Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Fake Authenticity

See 'Fake Authenticity' for Sale by Eric Felten. From the WSJ, 1-28-11. Below are the key passages. This reminds me a post from last December called The Myth of Authenticity Or The Story Behind Products. That was based on a BusinessWeek article about products like Bailey's Irish Cream. Here are some passages from that article

"Working the link between place of origin and product quality is the oldest trick in the brand book. It milks our thirst for mythology and plays mercilessly on our superstitious hope that special places have the power to revitalise and transform."


[some]"...brands that mingle fact and fiction in an imaginative fusion of make-believe and authenticity."
There was no Mr. Bailey who started the company. The founders just wanted to make it sound authentic and they were near the Bailey Hotel. There is a story behind the product that people buy into. It is made in Ireland, which has higher costs. But people are willing to pay extra for a good story. Same thing here in the WSJ with blue jeans. Now those excerpts:

"The main thing that distinguishes the Brooks Brothers 501s, besides their price, is that they are made in the U.S. No doubt the labor costs are higher, but I suspect the real reason for the inflated price is to create the impression that the jeans are somehow superior. This is the quirky luxury phenomenon that economists call a "Veblen good"—a product that is valued and desirable simply for being more expensive.

Making the jeans in the U.S. is also key to the marketing proposition behind the Brooks Brothers and Levi's partnership—that both brands are "staples of American menswear." Alas, Levi's doesn't have any U.S. factories anymore. It contracts with manufacturers around the world, and its list of suppliers, with one company to a line, goes on for 25 pages. The handful of factories Levi's still operates are in Poland, Turkey and South Africa. And so Levi's hired a shop in Los Angeles to cut, sew and finish the Brooks Brothers jeans. Such are the times that a "staple of American menswear" now has to outsource production even in the U.S.

The marketing materials proclaim Brooks Brothers and Levi's share a commitment to authenticity. Lou Amendola, chief merchandising officer for Brooks Brothers, touts the combination: "For generations nothing has conveyed the image of iconic American style more than a pair of Levi's jeans worn with a Brooks Brothers button-down shirt." An admirable combination indeed, an honest expression of America's democratic penchant for mixing high and low—and one that has the advantage of coming about organically over the years. But once you start talking about "conveying images" you are no longer offering authenticity, but what has been delightfully dubbed "fake authenticity."

"Whenever you find something described as authentic, you know that you are already in the realm of fake authenticity," says Andrew Potter in his recent book "The Authenticity Hoax." It's not unlike the "right stuff" Tom Wolfe described: No fighter pilot who had that elusive quality would ever think to say so. "Authenticity is like authority or charisma," Mr. Potter writes. "If you have to tell people you have it, then you probably don't.""

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