Authenticity a brilliant basis for marketing but no guarantee of quality

Salesmanship plays a big part in creating brands but keeping it real for consumers is paramount

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 June, 2014, 9:56am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 June, 2014, 1:05am

Karan Bilimoria, co-founder and chairman of the British-based Cobra Beer company, recently explained what happened when his restaurant customers were informed that Cobra had established a British production line for its beer, meaning that supplies would no longer be imported from India.

These customers were appalled, because Cobra had developed a highly successful niche supplying Britain's Indian restaurants, and they wanted to maintain the integrity of their offerings. The restaurateurs insisted that their customers would be most reluctant to order Cobra if they knew it was no longer being produced in India.

Authenticity has become a much bigger issue when it comes to products like wine

Bilimoria claimed that they had missed the point, because the beer was still being made according to Cobra's recipe, and that retail customers were more focused on taste than place of origin. Nonetheless Cobra's entire marketing revolves around its "Indian-ness".

This raises an important issue about the authenticity of goods. In Hong Kong, this issue hardly needs explaining, as mainland visitors flood shops in search of authentic goods ranging from baby milk formula to handbags. These products are available across the border, but, for mainland consumers, their authenticity can only be guaranteed by purchases made here.

Hong Kong's experience with matters of authenticity is extreme, because of mainlanders' lack of trust in goods made and sold in their own country, but it is a widespread issue that heavily influences sales elsewhere.

Authenticity in other countries is mainly about provenance and image, which explains why, for example, fashion houses emphasise their origin as being French or Italian, while meat suppliers in Australia and New Zealand are able to command premium prices on the basis of the origin of the meat.

Ironically, communist Cuba retains a premium price for its cigars although many of the Cubans running well-known cigar companies left after the revolution and use the same methods, and in some cases, the same tobacco, to make cigars elsewhere, but these command lower prices.

Things get even more area-specific and authenticity has become a much bigger issue when it comes to products like wine, with winemakers jealously guarding the provenance and naming of their products. For example, fizzy wine, known in more up-market circles as champagne, can be labelled as such only if it indeed comes from Champagne.

Meanwhile, in other big wine-growing regions, the appellation d'origine contrôlée, or controlled designation of origin, is something of a tyrannical system confining use of place names to wine labels in a limited number of areas that mainly produce high-end wines and can charge that bit more with an AOC.

Business genius lies not in the ability to exploit established areas where authenticity commands premium prices - although the way the French have been using this advantage to sell wine in China is truly impressive - but in creating brands and products where new authenticities come to the fore.

Cobra beer is an excellent example of this. It took a stroke of inspired thinking to combine Britain's love affair with Indian food with a single beer brand that claimed to be the drink most compatible with Indian dishes.

Although the company's founders were British-based, they were also Indian in origin and knew full well that India has no claim to prominence in beer making and has never spawned an international beer brand. However, they managed to convince their customers that if they wanted a genuine, complete Indian experience when eating curries or whatever, they simply had to have a Cobra beer.

The same genius is to be seen among the new crop of Japanese retailers and funky clothing manufacturers who have succeeded in making brand Japan the coolest of cool brands.

They understood that Japanese goods, such as cars and electronics products, already had a reputation for reliability, but it would be hard to suggest that their design was at the cutting edge. Now, especially for youth brands, the Made in Japan label is acquiring premium price status and is spawning imitators who raise questions of authenticity.

Even more remarkable are the purveyors of overroasted and bitter-tasting coffee who developed coffee shop chains that mainly sell this stuff drenched in syrups and sweeteners to disguise the taste; yet they have managed to persuade customers that this is the authentic coffee experience.

It only goes to show that authentic does not necessarily mean good.

Stephen Vines runs companies in the food sector and moonlights as a journalist and broadcaster