What makes a brand real and resonant with its target audience? What makes one brand become part of a person’s self-image while another has to discount to make its quarterly numbers? How real does a brand have to be — how “authentic” — to have selling power? And how does today’s blog posting, Facebook-empowered consumer change that equation?

You may hear brand experts tal about finding the “essence” of a brand or a brand’s “DNA.” But the fact is, while many companies rely on elements of authenticity to build their brands, others (at least until now) have been quite successful without it and may seem just as real to their loyal customers.

Here’s a quick quiz. What brand was originally positioned as a women’s product, with pink and white packaging and the slogan “Mild as May?” Answer: Marlboro cigarettes. When this strategy failed in the 1940s, the brand was repositioned around manly professions, such as construction workers, firemen and their ultimate focal point, cowboys. The marketers at Phillip Morris built a worldclass brand around the “Marlboro Man” image of a cowboy, steeped in the romantic image of the rugged individualist, the tough-as-nails man’s man. Quien es mas macho? The Marlboro Man and, by implication, anyone who smokes Marlboro cigarettes. Marlboro is one of the most enduring

campaigns of all time, known by virtually everyone, but without a shred of so-called “DNA” that links the brand to cowboys, the American West or the essence of being a tough guy. Yet while consumers could tell you that the Marlboro brand image is essentially fabricated, the story that creates the brand is accepted as real enough by most.

Haagen-Dazs is another brand that despite its faux European name has no actual heritage that links it to a more exotic locale, yet has succeeded in building a leading super premium brand in the frozen dessert category.

But wait, you may be thinking, won’t the new transparency of Web 2.0 pull back the curtain on all these brand pretenders? Won’t an army of bloggers be waiting to excoriate any brand that puffs up its heritage, much less fabricates it altogether?

I would have thought so too, until I discovered an article published in August by the Journal of Consumer Research titled “The Quest for Authenticity in Consumption: Consumers’ Purposive Choice of Authentic Cues to Shape Experienced Outcomes.” While the title is something less than snappy, the article is an intriguing summary of extensive research by two Australian professors of marketing, Michael Beverland and Francis Farrelly, whose conclusions can be roughly translated as this: Perception is still reality.

“Consumer identity goals (or their idealized images of themselves) underpin assessments of whether a brand is authentic (genuine, real, and true) or not,” the authors said, and they singled out three primary consumer goals: desire for control, connection or virtue. “These goals reflect three respective societal norms: the need to be practical, to participate in community, and to be moral,” the authors explain.

“When seeking to achieve these different goals, consumers choose different brands. When consumers desire to be in control, they may view McDonald’s as an inauthentic brand partner because fast-food leads to increases in weight. Alternately, McDonald’s may be viewed as a genuine partner when the same consumer is seeking to connect with others,” the authors said. Put another way: Mickie D’s as a source of healthy food? Don’t go there. The golden arches as a place that makes my family happy? I’m lovin’ it.

The article cites numerous examples of how the need for community affects brand perceptions. Participants in the study frequently referenced that brands became real to them because other people they felt connected to also used the product.

While this may not seem earthshattering,n what’s significant is that belonging to the group made the brand authentic to them, not the brand itself. Which explains why Marlboro can concoct an enduring brand around a fictional image of a rugged individualist. It’s the idea of the brand that builds a group and then snowballs into a juggernaut brand concept.

The authors went on to say, “Consumers found authenticity in ‘The Simpsons,’ McDonald’s, cigarette manufacturers and Nike. Authenticity is not necessarily an objective feature of an object or conferred to things by authorities or based on the passing of time,” the authors write. “Nor is it applicable only to small or anti-establishment brands, such as Ben and Jerry’s or Snapple. Instead, authenticity is generated by the consumer, often in highly creative and unexpected ways.”

So the waters of brand authenticity run deeper than you might expect.

But try this: Using the authors’ model of consumers seeking control, community, or virtue in their view of authentic brands, ask yourself how your brand might use any of those to build a stronger perception of authenticity. And remember that in branding, what’s real and what’s authentic are not necessarily the same.

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