We crave authenticity, but what is it?

Tom Snee
Tom Snee

A new study from the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business finds that consumers ultimately define a product’s authenticity and value by its essence.

“Essence is an abstract, unobservable quality that makes a thing what it is,” said Chelsea Galoni, study co-author and assistant professor of marketing at Tippie. Ideally, she said that essence comes through an association with the person who created the thing, preferably if the creator approved it in some way, or even touched it.

So, for instance, the ideal essence of Ghirardelli Chocolate would come from the chocolate being made by Domenico Ghirardelli himself. But Domenico has been dead since 1894, so chocolate aficionados must look for something else as a measure of essence.

Using a series of consumer surveys, researchers found that one proxy to measure essence is the recipe and manufacturing process. For instance, when consumers in the study were asked what kind of Ghirardelli Chocolate they would consider more authentic, one made using Domenico’s original recipe but at a manufacturing plant built in 2000, or one made at the company’s original 1852 factory in San Francisco but with a different recipe, more of them went with the original recipe manufactured at a new plant because Domenico developed that recipe and the process himself.

Similarly, consumers in the study showed low levels of authenticity for chocolate marketed as Godiva but manufactured under license by Ghirardelli. Godiva chocolate is not Godiva chocolate if it’s not made using the Godiva founder’s process, even if it uses the same recipe, Ms. Galoni said.

“Consumers are telling us that essence can be transferred from the creator by using the process they developed, which is a codification of the founder’s essence,” she said. “It connects the product to the founder and represents what the founder intended. So Ghirardelli can create essence by using the same manufacturing process that Domenico Ghirardelli developed because it carries his endorsement and approval.”

But there’s a funny thing about essence, Ms. Galoni says.

It doesn’t exist.

“Essence is not real,” she says. “And consumers acknowledge that it’s not real. But they act as if it is real.” Why? Because consumers need something to value a product, and so they use essence as a measuring stick, as deficient as it might be.

Galoni’s study, “The role of original process in creating product essence and authenticity,” was published in the “Journal of Consumer Psychology.” It was co-authored by Brendan Strejcek of the University of British Columbia and Kent Grayson of Northwestern University. 

Tom Snee is research communications and media relations specialist for the Tippie College of Business at the University of Iowa. He can be reached at tom-snee@uiowa.edu.

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