How important are founders to brand authenticity?

Discussion
Source: Ghirardelli Chocolate
Jul 26, 2022

A university study finds that, although brand essence, or authenticity, ideally comes through an association with the creator, one other proxy to measure essence is the recipe and manufacturing process.

The study from the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business explored the brand essence of Ghirardelli Chocolate, whose founder, Domenico Ghirardelli, died in 1894.

Survey respondents were asked what kind of Ghirardelli Chocolate they would consider more authentic. One made:

  • Using Mr. Ghirardelli’s original recipe at a manufacturing plant built in 2000; or,
  • At Ghirardelli’s original 1852 factory in San Francisco with a different recipe.

More respondents went with the original recipe manufactured at a new plant because Mr. Ghirardelli developed that recipe and the process himself.

“Consumers are telling us that essence can be transferred from the creator by using the process they developed, which is a codification of the founder’s essence,” said Chelsea Galoni, assistant professor of marketing at Tippie, in a statement. “It connects the product to the founder and represents what the founder intended.”

Past research has explored how founders’ stories influence consumer brand perceptions.

Researchers from Boise State University and Virginia Tech in 2019 concluded that sharing a founder’s stories promotes engagement and can enhance the authenticity judgments of a brand. Specifically, stories that highlight how a founder was motivated by self-transcendence, or interested in the welfare of others, enhance brand authenticity more than a founder motivated by self-enhancement.

The researchers added, “Understanding the values of the target market also plays a role: consumers higher in self-transcendence values are particularly more receptive to stories featuring those values.”

In his book, “The Authentic Brand,” Chris Rosica, president of Rosica Communications, writes that the “combination of quality, caring, accountability, and human touch” constitutes an Authentic Brand” and offered Dave Thomas, the late founder of Wendy’s, as an example of a founder using storytelling to drive authenticity.

Mr. Rosica wrote, “There are many faceless companies that can be successful by utilizing the techniques of authenticity; telling a compelling story, and having the founders of the company or the principals of the organization be the face/s of that company.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What do you think about telling founder stories as a tool for elevating brand authenticity? Which companies stand out for using their founder’s legacy to drive value messaging?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"A founder story can be a great differentiator, but ultimately it’s about product + performance. The founder’s better mousetrap has to actually be a better mousetrap."
"We all have to perform a gut check here. Do we really need founder stories for every brand we buy?"
"I suspect that the importance of the founder’s story is less important to millennials and Gen Z respondent than it may be to Gen Xers and Boomers."

Join the Discussion!

14 Comments on "How important are founders to brand authenticity?"


Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Katie Thomas
BrainTrust

We all have to perform a gut check here. Do we really need founder stories for every brand we buy? Do I care who founded my toilet paper company?

As with any aspect of brand purpose or communicating to consumers, whether it be founders (e.g. Ghiradelli, Heinz) or sustainability/values (e.g. Patagonia, Ben & Jerry’s), communicating authenticity only works if it’s … authentic and clearly an ongoing core aspect of the brand.

Dave Bruno
BrainTrust

I would be interested to understand the age breakdown of the people surveyed. I suspect that the importance of the founder’s story is less important to millennials and Gen Z respondent than it may be to Gen Xers and Boomers. Authenticity is being defined by younger generations in ways that go far beyond original recipes and founders’ values. If the modern version of a company is not true to the values young consumers hold, they will adjust their buying behaviors accordingly, regardless of a company’s legacy.

Dick Seesel
BrainTrust

I think the answer depends on the brand. For example, I’m not sure the origin story of R.H. Macy matters to today’s department store shopper, but a smaller brand with a more artisanal point of view would probably benefit. The Ghirardelli example is a good one, and the same might be applied to independent apparel brands where heritage is key to storytelling.

Dave Wendland
BrainTrust

Establishing trust in a brand ALWAYS requires transparency and authenticity.

In some cases — especially for locally-sourced and specialty brands — the founder’s story may make a big difference. As an example, throughout my thirty years working with independent pharmacy, I’ve encouraged them to “tell their brand story.” This can drive true differentiation and loyalty. We’ve also worked with some outstanding beauty brands that were developed by a passionate, purpose-driven individual with a personal story to tell. This is another example where a founder’s story can make a difference.

Gary Sankary
BrainTrust

It depends on brand positioning. If the brand needs to show authenticity, and the Ghirardelli example is a good one, talk about it; it’s a good story. Be cautioned, that not every founder’s story is a positive one. Ford has had a PR issue with their founder for almost 100 years.

Jeff Sward
BrainTrust

A founder story can be a great differentiator, but ultimately it’s about product + performance. The founder’s better mousetrap has to actually be a better mousetrap. Then the founder and their brand/product have achieved true relevance, and the brand can enjoy a long life. Microsoft isn’t about Bill Gates anymore. Nike isn’t about Phil Knight anymore. But both founder stories are powerful reminders about the authenticity of the brands.

Brandon Rael
BrainTrust

Brand equity and authenticity matter, however, at a certain point along the brand’s journey the founder’s story and core values aren’t as meaningful. For emerging brands and those that are undergoing a transformation in their earlier years, the founder’s story matters.

The early investments in building a trust and transparency fueled relationship with the customer, and establishing what the brand represents is the most significant part of the early part of the brands journey. This is critically important in the luxury and fashion space, where craftsmanship, quality, service align with the founders core values.

As we have seen with LVMH and its related brands, very few customers are aware of the back story and how Louis Vuitton started the iconic global luxury brand back in the 19th century. However, the consistent high quality service, and experiences have set up the brand for long-term growth.

Doug Garnett
BrainTrust

There is a considerable amount of researcher projection reported here. Customers answered the questions. My guess is we all understand that things modernize. But did researchers answer the way they did because any idea of chocolate made in an archaic factory sounds unclean? Research should not be a Rorschach test of the researcher. Unfortunately, I think that’s what we found here.

Brian Delp
BrainTrust
4 months 8 days ago

Founders and the ultra wealthy have become celebrities on their own. Now it is difficult to separate the person from the product. This is a double edged sword. Appearing in the tabloids is free press, but can certainly have a negative impact. Take the founder of Abercrombie for example. Time will tell if Zuckerberg, Musk and Bezos will leave a positive legacy and weather changes in social norms.

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust

First of all, falling back on founders’ stories can backfire, particularly in these “woke” times. Many brand founders weren’t all that nice or admirable, especially in the harsh light of hindsight. So telling an “authentic” founder story may actually hurt some brands. Also, in the majority of cases, people don’t care about the founder. Does knowing that the Kellogg brothers advocated frequent enemas and celibacy, even in marriage, make Corn Flakes more or less attractive? My point is that, in this case, the founder story is less important than say taste or nutritional considerations. Want to celebrate the original Mr. Smucker? Great! But, those examples are few and far between.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest

I won’t comment on the seeming contradiction of market research on “how to be more authentic” — well, OK, I won’t comment further — but I think we should give people credit for a little common sense: few would expect a factory from 1852 to still be in use, and one doesn’t have to be cynical to disbelieve the idea a recipe has been passed on utterly unaltered from George Washington’s kitchen (or whatever). And few will care; what people want is for something to be “like it always was,” and/or to represent, at least in a general way, what is printed on the label. It shouldn’t be so hard.

John Karolefski
BrainTrust

A founder’s story can elevate a brand’s authenticity if it resonates with today’s shoppers. It must be a positive story. And sad to say, it must pass the “woke” test given the today’s sensitivities. In the end, however, it’s all about the product.

James Tenser
BrainTrust

Plenty of founders of classic brands were SOBs or plain nutty, as Ryan reminds us. Others were just boring. Brand heritage sometimes intersects with odious cultural practices too. So the current generation of brand managers should tread carefully and do their homework before propagating an origin story.

I would also caution against creating untrue brand myths. My current favorite is the Folgers Coffee ad from P&G that touts the company’s New Orleans legacy. J.A. Folger actually formed his company in San Francisco in 1860. Its Louisiana roasting plant opened a century later. OK that was 73 years ago and they are an important employer, but how is that “authentic?”

Brad Halverson
Guest

Founder stories can quickly go from setting a tone of differentiation to the point where there is too much emphasis and you wonder if the brand or company is still innovating or resting on their laurels. In other words, “Yes, your founder was bold, but what have you done for me (the customer), lately”?

Nordstrom is a brand that continues to hold true to their founding family ideal of high customer service standards with wide selection. They are still innovating on this today. Looking forward, Amazon should continue this as well, long after Jeff Bezos is gone because their leadership principles are in place for success.

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"A founder story can be a great differentiator, but ultimately it’s about product + performance. The founder’s better mousetrap has to actually be a better mousetrap."
"We all have to perform a gut check here. Do we really need founder stories for every brand we buy?"
"I suspect that the importance of the founder’s story is less important to millennials and Gen Z respondent than it may be to Gen Xers and Boomers."

Take Our Instant Poll

Is founder storytelling an underrated or overrated tool for elevating brand authenticity?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...