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Pursuit Of The Authentic

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A Jackson Pollock painting is auctioned and sold in November 2006 for $140m. Michael Graves' teakettle 9093 sells briskly for $145, while its limited edition predecessor sells for $25,000. Al Yeganeh's seafood soup sells for $30 a quart. What gives and what do all these examples have in common...?


Perusing the December 2006 issue of Harvard Business Review, I focused on a particular article, "Innovation through Design" by Roberto Verganti. In the article, Verganti discusses how Alessi, a northern-Italian home-furnishings manufacturer, has sold 1.5 million teakettles designed by American architect Michael Graves for a princely sum of $145 a piece.

Being the utilitarian that I am, I had a hard time believing someone would pay $145 for a tea kettle, especially since Target contracted with Graves to make a replica of the exact same kettle for a more reasonable price of $25! Yet, the $145 tea kettle continues to sell.

As I encountered and continued to park and amalgamate other examples in the dark recesses of my brain, I came to the following conclusion: most people are searching for authentic and are willing to pay any price to get it. I'll define "the authentic" the following way, it's a product, service or experience that is:

* Scarce: not easy to come by, you need to go out of your way to get "it"
* Special: unique and differentiated, you can't find it anywhere else
* Valuable: as Warren Buffet would say, valuable not because of the dollars you pay, but for the value you get
* Real: the product, service or experience "speaks" to the core of who you are, your mission, your purpose

"The Authentic" is why people are willing to pay a premium for a unique teakettle, a scarce work of art, a great bowl of soup, or a spiced latte they can only get at their local coffee shop. Authenticity breeds passion and the examples of the authentic are endless.

The pursuit of the authentic then, for a marketer means:

* Incrementalism, or simply adding a few new features to an existing product or service, is the path to mediocrity
* Imitation, while "the highest form of flattery", will always be challenged to measure up to the original
* Boldness, is taking a new direction, even when your customers of today are telling you they want more of the same

People are hungry for the authentic and are willing to pay any price. What are you doing to make your product/service/experience "the real deal"?


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Paul Barsch directs services marketing programs for Teradata, the world's largest data warehousing and analytics company. Previously, Paul was marketing director for HP Enterprise Services $1.3 billion healthcare industry and a senior marketing manager at global consultancy, BearingPoint. Paul is a senior contributor to MarketingProfs, a frequent columnist for MarketingProfs DailyFix, and has published over fifteen articles in marketing, management, technology and healthcare publications. Paul earned his Bachelors of Science in Business Administration from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. He and his family reside in San Diego, CA.

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  • by Tammy Strnatka Thu Jan 4, 2007 via blog

    I totally agree with you and totally disagree with you. There's something really great about owning something so hoity toity. But it's really about status I think. Being a bit of a utilitarian myself I try to reel in my passion for the latest fashion. I remind myself, the manual can opener works fine, I don't NEED a new car, my Target purse is just as cute as the Dooney Bourke. You've got to have it because of Status, Self-Indulgence, the Cool-factor. That's what you need to tap into. Like Jessica Simpson says in her latest commercial for direct tv: "I totally don't know what that means, but I want it."

  • by Paul Barsch Thu Jan 4, 2007 via blog

    Tammy, I loved the Jessica Simpson quote. I do think "the authentic" however, transcends "status", although for some people the need to own the latest, hippest product could be part of it. I think people are after "the real deal", regardless of whether it confers status. In a world rife with imitation, fraud and fake, "the real deal" is hard to find and even more rare to possess or capture. Let me throw out an example here that might fit the bill. While we don't know much about Barack Obama, I think he's an example of people's fascination and search for "the authentic". Whether he's the real deal, time will tell, but the publicity, throngs of crowds, and curiousity that follows him tells me the pursuit of the authentic is alive and well.

  • by Gavin Heaton Thu Jan 4, 2007 via blog

    I think there is also an element of art or expertise involved. After all, some of what Seth Godin says can be found on a thousand blogs ... but there is something about the WAY he says it that counts. I remember walking through an exhibition of surrealist art ... and enjoying it. And then, towards the end, was a single Dali piece. The mastery in this one piece transcended everything else I had seen ... it made all the other artists look like hacks (which they weren't). I think one of the challenges with authenticity is that it speaks to us on a primal (or perhaps pre-verbal) level ... it speaks to our hearts and challenges our minds. It is why we feel it with our gut. It is also why it is hard (but not impossible) to manufacture. But one thing is for sure ... it is desirable.

  • by gianandrea facchini Fri Jan 5, 2007 via blog

    status plays a great role in our lives, as tammy say. i suggest that the difference is in being a discerning people or just a wannabe.

  • by Mario Vellandi Fri Jan 5, 2007 via blog

    "What are you doing to make your product/service/experience "the real deal"?" --%3E Tell a passionate story or share experiences OR create a new brand with a premium price and luxury status. When i was younger, I didn't know for the longest time that Lexus was owned by Toyota; nor the Scion until a year later.

  • by Paul Barsch Fri Jan 5, 2007 via blog

    Gavin, good point on authenticity also being "the way they say it that counts". I am reminded of a HBR article on Larry Winget. It's a great one page read. Here's a consultant that says the same stuff another consultant might say, but he's a bit more, er, gruff. Read it and you'll see... http://harvardbusinessonline.hbsp.harvard.edu/hbrsa/en/issue/0612/article/F...

  • by Tammy Strnatka Fri Jan 5, 2007 via blog

    Okay, I get it now. I am passionate about the artisty and quality of many things...food, art, etc. I choose things that reflect my personality. Thank you! I love it when my mind shifts.

  • by Ted Mininni Mon Jan 8, 2007 via blog

    Hi Paul, Good post. As the president of a design firm, this topic is near and dear to my heart. Great design sells. It creates buzz and excitement. Great design is desirable as it either contributes a wonderful aesthetic to our lives, or some kind of innovation to make our lives easier. Design can assist in solving some very complex problems, as well. Companies that want to create strong, differentiated brands incorporate great design into their products or services.

  • by Stephen Denny Mon Jan 8, 2007 via blog

    Beauty is in the eye of the... oh, hell, "A fool and his money will soon be parted" is a better quote anyway. Jackson Pollack for $140 million? That's what we call "more money than sense." I love watches but can't quite see the logic behind buying a Patek Phillipe that costs as much as a house. Status is as old as anthropology. We collect things that others can't to show our ability to provide. That $145 tea kettle shows I can feed you better than the guy your age can. Brands are no different. The only difference is how designers, marketers and other smart businesspeople can influence normal people to show their status by buying OUR stuff and not someone else's. Thanks for a good post -- I think Gianandrea and Mario hit the nail on the head.

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