Brands are no substitute for the real thing
Financial Times, 8 August 2003
A friend of mine told me recently that he had bought a flat in Paris primarily because they still had 'real shops' there.
Like everyone else in the room at the time, I knew immediately what he meant - and why the shops in his home town of Oxford are not correspondingly 'real'.
We knew that Paris is full of tiny, colourful, family-owned stores, full of evocative smells and baguettes and croissants baked on the premises in the early hours of the morning - in neighbourhoods where the customers might well be known by name by the shopkeeper.
They have the kind of shops that G. K. Chesterton famously dismissed as being "branches of the accounting profession" - but they have real ones too.
And behind in this immediate understanding is a clue about why some of the world's biggest brands are struggling more than their more vigorous smaller competitors.
It isn't just Coca-Cola and McDonalds' who are having a crisis of confidence and questioning their methods right now. For the second year running, a survey by Interbrand showed that more than 40 of the top 75 world brands lost value during 2002.
Of course this isn't the business climate for major expansion, but the evidence is that they are losing out around the world to local brands and in-store brands.
One reason may be the little discussed phenomenon of which my friend's need for real shops is a small symptom - the rise of authenticity as a major cultural trend and the rising consumer demand for real food, real culture, real stories, real football, real education, real medicine - and much else besides.
Not to mention the 12 million Europeans - many with well-paid jobs and young children - who are now downshifting by cutting salary or hours in search of more 'authentic' living.
Now of course most people who at the forefront of the global revolt against the fake, the spun, the mass-produced and the manipulated may not be able to define what they mean by authenticity easily.
But the evidence is - in the rise of farmers markets, slow food, real ale, reading groups, organic vegetables, poetry recitals, complementary medicine, unmixed music, materiality in art and unbranded vintage fashions - is that they can actually recognise it immediately.
And where authentic might once have meant just 'real copy', it now means something includes ethical and natural - and most of all a growing demand for human-scale, face-to-face institutions and authentic experience.
If that's true, it implies that some of the favourite assumptions of 21st century business might have to be re-thought.
First is about the way the big brands are snapping up local brands around the world as fast as they can - from micro-breweries to local TV channels - the closest they can get the explosion of niche crafts, home-made food, local workshops.
This would be a sign, not of the power of the biggest brands, but of their increasing desperation - especially when giants like HSBC and Interbrew fight it out for the right to call themselves 'The World's Local...'.
Second, the appeal to authenticity as a marketing technique is not after all an effective way of riding the latest fad long-term. It is fuelling an approach to long-term trends that is actually more likely to cause disappointment and brand exhaustion.
The flawed idea - pedalled by advertising agencies like Young and Rubicam (who famously said that brands were the new religion) - that brands are somehow a taste of authenticity for people needs revisiting.
Actually, brands are so disappointing to people, and their brand loyalty so fleeting, simply because they are so fake.
No wonder we have the emergence of powerful new Japanese 'anti-brands', like Muji (short for Mujirushi Ryohin, 'no-brand quality goods') or the cut-price clothes chain Uniqlo, shunning brand labels. No wonder local shops are now growing faster in the UK than supermarkets.
And third, we have been told endlessly that the future is global and virtual - and of course it is. But we haven't grasped enough that there is an opposite trend emerging which may be just as powerful and which values what is local and what is real.
Increasingly, people want to eat real food not fake approximations, and want to live in real places not identikit concrete constructs. They want real human beings to deal with not virtual or telephone computer programmes.
And they are powerful enough in a market economy to get it - which means major changes in the way business is carried out.