Secret Origins of Authentic Brands

By Gerry Khermouch

IT’S BECOME ONE OF THE MORE overused words in the marketing lexicon: authentic. Yet there’s no denying that many consumers are looking to support brands that don’t seem to have been fabricated in a corporate conference room, that have something real about them – whether the persona of their founders, their local provenance or their retrieval of an age-old tradition – that might seem to help ground the users’ own existence. In beverages, how does it apply?

The New York Times offered an intriguing take on authenticity a few weeks ago, noting how the word lately is so often used by politicians, celebrities, social media coaches and college admissions advisers as to be approaching meaninglessness. “What you can’t do is be told by a social media guru to act authentic and still be authentic,” Jeff Pooley, a media and communications professor at Muhlenberg College, told the paper. He said authenticity today is more accurately described as “calculated authenticity” — “stage management” is how the Times paraphrased it.

I like “stage management,” because that’s generally what we’re talking about when discussing beverage brands as authentic. To me, a lot of it comes down to having a memorable reasonably true story behind the brand, and sticking to that story reasonably consistently as things develop. I like to refer to these origin stories as “creation myths,” (though “myth” often gets me in trouble with brand founders who phone me to complain – although at least a few of them made it up, and you know who you are!) But I mean the phrase more in an archetypal sense, as a compelling story upon which consumers can hang their perceptions, emotions and disposable incomes.

The process seems most straightforward for the craft beer category, where it’s sometimes sufficient just to have a genuine passion for brewing and a willingness to experiment. That story has been retold, oh, about 2,000 times lately as craft breweries have proliferated. Consumers clearly like hearing it, but for craft brewers the task of being authentic has also gotten less complicated — after all, during the 1990s craft boom, quasi-religious wars were waged between microbrewers who produced their own suds and contract brewers like Sam Adams and Pete’s Wicked Ale who were attacked as inauthentic for relying on others for the bulk of their production needs. That issue has nearly dissipated, with the market accepting Sam Adams founder Jim Koch’s old rejoinder: “If Julia Child comes to your kitchen and cooks a great dinner, is it your dinner or Julia Child’s?” Even the identity of Blue Moon as a Coors brand or the acquisition of Goose Island by Anheuser-Busch don’t seem to have unduly upset the perception of those brands as authentic.

It gets murkier on the non-alcoholic side, where the opportunities for hands-on craftsmanship and differentiation are fewer and there’s a more established tradition of snake oil salesmanship. Those factors seem to put an even higher premium on having an effective creation myth. But it doesn’t have to be a brand new myth for every new brand.

What are some compelling tropes? One is the Everyman who doesn’t like the choices in a given segment and creates a better alternative – Darius Bikoff, for instance, rummaging for bottled water in Manhattan when his water was cut off and having the insight that led to the creation of Smartwater. A particularly endearing subset of this myth is the parent – moms work best – who detests the horrid beverage choices available to her children and sets out to create a healthier one right in the kitchen. That sonata has been played with wonderful rubato flourishes by a long list of entrepreneurs, lately including Hint water creator Kara Goldin.

Another is the intrepid seeker who treks to the far reaches of, say, the Amazon rainforest, to bring back healthful superfruits or herbs that can be bottled for the American public, often simultaneously empowering and enriching the indigenous people who grow and harvest the plants. The founders of brands like Sambazon acai and Guayaki yerba mate have skillfully heralded that role, and the combination of adventure, exoticism and uplift seems really appealing to a lot of consumers.

If you can harness a strong creation myth like one of those, it can give you a great leg up. But there are some corollaries: For one, you need to capture that story at the outset, rather than trying to graft a good story onto your brand down the line. That seems to have been a flaw in the plan of the otherwise well-crafted New Leaf Tea, which years into its existence strained to add instant personality via such unconvincing efforts as proclaiming itself “the official tea of taste” and having its employees strut around its trade show booths in referee shirts.

Also, consistency matters. If you’re buying a brand where the founder is at the center of your creation myth, then it helps to keep that founder around for a while, even once most of the real work migrates to professional managers. Coca-Cola has been smart to keep Honest Tea founder Seth Goldman in the mix — I wouldn’t be surprised if down the road, once the brand is fully established, the company doesn’t offer Goldman a broader role where his “brand” can authenticate other Coke moves toward healthier, sustainable products. By contrast, the departure of Clayton Christopher – who famously brewed his first batches of Sweet Leaf Tea from his grandmother’s recipe using pillowcases as giant teabags – from the now-Nestle Waters-owned brand may rob it of some of its down-home mojo. Nevertheless, NWNA has shown consistent mastery at taking purified municipal water and wrapping it in brands that represent a seemingly infinite series of pastoral springs, parks and mountains, so as Christopher’s “Granny” goes national, it’ll be interesting to see how the trip treats her.

Longtime beverage-watcher Gerry Khermouch is executive editor of Beverage Business Insights, a twice-weekly e-newsletter covering the nonalcoholic beverage sector.