zealand or Australia, but whenever we've researched the idea consumers say 'over my dead body.' " But is Baileys Irish?

So far as the ingredients go, Baileys is what it says: Irish. The production site is Irish, the farms supplying the milk are Irish; the cows—all 40,000 of them—are Irish. But the Celtic motifs on the label surely hint at a more ancient past than Baileys can legitimately lay claim to in its thirty-plus years of business. Then there is the brand's identity: a flowing handwritten signature, R.A. Bailey, underlined with a flourish, as if to scupper any doubts about the author's existence. There is also the name itself -- incredibly Irish, without being clichéd.

But, as Olins reveals in his book, Baileys is an impostor. Its identity is a sham, a colorful invention cooked up by a multinational drinks group, in a London office overlooking the Bailey hotel. And the signature? "There's no Mr or Mrs Bailey," admits O'Connor. "We wanted a name that was Irish, but not ‘show' Irish. The R.A. Bailey was a way of putting a name behind the factory, a way of getting across that the product comes from Ireland."

So how did a cheapskate identity theft give birth to a branding triumph? O'Connor puts it down to the drink's taste and wholesome ingredients. "The product has a lot of authenticity." But Baileys' success isn't just down to taste. Like many brands that conquer the world, "R.A. Bailey" is self-made, dreamed up to fill a gap in the market, in this case for a spirit that would appeal to younger consumers, particularly women. Inventing a product category gave Baileys the freedom to create the image it wanted, without reference to established rivals. "Positioning a brand as a modern classic is a tricky thing to pull off," says Peter Matthews, managing director of brand experience consultancy Nucleus. "When it works, it's usually when the category didn't exist before, where there are no benchmarks that the entrant can be measured against."

Strong design and good judgment have helped Baileys make the most of its assumed identity. The packaging, like the name, has strong Irish associations, but the allusions are made sparingly through the use of Celtic symbols and the color palette. The bottle's retro look has been carefully managed too. The biggest change came in 2003, when the rolling fields on the label were dropped for an abstract swirl of amber and browns, referencing the liqueur rather than its origins.

Not all brands tread the "modern classic" tightrope as expertly as Baileys. Dairy brand Kerrygold is a case in point. Launched in the 1960s, Kerrygold, like Baileys, trades heavily on romantic associations with Ireland. The difference is that where Baileys does so deftly, Kerrygold employs a spade.

First there is the heavy-handed name, hinting cheesily at crocks of gold from Kerry. The packaging has been updated for some markets; but the website (particularly the US version) is unashamedly cod "Irish," garrulous in style and littered with spurious references to folklore and cultural stereotypes. The overall effect is anachronistic, even comic, creating the impression of a brand on the verge of becoming a curiosity rather than a classic.

Today's high-growth brands use heritage as much as their counterparts thirty years ago, but more subtly. Beverage specialist Clipper is a master of imaginative suggestion. On its classic teas range, the company displays artworks loosely associated with the product's place of origin. The English breakfast blend shows a carved sandstone relief from sixth century Northern India; the Assam tea is represented by a jeweled turban pin from the Mughal dynasty.

"What we are trying to do is to hint at another dimension that will enrich people's drinking experience by encouraging them to delve deeper into the culture," says Paul Machin, Clipper's public relations manager.

The links between modern classics and the cultures to which they lay claim are sometimes very loose indeed. Premium gin Bombay Sapphire is a good example of this. Launched in 1987, the brand is allegedly made from a long-lost recipe dating back to 1761. The brand's main pulling point, however, apart from its distinctive taste, is its design-led square blue bottle depicting Queen Victoria, Empress of India. But how many of what Gary Chau, Bombay's global brand manager, refers to as its "heritage cues," have a basis in fact? Not many. The Bombay Sapphire (or Star of Bombay) exists for certain. But the brand has no links with the famous jewel, nor with Victoria, beyond the hijacked allusions. Its only connection with India is that gin was the tipple of choice swilled down by generations of British colonials.

Yet curiously, none of this takes away from Bombay's appeal. What counts is that the fusion of ideas works stylistically, elevating it into something more interesting than just another gin brand. Says Chau: "There's a healthy tension between the heritage cues on the bottle and its sleek, contemporary appearance. People find it intriguing." He adds, "Part of it is about discovery, allowing the consumer to do the interpretation rather than telling them what to think."

Brands that aspire to be contemporary classics have to work on many levels. First and foremost, the product needs integrity, some special quality that sets it apart. But having a "story" to tell, something that fixes a brand's identity in people's imagination and gets across what it stands for is crucially important too. Whether the story is made up, or rooted in fact, is beside the point. Like a fable in folklore, what matters is that the brand's mythology has the power to intrigue and to draw people in.


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