Special Session Summary Real Things: the Social and Symbolic Value of Genuine Products and Brands

Kent Grayson, London Business School
[ to cite ]:
Kent Grayson (1996) ,"Special Session Summary Real Things: the Social and Symbolic Value of Genuine Products and Brands", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, eds. Kim P. Corfman and John G. Lynch Jr., Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 390-393.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, 1996      Pages 390-393



Kent Grayson, London Business School


- full-page Coca-Cola advertisement the London Times April 18, 1994

On April 18, 1994, Britain's Sainsbury supermarket chain launched a soft drink called Classic Cola. What made Classic Cola different from other store-branded colas was its packaging, which was so similar to Coke's that even a Sainsbury cashier mistook one for the other (The Economist 1994a). This similarity was successful in moving Sainsbury's share of the U.K. cola market from 16% to 25% (Nichol 1994).

Manufacturers of everything from diapers to perfumes have faced comparable incursions by look-alike competitors. Judging from such apocalyptic headlines as "A Farewell to Brands" (Doyle 1993), "No End to March of Private Label" (DeNitto 1993), and "The Death of the Brand Manager" (The Economist 1994b), it is easy to conclude that traditional brands are no longer the valuable assets they once were. On the other hand, the hype about private labels often ignores the fact that most markets continue to be dominated not by knock-offs, but by original brands. For example, when faced with two cans of cola that look and taste almost exactly the same, a majority of U.K. consumers will still choose the more expensive, heavily advertised product over the unadvertised knock-off. The purpose of this special session is to examine some symbolically-oriented explanations for this phenomenon.

To be sure, a partial explanation has already been developed from research on consumer learning and the pioneering advantage (e.g., Alpert, Kamins & Graham 1992; Carpenter & Nakamoto 1989). When a product's ideal attribute combination is ambiguous, consumers learn to associate benefits with the pioneer, and therefore adjust their product category and ideal point accordingly. A later entrant may offer the same benefits, but must generally do so in comparison with the first mover and the adjusted ideal point. Because this comparison will invariably favor the pioneer, it will therefore support the pioneer's prominence as the market leader.

However, while this behavioral-learning explanation is useful, more symbolically oriented consumer researchers can offer a complementary alternative perspective, which may further enrich our understanding of the ways in which consumers value original products versus knock-offs. Ever since Levy (1959) asserted that "people buy things not only for what they can do, but also for what they mean," theorists and practitioners have recognized that consumers gain symbolic and experiential benefits from brands and products (e.g., Belk 1988; Keller 1993; Mick 1986; Solomon 1983). This perspective suggests thatCin addition to adjusting category structure in favor of an early entrantCconsumers may attach special symbolic value to an original or genuine product.

The symbolic approach also draws focus away from order of entry (which is critical when considering cognitive category development) and toward consumer definitions of originality and genuineness. The key interest is not how consumer cognition changes over time, but rather how consumers make judgments about genuineness (and the related constructs of sincerity, originality and authenticity). Thus, the symbolic perspective is useful in examining not only relatively new markets with true pioneers, but also the more common crowded markets where "the original" is more a matter of perception than of fact.

The special session brings together researchers whose work explores the symbolic value of original products, each from a distinct research perspective. Mason, Lefkoff-Hagius and Lee draw primarily from cognitive psychology; Grayson and Shulman build from theory in symbolic interactionism; and Aaker and Drolet explore the topic using social psychology.


Alpert, Frank H.; Michael A. Kamins and John L. Graham, "An Examination of Reseller Buyer Attitudes Toward Order of Brand Entry," Journal of Marketing, 56 (July), 25-37.

Belk, Russell W. (1988), "Possessions and the Extended Self," Journal of Consumer Research, 15 (September), 139-168.

Carpenter, Gregory S. and Kent Nakamoto (1988), "Consumer Preference and Pioneering Advantage," Journal of Marketing Research, 26 (August 1989), 285-298.

Doyle, Kevin (1993), "A Farewell to Brands?" Incentive, 167 (July), 24-28.

Denitto, Emily (1993), "No End to March of Private Label," Advertising Age, 64 (November 1), S-6.

The Economist (1994a), "Unreal," The Economist, 331 (May 14), 20.

The Economist (1994b), "Death of the Brand Manager," The Economist 331 (April 9), 67-68.

Keller, Kevin Lane (1993), "Conceptualizing, Measuring and Managing Customer-Based Brand Equity," Journal of Marketing, 57 (January), 1-22.

Levy, Sidney J. (1959), "Symbols for Sale," Harvard Business Review, 37 (July/August), 117-124.

Mick, David Glenn (1986), "Consumer Research and Semiotics: Exploring the Morphology of Signs, Symbols, and Significance," Journal of Consumer Research, 13 (September), 196-213.

Nichol, David (1994), "Coke Monday: North America's Soft Drink Industry, This Is Your Wake-Up Call," speech given at Hesse Meyers Beverage Digest Conference, Grand Hyatt Hotel, New York, NY (May).

Solomon, Michael R. (1983), "The Role of Products as Social Stimuli: A Symbolic Interactionist Perspective," Journal of Consumer Research, 10 (December), 319-329.



Charlotte Mason, University of North Carolina

Roxanne Lefkoff-Hagius, University of Maryland

Yih Hwai Lee, University of North Carolina


Recent years have witnessed a substantial increase in the share of private-label goods across many categories. They currently account for about 20% of all U.S. food and consumer product sales, and some experts predict further increases to 33% (Stern, 1993). This trend, if it continues, is a major concern for manufacturers who have invested heavily in advertising and promotion to build their brands' equity. Of paramount concern is the increasingly aggressive stance of the so-called 'knock-off' or 'look-alike' products - or what private label manufacturers prefer to call 'brand equivalents.' By closely mimicking the packaging and features of popular brands, knock-offs hope to lure consumers with their lower prices. Manufacturers of the original brands feel knock-offs are an infringement designed to feed on the goodwill of their brands and result in confused customers.

Not surprisingly, knock-offs do attract consumers, although their success varies across categories. In many over-the-counter pharmaceuticals, store brands - which often are knock-offs - are the number one or two seller. In the fragrance market there are as many as 27 copycat marketers - some of which even knock-off other knock-offs (Sloan, 1987). Other categories including beer, baby food, and dental products seem relatively impervious to knock-offs. Conventional wisdom holds that some categories are insulated by intangible factors including image, emotional factors, and doubts about quality (Shapiro, 1993).

Although trade publications are full of facts and anecdotes about knock-offs, there is little academic research which has systematically explored consumers' responses to these knock-offs vis-a-vis the original, authentic brands. Using survey-based paired comparisons of visual stimuli, we examine consumers' perceptions of similarity between authentic products and the corresponding knock-offs with respect to several dimensions including physical features, performance, value, quality, and image. We examine which dimensions contribute the most to overall perceived similarity and how the relative weights vary across groupings of product categories. We also explore the relationships between purchase intentions and perceived similarity judgments across category groupings. Drawing both on conventional wisdom as reported in the trade press as well as the theoretical literatures in marketing and psychology, we test two sets of hypotheses. The first set relates to the classification of goods and attributes. For example, using the characteristic-beneficial-image attribute typology suggested by Myers and Shocker (1981) and others, we expect knock-offs to be judged more similar with respect to physical features than either performance or image. Drawing on the functional-symbolic-experiential classification (Park, Jawarski, MacInnis 1986), we expect similarity of performance to be relatively more important for functional products than for symbolic products. The second set of hypotheses link the similarity judgments to consumers' characteristics including attention to social comparison information ( Lennox and Wolfe, 1984) and reported brand and category purchase behavior.


Lennox, Richard D. and Raymond N. Wolfe (1984), Revision of the Self-Monitoring Scale, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 46(6), 1349-1369.

Myers, James H. and Allen D. Shocker (1981), The Nature of Product-related Attributes, in Research in Marketing, Vol. 5, ed. Jagdish N. Sheth, Greenwich, CT: JAI, 211-236.

Park, C. Whan, Bernard J. Jaworski and Deborah J. MacIinnis (1986), Strategic Brand Concept-Image Management, Journal of Marketing, 50(4), 135-145.

Shapiro, Eben (1993), Price lure of private-label products fails to hook many buyers of baby food, beer, Wall Street Journal (May 13), B1.

Simpson, Wayne (1994), Seeing Double: The success of store brands has brought with it an epidemic of packaging knockoffs, BrandWeek (October 17), 30-35.

Sloan, Pat (1987), Knock-offs deliver blows to fragrance market. Advertising Age (March 2), S-14.

Stern, Gabriella (1993), Cheap Imitation: Perrigo's Knockoffs of Name-Brand Drugs Turn into Big Sellers, Wall Street Journal (July 15), A1.



Kent Grayson, London Business School

David Shulman, Northwestern University


Belk (1990) suggests that authentic objects cannot be substituted because they have been "contaminated" by a sacred experience, and that non-contaminated objects therefore "lack sacred power to carry our memories." The purpose of this research was to examine how consumers experience this contamination process, and what it means for one object to carry memories, while another one cannot.

Drawing from previous work on authenticity (e.g., Baudrillard 1983, Lowenthal 1992, Sartre 1956, Trilling 1972) we explored the social value of authenticity through a series of 30 depth interviews. Subjects were asked about favored possessions, and in particular those that could not be replaced by a facsimile. What factors made the object distinct and irreplacable? What, in other words, made the "real" object authentic, while the facsimile would be a "fake"? The data enrich our understanding of authenticity and its role in consumption.

First, the data support a conception of authentic objects as more than just reminders (Belk 1990, Wallendorf and Arnould 1988). A reminder prompts a memory of an experience, but it need not have been part of an experience. For example, when asked if he would be willing to trade his favorite journal for an exact copy, a respondent said that he would not: "I mean you can remember that you wrote up the journal and everything like that . . . And sure, a copy of a journal is nice; but to have the actual thing there means a lot more." Having the actual thing means having something that was actually and physically part of the experience. Thus, in addition to reminding the owner of this experience, the authentic object validates that the owner participated in the experience. Like irrefutable evidence found at a crime scene, authentic objects provide undeniable evidence that the owner was part of the experience, something that a copy (which was not part of the experience) cannot do.

Second, the data challenge the notion that memories are essentially imaginary and hypothetical (Belk 1990). Authenticity cannot be hypothetical; the object was part of the experience or it was not. If it was part of the experience, then the object validates the experience. If it was not part of the experience, then the object can at best only remind. One respondent described a bowtie from a prom as follows: "I guess it's just, like, the fact that, you konw, it came from that actual night, like that's where the meaning comes from. You could try to say, oh, I'll just transplant it. But you know deep down that it's just some bowtie from any store anywhere. It doesn't mean the same thing."

Thirdly, the data highlight the role of authentic objects in supporting their owners' conception of a personal life history. Because time is so ephemeral, it is difficult to concretize. Ricoeur (1984) has argued that this is the main role of the narrative: to make time more concrete. Authentic objects make time more concrete by serving as "narrative storehouses"; unique indices of a life story in which the objects themselves played a part. A woman's ring holds the story of how her grandfather was a singer but had to make ends meet by being a jeweler. A woman's autograph from Disney World holds the story of how Goofy sat next to her on the riverboat ride. For these informants, a replica of the favored object would not serve as a narrative storehouse because it would not be permeated.

Having distinguished materially authentic objects from other kinds of favored objects, we use our framework to describe how symbols such as brands can gain authentic status, particularly through "commemorative marketing." Following from our research results, we suggest that the more a brand is associated with life narratives, the more it becomes materially authentic to the target consumer.


Baudrillard, Jean (1983), Simulations, trans. Paul Foss and Alexander L. Biel, New York, NY: Semiotext(e).

Belk, Russell W. (1990), "The Role of Possessions in Constructing and Maintaining a Sense of the Past," Advances in Consumer Research, volume 17, 669-676.

Lowenthal, David (1992), "Counterfeit Art: Authentic Fakes," International Journal of Cultural Property, 1.

Ricoeur, Paul (1984), Time and Narrative, Kathleen McLaughlin and David Pellauer trans., Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Sartre, Jean-Paul (1956), Being and Nothingness, New York, NY: Washington Square Books.

Trilling, Lionel (1972), Sincerity and Authenticity, London: Harvard University Press.

Wallendorf, Melanie and Eric J. Arnould (1988), "'My Favorite Things": A Cross-Cultural Inquiry into Object Attachment, Possessiveness, and Social Linkage," Journal of Consumer Research, 14 (March), 531-547.



Jennifer Aaker (UCLA)

Aimee Drolet (Stanford University)


Hallmark cards. Campbell's soup. Hershey's candy bars. One of the common characteristics which describe, drive and differentiate each of these brands is "Sincerity." While many psychologists have discussed the meaning of sincerity in human personality (Norman 1963) and behavior (Schlenker 1981; Swann et al. 1992), the validity and import of this construct in consumer behavior has received considerably less attention. Yet an understanding of what it means for a brand to be sincere or authentic has become increasingly important as the number of brands, particularly me-too brands in many product categories grows (Kotler 1991).

The purpose of this research is to gain insight into the construct "Sincerity" as it applies to brands. First, we address the question, what is the meaning of sincerity, by defining the construct and by identifying what is associated with sincerity in consumers' minds. Second, we explore the antecedents of sincerity, or how brands develop and maintain high levels of sincerity. Third, we examine the consequences, both theoretical and practical, of possessing "Sincerity" as a brand.

To address these three areas, a multi-method approach is taken. First, a large-scale survey was conducted in which consumers were asked to rate 37 brands in multiple product categories on 114 personality traits. Based on an exploratory and confirmatory factor analyses, five brand personality factors resulted. The factor that explained the most variance (27%) was termed "Sincerity," which consisted of four parts: "Simple" (typified by traits such as basic, down-to-earth and family oriented), "Honest" (typified by traits such as sincere, loyal and caring), "Authentic" (typified by traits such as genuine, ageless and traditional), and "Warm" (typified by traits such as cheerful, happy and sentimental). The purpose of this exercise was to determine some of the distinct associations with Sincerity, to identify a sub-sample of "Sincere" brands for further analysis (see below) and to explore the consequences of having "Sincerity." The latter goal was achieved by conducting a series of regressions where consumer preferences for brands that scored low vs. high on "Sincerity" were compared. The variance explained in preference was significantly higher for brands which scored high (vs. low) on "Sincerity." Moreover, this effect was unique for "Sincerity" (vs. the other four personality factors).

Second, a laboratory experiment was conducted to examine the psychological mechanism by which "Sincerity" operates. We hypothesized that "Sincerity" is an affectively-laden construct which evokes the affective component of attitudes. By juxtaposing "Sincerity" with a second brand personality factor, "competence," as well as manipulating the affective vs. cognitive nature of two advertisements of "Sincere" vs. "Competent" brands, we were able to show that indeed "Sincerity" is more affectively laden while "Competence" is more cognitively laden. Finally the paper conclues by linking these findings with thos in social psychology (e.g., Swann, et. al. 1992), a discussion of the possible negative consequences of having "Sincerity," as well as suggestions for future research.


Norman, Warren T. (1963), "Toward an Adequate Taxonomy of Personality Attribute: Replicated Factor Structure in Peer Nomination Personality Ratings," Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 66, 574-583.

Schlenker, Barry (1981), Impression Management, Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Swann, William, A. Stein-Seroussi, R.B. Giesler (1992), "Why People Self-Verify," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 62, 392-401.




Barbara B. Stern, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

Each paper in the session seems to use a different definition of "authenticity," reflecting a larger problem of terminological confusion endemic to the topic. To disentangle this confusion, the discussion will focus on clarifying the construct and making explicit the link between the session papers. Literary criticism is the source of the analysis of "authenticity" as a multi-dimensional construct, different from but related to "sincerity," "genuineness," and "realness." The discussion borrows Lionel Trilling's definition of authenticity and builds on Grayson/Shulman's usage of "narrative storehouse" to signify four different dimensions of authenticityCgenuineness, positive valuation, cultural, and personal. The first two dimensions are found in Trilling's definition and the latter two are derived from Grayson/Shulman's. The derivation takes the concept of a "narrative storehouse" to the next level, enabling a distinction between products that reside in a cultural storehouse versus those that reside in a personal one. This distinction permits closer examination of the nature of authenticity and the process of creating it.

To begin with Trilling, authenticity refers to objects that are what they appear to be (genuineness) and that are worth the positive valuation they are accorded in their own sphere (positive valuation). That is, authenticity is defined on two dimensions in terms of two questions: "Is the object what it appears to be?" and "Is it worth the admiration it is being given in its domain?" (see Trilling 1972, p.93). Moving to Grayson/Shulman, authenticity is defined in personal terms, which suggests that it can also be defined in cultural terms.

The Aaker/Drolier and Mason/Lefkoff-Hagius/Lee papers treat "authenticity" as a phenomenon specific to the marketplace based on both dimensions. In Aaker/Drolier, authenticity is one of four factors summing up to "sincerity," a construct, and authentic is defined as the aspect of it that signifies "genuine," "ageless," "traditional." This is a culturally specific definition based on temporality, for a genuine brand is a "pioneer" one that precedes later entries into the product market and is deemed "ageless" because it has been around longest. The advantage of pioneer brands is that consumers learn to associate benefits with them and that the positive association enables pioneers to continue market leadership over time.

A similar cultural time-based definition is used in mason/Lefkoff-Hagius/Lee's paper, where "authenticity" refers to a product that is deemed original because it is the first one and that holds on to consumer loyalty even when later knock-offs emerge. The knock-offs are lower in price and are called "brand equivalents" or "imitations." The paper deals with consumer perceptions of similarity and their attraction for the original authentic brand versus the imitative equivalent. In both papers, the notion of genuineness the product is what it appears to be) is linked to historical precedenceCthe product was the first of its kindCand to positive evaluation because of its originary status (the product commands loyalty). In this sense, both papers imply that an authentic brand is one whose genuineness and value has enshrined it in the cultural narrative storehouse, "holding" a story significant to the culture and non-substitutable.

In Grayson/Shulman's paper, attention shifts from the cultural to the personal storehouse. Here, authenticity refers to something that the consumer associates with a favored possessionCa special object dear to him/her. Trilling's criteria apply, although on a personal rather than on a cultural level. The object is original or genuine in the sense that the consumer defines it that way, and the object is valued because of its role in the consumer's life. That is, the emphasis turns away from historical time (did this object take on meaning in the consumer's life?). A favored possession gains authenticity because it has been permeated by a person or event significant in a consumer's life. The more a brand is associated with life narratives, the more it becomes authentic, and thus meaningful, to a consumer.

Once the construct of authenticity is seen as multi-dimensional rather than monolithic, "genuineness" and "positive valuation" can be seen as components along with "personal" and "cultural." The issue of creating authenticity then becomes one of maximising the capacity of advertising to act as a spearhead endowing products/brands with desired attributes and/or moving them from the personal to the cultural level.


Trilling, Lionel (1972), Sincerity and Authenticity, London: Harvard University Press.