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Is it Getting Harder for Packaged Brands to Seem Authentic?

I recently started reading the book Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want, by II Pine, James H. Gilmore, and B. Joseph. Although there are other books on the subject of authenticity and what it means to branding efforts, I have to say that this is certainly among the best on the topic.

The book makes a strong case that one of the most important challenges for brand managers and other marketing professionals today is in rendering authenticity in their products – being the “Real Deal” to their intended market.

Indeed, in a world in which more and more of our experiences seem artificial, shoppers are increasingly demanding that the products they buy seem authentic and jibe with each individual’s personal self image. Today’s consumers expect products that feel uncontrived, original, and unique. And they’re willing to pay considerable sums of money to get these characteristics.

Packaging, of course, is a huge part of that equation. How consumer goods are packaged has a huge part in people’s perception of the product itself. In commodity products, it can matter considerably more than the product itself.

But marketers are getting caught in a squeeze play in this respect. On one hand, the need to appear richly real and authentic is becoming a crucial point in appealing to consumers. On the other hand, the need to reduce costs and improve sustainability increasingly drives packagers toward materials and designs that tend to be perceived as less-than-genuine to consumers.

For example, companies around the world are realizing that improving sustainability of their packaging is not only good for the environment, but can yield huge cost dividends as well. And so to reduce carbon footprint, packages are made substantially lighter, using thinner materials.

Enlightened consumers may very well see such moves as responsible, laudable efforts – being environmentally aware can make some brands seem more authentic.

But in many cases, the opposite effect occurs. Consumers pick up the newly downgauged package of their old favorite, feel the sides bow and bulge, and get the sinking feeling that their favorite brand has betrayed them – the awful sense that their personal desires and needs have been sold out to save a little money on the package.

Of course, we in the packaging world know that it’s not entirely a matter of saving money. For many products, choosing packaging is more complicated than ever. And the need to appeal to consumers’ desire for the Genuine Article is only making it more complex.

It might seem easy for makers of high-margin luxury products like perfume or liquor. Can’t they just whip up a heavy, ornate bottle made of tinted glass and call it done? Consumers sense that it’s “real,” we know it’s recyclable, and it’s the material that people expect such products to come in.

And yet, liquor marketers are increasingly looking at alternative materials. SABMiller just celebrated its 10th anniversary of selling beer in PET bottles. And many winemakers are beginning to use PET, along with other alternatives such as bag-in-box.

What consumers perceive as being “authentic” or “genuine” changes tremendously over time. It’s likely that today’s more sustainable packaging that many consumers perceive as “flimsy,” may tomorrow be considered instead “lightweight,” “sophisticated,” or “responsible.”

But right now, those attitudes are still in transition. For the near future, brand managers will continue to struggle with the gap between doing the right thing and looking like the Right Thing.

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