The Reality Of Brand Authenticity

Mark RitsonMay 16, 20083 min

We don’t know the name of the first brand. What we do know is that up a grassy mountainside a few millennia ago, a big Norse farmer was getting a bit annoyed about having his cows stolen. In a fit of Viking desperation, he started to burn his initials into his cows to stop them being taken. Brandr, the Norse word for fire, became our operative verb. An industry that would dominate marketing was born not from the desire to differentiate or connect with consumers, but from the simple need to mark ownership and origin.

Unfortunately, a great number of marketers operate under the mistaken impression that brands are built purely around consumers. This is partly true, but brands must also represent their origins. A brand is not a malleable product that can be moved willy-nilly around a perceptual map to follow consumer needs and drive sales. Brands are anchored in provenance, founders and heritage.

The Citroen C5 work is a case in point. A blond male whizzes around Germany in his car to the strains of Wagner. A German-accented voiceover describes the car as ‘unmistakably German’ before revealing it is a Citroen made in France. It’s a smashing ad that agency Euro RSCG should take pride in. But it is entirely inappropriate for the brand, and Citroen should hang its head in shame.

This ad will drive awareness in the short term, but over the long term it will damage the brand associations of Citroen and leave it in no man’s land. If consumers want German-made, there are several exceptional, authentically German brands. It is a message lost on Citroen’s UK marketers – the way to build brand is to focus on Citroen, not your competitors.

An equally worrying picture is emerging at Diageo. Its leading gin brand, Gordon’s, has responded to losses to stores’ own-label products by spending the past year hitching its brand to celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay. The campaign shows a close-up of the chef’s face next to the gin, accompanied by a bold statement in true Ramsay style. The inference is that this is his gin and comes with all the personality one expects from such a provenance.

Except, of course, it isn’t Ramsay’s gin at all. It’s Alexander Gordon’s gin, and was invented 200 years before Ramsay was born. There is enormous brand equity here. Gordon’s has survived and prospered because it has something that makes it special. Diageo’s challenge is to find out what this something is, define it and offer a contemporary execution of it. Don’t just give up on a quarter of a millennium of heritage and hire a chef who is simultaneously endorsing about 400 other products, has nothing to do with your gin and will soon dim in the public consciousness.

Again, no shame should be attached to its agency, Bartle Bogle Hegarty, for creating these ads. It is an ad agency and, while most agencies will tell you that they are in the business of brands, they are, of course, in the completely different business of advertising. Ramsay will generate short-term awareness and arrest the brand’s losses, but over the long term Diageo is eroding one of its most valuable brands with an inappropriate, short-term fix that will cause long-term damage to its brand equity.

Consumer-insight companies say consumers have started seeking ‘authenticity’. That’s rubbish. They always wanted it. Most consumers are a lot smarter and more genuine than the marketers who target them. They want brands burned with the mark of their founders, not artificially engineered by agencies. They want to know who made this brand, where and why. It’s time for marketers to get back to the authentic meaning of brand.


– Michelin-starred celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay claims he agreed to front the Gordon’s Gin campaign to pay for his eponymous scholarship to bring on young chefs. ‘I’ve self-funded it for the past two years and it’s about finding the best talent in the nation, who will spend two years being guided by me and my chefs.’

– Kathy Sawtell, Diageo GB gins marketing manager, said it approached Ramsay last year because, ‘like Gordon’s gin, he sets aspirational standards in doing things properly and expects consumers to settle for nothing less than the highest-caliber experience.’

– The Gordon’s Gin UK website, which promotes the Gordon Ramsay Scholar Award, also features a video clip in which Ramsay demonstrates how to mix what he claims is the perfect gin and tonic.

– The chef has also fronted an on-trade campaign in which he gives business advice to bars and pubs.

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Mark Ritson


  • James Edward Hicks III

    May 16, 2008 at 4:32 pm

    You make a strong accretion about damaging brands but you failed to make your case. Show me the evidence that brands are permanently damaged by tactical campaigns meant to drive short term revenue. I don’t think so. First of all, the equity built up over time in brands is a powerful force that I believe can with stand campaigns that are not necessarily tied to the legacy of the brand. Many brands have withstood much worse assaults and have survived and in fact are thriving, case in point; Tylenol. After the tampering assault the brand endured, it recovered and is still one of the strongest pain reliever brands on the market.

    I don’t think you are completely wrong on this subject. Protecting the brand is a very important aspect of corporate governance because of the value the brand possesses. Agencies have to break the rules sometimes to break a brand out of the doldrums. Not all campaigns can be built around the 250 year legacy of a company, and what about new and emerging consumers. Do you think they really give a damn about the brands ancient history?

    As I’m sure you know agencies build campaigns designed to target specific demographic segments. I’m sure there are segments that are stimulated by the brands history but I’m also sure there are segments that just want a product that makes them look hip and cool to their friends.

    Brands are more complex than their legacy. Selling produce requires creating campaigns that appeal to a diverse set of segments. The real trick is to push the envelope without getting outside it. Any short term campaign that is so powerful as to damage a brand beyond repair has a weak brand to begin with. I think your gin will survive.

  • Nick T Johnson

    June 3, 2008 at 1:15 pm

    I agree with James regarding the Gin campaign, inasmuch that every brand needs short-term tactics to keep battling the competition and that not every one of these campaigns creates damage to the long-term brand. But even a subtle nod to the heritage of the brand would be helpful to maintain some resemblance of a brand manager who cares to see long-term survival.
    Citroen, however, should hang its head in shame. That is blatantly self-destructive to send your brand into a no-man’s-land. So you’re not proud enough to be who you are, therefore you’ll pretend to be something you’re not. Can any good really come from that? Tylenol survived an assault from people outside the company, and today the brand strives. Citroen is being assaulted from inside the company, I don’t see those two situations relating to each other.

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