Where’s It From?

3 Sep

Imagine you’re at a specialty chocolate store, looking for something new. As you scan the shelves, how do you decide what to buy? Do you get the first thing that catches your eye, or analyze every little detail on every single package? Do you pick based on something straightforward like flavor, or dig for quality cues like origin?

Gut decisions aside, most purchases are framed by clues that help us predict whether we’re making the “right” choice. We scan packaging for indicators that this is just the right thing for our tastes and needs. We look at reviews for validation that other people liked this product. We create our own little systems of qualifiers that we think define a “good” purchase.

I’ve long been intrigued by the role that origin plays in purchase decisions. We fundamentally believe that certain products are better when they come from certain places. Usually that’s because of some sort of legacy—think Belgian chocolate, Italian pasta, Argentinian leather. But origin isn’t enough to ensure quality. Just because Belgium has awesome chocolate doesn’t mean all of its chocolate is superior. Same goes for other types of origin stories, like local businesses or products based on family recipes. These traits don’t guarantee quality—but from a marketing perspective, they do imply it.

And naturally, marketers lean in. But at this point, origin stories are so commonplace, they’re getting cliche. When you poke around the grocery store, you’ll find all kinds of products with an origin story right on the package, from handcrafted tequila to mass-produced beer. Maybe that’s something else to blame on millennials: research tends to conclude that millennials crave “authenticity.” That means a lot of brands targeted to millennials are positioning themselves on authenticity. Which often gets us to a very ironic, non-authentic place.

It’s particularly interesting when it comes to food. People tend to say taste is their top criteria for food and drinks—but you can’t always try before you buy. So really, we’re making assumptions about taste based on other cues. And when we’re stumped in the aisle or fighting choice overload, stories about origin or production method can sound pretty darn good.

A few years ago, I did brand strategy work for a wine company that wanted to evaluate expansion opportunities. It was a peculiar situation, because growth depended on finding more grapes—and that meant sourcing beyond their traditional region. That sounds like a classic manufacturing issue, but it had broader implications for this specific brand: they’d have to stop using their current “appellation.” Appellations declare a wine’s place of origin, and they’re protected by law. You can invent a place of origin for popcorn all you want but….you can’t market your way into a wine appellation.

So we had to help this company figure out how consumer perceptions would change if they ditched their current appellation. The results were pretty fascinating. When we showed people hypothetical wine labels in focus groups, they always ranked “sourced” wine as more appealing, no matter its place of origin. It didn’t matter if the label said the wine came from France, Italy, California, Napa…the mere act of putting a location on the label made it sound more appealing. It didn’t matter that wine from any of those places could actually be quite terrible. We’ve been trained to interpret specificity as a quality indicator, for better or for worse.

Personally, I’m getting tired of origin stories. As a marketer, I know they can work. But as a consumer, it’s all getting rather cliche. Many brands are essentially inventing a backstory, hoping it will sell—inauthentic authenticity, basically. Which is risky territory for a brand to tread, and annoying territory for consumers to navigate.

I’m curious to see if there will be an eventual backlash against all of this coined “authenticity.” Maybe Generation Z will decide they’re sick of stories, and only want mass-produced merchandise. Maybe they’ll get so sick of interpreting every little detail on a package, they’ll start a trend of minimalist packaging with no brand information whatsoever. Maybe they’ll decide that it’s actually better to buy from countries that don’t have legacies for specific products, because their methods are more innovative.

Then again: the first protected vineyard zone was introduced in the 18th century. So maybe it’s not millennials’ fault, after all.

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