Product Authenticity Across Cultures  


Everyone loves product authenticity. Glenn R. Carroll, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business, demonstrated years ago that consumers are willing to pay more for things like craft beer based on its authentic story, even when the quality is less than its mass-produced counterpart. A winning story means a winning product.

However, did you also know that authenticity comes in four distinct varieties? And that some varieties work better in particular product categories and cultural contexts than others? According to Carroll's research, there are four authenticity attributes:

Type: whether a product possesses the attributes required for grouping in a particular category, such as tortillas made of corn rather than flour

Craft: whether the product creator utilizes the appropriate techniques, such as the craft brewing example above

Moral: whether the product properly adheres to a particular moral code, such as a vegan product line created by a long-time vegan 

Idiosyncratic: based on historical quirks that cannot be replicated, such as a local fast food joint that never empties its deep-fryer

In another study, Carrol tested how each variety of authenticity would fare in the Chinese context in two product categories. The first, tea, has a long history in China with a very established classification system. The second, handbags, does not. Carrol demonstrated that tea shoppers gravitated toward products with type authenticity in their stories, while customers favored craft authenticity for handbags.  

As Carroll put it in regards to handbags, "It is hard to prefer type authenticity when there is not much of a widely recognized type." While for tea, Carrol argues that customers gravitated towards type authenticity because tea has "an institutionalized, taken-for-granted classification system" in China.

While innovation work often focuses on uncovering the correct bells-and-whistles to include in the next product, research like this demonstrates that it is equally important to innovate the product story. Moreover, when marketers are thinking about how to tell a product's story across cultures, they must consider what classification systems and associations already exist in customers' minds. Telling the story of a product right is just as important as getting the product itself right.

Greg VanderPol