Sorry Salman Khan: celebrity contagions are not as valuable in India as they are in the USA

Objective authenticity relates to authenticity derived from the claims about an object being verifiable, for example, a pink Kimberley diamond from Western Australia or the red sequinned shoes worn by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz. Objective authenticity is the most straightforward of authenticity claims; but is it the most reliable cross culturally? An interesting recent article in PLOS ONE by Nathanial Gjersoe, George Newman, Vladimi Chituc and Bruce Hood asks this question, exploring the dimensions of objective authenticity across two cultures. In so doing, they draw an interesting boundary between objective authenticity and constructive authenticity.

Their article “Individualism and the Extended Self: Cross-Cultural Differences in the Valuation of Authentic Objects”, studies the valuation of authenticity across cultures. Specifically whether the effect of value attached to unique person (like a celebrity) has the same value in India as it does in the United States.

The Take Aways
This study demonstrates that the perceived value of an authentic object differs across cultures. The researchers investigated the perceived value of objects that were authentic because if their age (such as a dinosaur bone)  as opposed to objects that were authentic because of a contagion effect (such as an work by a famous artist or an article of clothing worn by a celebrity).

Their hypothesis is that individualistic cultures will value objects associated with unique persons more than non-individualistic cultures will. However both cultures will equally value authenticity not related to persons.

Their hypothesis is borne out in the study, where respondents from India and the USA were asked about the value tof objects that were authentic due to their intrinsic attributes (such as rarity and age) against objects that are authentic due to their extrinsic value (such as the people they may be associated with).

What they found was that intrinsic authenticity appealed to both cultures equally. However, authenticity associated with unique persons was more meaningful amongst the Americans than amongst the Indians. The authors claim that this is because of the cultural difference between India and the USA: the USA is a culture that values the individual more than India does. Although this may indeed be the reason, I have a sense that there may be many reasons why the results of this study turned out the way they did. However, this post is not about what the researchers claim they found; it is about something they did not address at all that their findings demonstrated.

Objective (and Constructive) Authenticity
Although this article is interesting in its own right, its by-product demonstrates something very important about the difference between objective and constructive authenticity: namely the boundary between an intrinsic authentic characteristic and an extrinsic one.

Objective authenticity is something that belongs to an object. It can be confirmed or refuted by an external body. Constructive authenticity is about the authenticity, and value, placed on an object from outside the object itself (as it is constructed by the individual). The value of a celebrity connection with a product experience is such a great way to test this. As it turns out, which celebrity connection one makes–along with the concept of a celebrity connection altogether–can vary depending on one’s individual values. It also varies based on the communal values and beliefs in of a particular culture. The Indian respondents simply did not value celebrity connection to an object, even when the celebrity was someone who is held in high esteem in their culture.

Literature on authenticity in marketing and leadership focuses primarily on the generator: the marketer, the leader, the firm trying to communicate authentically. Few studies have focused on the receivers’ participation in what the producer is trying to convey. Authenticity, and the value that arises from it, is not just about what the producer is doing. It is about what the consumer is prepared to receive.

One of the best movie scenes that illustrates this  from the Australian movie Priscilla Queen of the Desert, about three drag  queens trekking to a gig in Alice Springs. In the scene, Felicia (played by Guy Pearce) shows Bernadette (Terrance Stamp) her most prized possession in the world, an authentic souvenir from her idol: Agnetha of Abba fame. An explanation of what it is, and how its authenticity was verified by Felicia, both mystifies and horrifies Bernadette.

When marketers are expending resources crafting authentic experiences, one question they can sometimes fail to ask themselves is whether this kind of authenticity has value and if so how much? Like brand equity or price elasticity, the value placed on authenticity is not absolute and should be tested.

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Buckle your seat belts. Is Authenticity an emotional vehicle with a bumpy ride?

The most recent issue of the Journal of Service Management features an article by Ruth Bolton, Anders Gustafsson, Janet McColl-Kennedy,  Nancy Sirianni and David  Tse proposing that businesses  look at the specific customer experience as a differentiation strategy. As they point out in “Small Details That Make Big Differences: A Radical Approach to Consumption Experience as a Firm’s Differentiating Strategy”, many businesses compete in the same space: similar products, prices, locations, experiences. When looking at process improvement, they often look at efficiency and effectiveness across the board.  Rather than doing that, Bolton et al suggest that they look at small differences that have an outsized effect on the customer experience.

Bolton uses an aged care home facility as an example. They installed an espresso machine in their wards in order to have each resident greeted in their room each morning with a high quality coffee of their choice. This small act has an outsized effect on customer perceptions of their experience; and therefore is an efficient and effective way of increasing customer satisfaction. Moreover these small differences can carve out a specific place in the market for a firm, and are tangible evidence of a greater value proposition (in this case about the care they take with their residents).

Is authenticity a differentiating strategy?
Bolton et al discuss authenticity specifically in terms of emotional engagement. They posit that a service can be efficient and effective; but without an emotional connection, customers will not develop an affinity to the brand. And that won’t happen without an authentically delivered emotional component, emotionally engaged and passionate staff, a “human touch”. Authenticity as a differentiator is not a new idea. The literature on authenticity, specifically from a service perspective is growing (and is, in fact, one of the reasons for this blog). From an evidentiary perspective, it is hard to quibble with Bolton et al.

There are  issues that arise out of authenticity’s role in what is otherwise an interesting and relevant article. First, authenticity is not a “small differentiator”. Unlike the other examples they cite in the article (the coffee), is a massive thing, which is difficult to implement. It may have an overall effect but that may be hard to measure.

Regardless of that, lets say that authenticity is achievable as a point of difference in the market. Let us assume that there are a growing number of firms putting authenticity, emotional engagement and delight on the customer agenda. Imagine customers are moving through their lives, gravitating their consumption experiences toward the emotionally engaging, favouring vendors who have energetic, passionate, caring,  staff. Ideally, this emotional labour  is factored into the cost of the service. Let us assume that firms can therefore link amount of “emotional taxation” in their service to revenue growth or market share.

A world such as this creates expectations. We know that people, whether at work, at home or on social media, are rewarded socially more for being happy than being human. This “positive bias” referred to in earlier blogs is the authenticity firms are looking for. After all, customer service agents, are not encouraged to be authentically grumpy are they? And yet, positive bias is antithetical to  authenticity. Authenticity is not the smooth run of a joyful customer journey. It is the bumpy ride of the different people in the process and their different personalities.

The challenge for workers to be authentic, but perfect and pleasant, is the elephant in the “authenticity room”. Although Bolton’s paper is not one about the broader assumptions and impacts of authentic emotional engagement in the transactional world, it does pose the question: Do we want a smooth manufactured one or a bumpy authentic one?