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Authenticity Branding Tesco

Tesco's fictitious farms: Customer loyalty can't be built upon a foundation of deception

By Nir Wegrzyn, CEO

March 24, 2016 | 5 min read

Brand authenticity is undoubtedly the topic du jour within the branding world. Consumers’ exposure to brands through ever increasing touchpoints, and their concern for provenance, means that brands are under increasing pressure to be ‘authentic’. But what does it mean to be authentic, and more importantly, can we ever really achieve it?

The dictionary definition of ‘authentic’ is to be 'of undisputed origin and not a copy; genuine'. Interestingly, however, the word authentic derives from the Greek word authentes, which means 'one acting on one’s own authority'. Over time the modern usage of the word authentic has established itself as meaning genuine, and referring to something based upon facts. Perhaps in the case of Tesco and their creation of the fictitious farm brands, they were simply being authentic in the sense of the historical Greek definition.

Where Tesco has seemingly stumbled into a potential minefield is by creating brands named after farms that proclaim to be authentic in their existence, but are allegedly entirely fictional. In this case, what they have done is to confuse product authenticity and brand authenticity.

Following the horse meat scandal of 2013, it’s understandable that Tesco wants to eradicate any lingering suspicion surrounding its meat products. It also has growing competition from discounter brands and, in this fight for market share, an area where it could look to really differentiate itself from the likes of Aldi and Lidl would be with a story of provenance. However, in an attempt to convince us of the authenticity of the product, Tesco has failed to tell an authentic story about the brand, and focused entirely on a product story. One that doesn’t exist and never will.

This is an all too common mistake that brands keep tripping up on. Products and brands are not the same thing. The brand is the idea in our heads to which a product belongs. The notion of provenance and authenticity in the brand sense is far better communicated through the use of metaphors and symbols which help to engage with a consumer at a deeper, emotional level.

Trying to be too literal with a brand name or identity is weak. Firstly because you’re asking the consumer to make a rational decision – “I’d like my products to be derived from animals that come straight from a picturesque farm, so I will look for one that has ‘farm’ in the name” – when we know that almost all decision-making is irrational and also unconscious. Secondly, and specifically in the case of Tesco this week, it opens you up to serious scrutiny so be assured that the provenance you’re laying claim to actually exists outside of the minds of those in a brainstorm session.

This has clearly been a strategic move by Tesco in order to try to foster a sense of authenticity around these ranges. However Tesco’s own authenticity is now in question. What is Tesco? A retailer that claims to be all about consumer focus and building customer loyalty. But customer loyalty can’t be built upon the foundation of deception, even when they’re imaginative white lies and when it occurs seemingly out of sight down at a product level.

In contrast, why are we not concerned about the authenticity of Aldi and Lidl invented brands and the provenance of their products? Perhaps because they’re not attempting to masquerade as authentic ‘PC’ sorts of brands, so we throw caution to the wind along with them.

But Tesco is a ‘serious’ brand, an authoritarian that constantly tries to remind us of all the things we ought to do. As a fully subscribed member of the literal consumer, Tesco simply can’t go around telling tales because it undermines their own literal story, and in that sense it’s not even authentic by the ‘Greek’ definition – it lies to itself about itself and consumers will not feel confident in that.

The value of the Boswell, Willow et al brands is not the main concern in this debacle, but rather how it ladders up and ultimately effects the perception and value of the main parent Tesco brand. Lack of product authenticity is something that can be recovered from, if handled correctly, but having your brand exposed in such a negative manner is almost impossible to win the goodwill back from.

Nir Wegrzyn is CEO of BrandOpus

Authenticity Branding Tesco

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