The Experts: Embracing the “Real”

By Mike Doherty

There’s evidence all around us – whether it’s watching someone gush over the sleek design of a new phone and then seek out the perfect hand-carved, petrified-jungle-wood case to put it in or the proliferation of farmers markets in big cities – people are looking for, and need, realness. There is a powerful urge to get in touch with what they believe is a more “real” world and it’s leading us to a place where signs of realness take on greater value.

Is it because more of us are living in urban environments? Or is it because connection tools have reduced personal communication and kept us multi-tasking 24/7? Or is it because of a rise in health scares from food being mass-produced in unknown places?

There are many contributing factors, but the desire for “real” seems to be driven by things that are bigger and more lasting than the usual “trend and counter-trend” shifts that we often see.

Here is where the biggest shifts are happening:


The movement toward real food and drink isn’t just about being a locavore. It’s also been fueled by health and safety concerns. Increasingly people want to know where what they put in their mouth comes from and what’s in it. In fact, Mintel Reports that despite the recession, sales of natural, organic food and beverages have increased 20 percent from 2009. And manufacturers have taken note…more than half (56 percent) of the food and beverage product categories in the US showed decreases in the average number of ingredients per product in the same period. Seattle’s Dry Soda has reimagined soda and is a good example with only four ingredients. In the fruit juice segment, coconut water – which is perceived to be “nature’s sports/health drink” – saw sales increase 164 percent from 2010 to 2011, with over 23 million U.S. adults claiming to personally drink it.


While we are more connected, it’s clear that we aren’t more social or having more personal interactions. In the U.S. we spend an average of 30 hours per week online and that only compounds when you add in smartphones. Melanie Howard of the Future Foundation reports that many consumers are also seeking the “simplification of complexity which is about the urge people feel to get in touch with what they believe to be a more real world.” We have seen the importance of family meals steadily increase over the last decade and according to a study by CASA, the desire for real personal interactions is so strong that two-thirds of teens (65 percent) and three-quarters of parents (75 percent) say they would be willing to give up a weeknight activity if it meant they could have a family dinner.


There is also a shift in people’s activities toward things that represent a more holistic and real lifestyle. This is supported by Mintel data showing a rise in cooking among young people. They found that 59 percent of 25-44 year-olds love cooking and do so as a way of connecting with their friends. Other creative and real activities like gardening and knitting have been on the rise for some time. The latest poll from shows vegetable gardening increased from 79 perecnt in 2011 to 85 perecnt in 2012. And while knitting has been on the rise for a decade, Google searches for ‘knitting for beginners’ rose by over 250 perecnt last year and sales of Rowan yarn have risen by 57 per cent worldwide over 2010 levels.


Consumers have been growing increasingly suspicious of labeling claims since the POM controversy. In fact, Mintel found that only 33 percent of U.S. adults feel beverage companies are making it easier to understand claims and only 41 percent believe what labels say about food and beverage products. People want openness, transparency and honesty and they want real benefits to help them maintain good nutrition. Restaurants serving functional smoothies have seen a 40 percent increase over the past three years as consumers seek a healthful snack for on the go. Consumers also appreciate drinks that help them meet their minimum daily servings of fruits and vegetables and are interested in drinks that contain ingredients known for other health benefits like Aloe Vera. Alo is a great example combining coconut water and Aloe Vera.

The rise of real in each of these areas presents opportunities for brands that can embrace the shift.


As people seek things that are more personal, worthwhile, and connected to the natural world, there’s an opportunity for brands to create deeper more meaningful experiences.  Years ago, car brands like BMW and Volvo started offering the opportunity to take delivery of your car at their factory so you could tour the countryside in your new car. But increasingly, consumers of all types of products expect to feel or experience something that they can’t get online or even in-store. Companies can fulfill this desire for a real experience by offering new ways for people to see, touch and feel where the products they buy come from. “Consumer Safaris” enable people to travel to where a product is made to meet the craftspeople who make it. Cooking schools now offer trips to hunt and forage for the truffles and wild boar you’ll spend the week learning to cook. And according to the International Ecotourism Society, “voluntourism” (or philanthropic vacations) is one of the fastest-growing markets in tourism today. Organizations like Artisans of Leisure and Conscious Journeys offer travelers the opportunity to have fun doing some good and really immersing themselves into the real culture of a country.


The rise of real has created new opportunities to help people achieve a more holistic and meaningful life. While brands like Jack Daniels have emphasized the slow, the real and the authentic in their messaging, there is an opportunity to inspire people in bigger ways…to think about your marketing through the lens of giving people something interesting to do. Pepsi created a “Live for Now” music program on Twitter that provided fans with an instant overview of the artists and music news trending on Twitter. In addition, they inspired living for now by offering free music downloads to @pepsi followers, staging pop-up concerts streamed live on the platform, and the opportunity for followers to influence the concert program by tweeting out the songs they wanted included.


The rise of real is already driving a myriad of new healthier drinks but the opportunity exists to satisfy consumers’ desire for experimentation and newness by reinventing traditional flavors. Dry Soda not only has just four ingredients, but their flavors include epicurean tastes like lemongrass, juniper berry, cucumber and lavender. According to Mintel, consumers are less willing to accept a diet benefit if it is achieved through artificial means like artificial sweeteners. And there’s an even bigger opportunity to ground your brand’s mission in a place that supports people’s desire for realness. Chipotle’s “Food with Integrity” positioning is a good example as well as one of my favorites, Icebreaker Merino. Each Icebreaker Merino garment comes with a “Baacode” that lets you trace the merino wool in your garment back to the source in New Zealand where you can see how the sheep live, read about their growers, and follow its production through to the finished garment.


More and more, people want to get to know what’s real and authentic to the culture and the people behind the products and services they use. The desire for real access is just one reason why sites like Etsy have a tribal following. Pinterest also enables brands to show who they are, not just what they offer. The Today Show has a board dedicated to “Anchor Antics” that allows people to see the anchors as just that – people.  And, it’s an opportunity to gain access to a part of the brand that most people can’t experience first hand.

Whatever brands do to embrace the rise of real, it is more important than ever for brands to give people things to DO rather than just tell them what you have. More and more, consumers are seeking realness in the way they live and the products they buy. Even a grocery list is an expression of a person’s values. Your ability to engage people with things to think about and do will not only inspire them but also make your brand more interesting in their eyes.

By Mike Doherty, President, Cole & Weber United, an ad agency owned by WPP.