In Times of Crisis, Authentic Brands Are King

What fear and fake pizza restaurants tell us about consumer preferences.

Written by Hal Koss
Published on Nov. 03, 2021
In Times of Crisis, Authentic Brands Are King

If you’ve been gravitating toward products that are craft, vintage or seem otherwise “authentic” to you, there may be a hidden psychological reason for it.

Researchers already know authenticity is something consumers prefer in brands, and that authenticity is associated with purchase intention.

But a study recently published in Psychology & Marketing found consumers prefer authentic brands when they perceive higher pandemic threat levels. And those results also reveal what motivates consumers to seek out authentic products in the first place.

What Is Authenticity?

Many marketing academics think about authenticity in one of three ways. (1) When something is “the real thing,” and not an imitation or a copy. This is often called “indexical authenticity.” (2) When something represents or follows the expectations of a genuinely authentic thing. This is sometimes known as “iconic authenticity.” (3) When something reflects the true self. This is sometimes called “expressive authenticity” or “moral authenticity.”

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Consumers Choose Authenticity Amid Crisis

Between August 2020 and April 2021, the study researchers ran a series of experiments. In the first experiment, participants were split into two groups. One group was asked to read a newspaper article titled “Can Covid damage the brain?” while the second was asked to read an article about sports.

Participants from both groups were then asked to imagine a friend had invited them to a restaurant.

Some of them were told the restaurant was called Giovanni’s Pizza and Pasta, the food of which comes from authentic Italian recipes passed down from the owner’s ancestors. Others were told the restaurant was Mike’s Pizza, and that the menu was based on the owner’s interpretation of Italian cuisine. Participants were given an advertisement for the restaurant, then asked how they felt about it and how authentic they thought it was.

They widely agreed Giovanni’s seemed more authentic than Mike’s. But that’s where the agreements ended: The participants who read the pandemic article gave Giovanni’s the highest favorability score and Mike’s the lowest. But participants who read the sports article gave Mike’s the highest favorability score and Giovanni’s the lowest. 

In other words, researchers concluded, the consumers who were given reason to feel more threatened by Covid preferred the brand using “authenticity appeals” in its marketing.

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Authenticity Lowers Uncertainty

To figure out why the pandemic-anxious participants preferred the authentic pizza place, the study’s authors conducted a second experiment.

Participants were again split into two groups and each assigned either an article about the dangers of the pandemic or an article about sports.

After that, they were asked to rate their “perceived uncertainty” at that moment.

Then, they were given the same scenario as the first experiment, but this time, they were shown advertisements to both Giovanni’s and Mike’s restaurants. And they were asked an extra question: Did choosing one pizzeria over the other reduce their feelings of uncertainty?

As expected, participants thought Giovanni’s was the more authentic restaurant, and preference for the authentic restaurant was higher among people who read the pandemic article.

The researchers found that participants who read the pandemic article went into the scenario feeling more uncertain and that they preferred the authentic restaurant option because the participants wanted to reduce feelings of uncertainty.

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What Even Is Authenticity?

Kent Grayson, a marketing professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, says there are three main ways to think about authenticity:

  1. The way an object relates to a place and moment in time. For example, an art-deco chair may be thought of as authentic because it is actually from the 1920s and 1930s. It is not a copy or an imitation. It’s “the real thing.”

  2. The way an object follows expected norms for something of its type. In other words, an art-deco chair could be considered authentic, even if it was built in 2021, if it is a successful re-creation and representation of chairs from that time period.

  3. The way an object (or brand) reflects an authentic expression of the self. This is sometimes called moral or expressive authenticity. The opposite of this kind of authenticity is “selling out.”

When something is made according to a culturally traditional recipe, as is the case of Giovanni’s pizza, it is usually thought to tick that second box, Grayson said. It’s not actually pizza from 19th-century Italy — but it looks, tastes and smells like it.

Additionally, Grayson said, Giovanni’s pizza may fall under the third category, since it is a brand that lives up to its own traditions.

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What This Means for Brands

While brands should, at all costs, avoid capitalizing on the tragedy and hardships brought on by the pandemic or any other crisis, they can still seek out ways to create value for consumers by tapping into the authenticity of their brand — and, where possible, integrate it into their marketing messages.

There are a number of ways to do this, even if you aren’t serving up pizza.

One is to emphasize your brand’s heritage. Both Burger King and Radio Flyer have done this recently. The former by changing its logo and packaging to something akin to its 1970s style, and the latter by positioning its new scooters and e-bikes in the long tradition of wheeled family-friendly products. Both moves signal a sense of continuity with the past, even as the companies look to the future.

Another way to be authentic is to simply get out of the way and let your customers express themselves authentically. User-generated content is not only a cost-effective way to amass creative assets, it allows your customers to tell their stories and helps them think of you as a partner that encourages them to be their true selves. The “Got Milk?” marketers relied on user-generated content during the height of the pandemic. By relinquishing some amount of control of their brand image to consumers themselves, companies can allow authenticity to take hold.

Brands that desire to market their authenticity can also do so by staying consistent in their values, both internally and externally. In the wake of the pandemic, brands emphasized their commitments to social and corporate responsibility in marketing messages. But they’ll want to ensure they put equitable internal practices in place, or risk coming across as hypocritical and inauthentic. In other words, authenticity is only possible when brands walk the walk.

And finally, brands desiring to be authentic probably don’t need to put much consideration into what they can do to appear authentic. That often just happens naturally, as an outgrowth of being genuine in the pursuit of solving problems for customers.

“I’ve met a lot of people who run businesses, I worked in advertising for a while, I know a lot of brand managers, a lot of my students have become brand managers, and quite a few of them really love the product that they sell,” Grayson, the marketing professor, said.

“And they have taken the time to make a product that is actually perfect for certain kinds of consumers whom they know.”

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