Brand authenticity: Charles Tyrwhitt, Outback Steakhouse and Volvo

February 27, 2014

What makes a brand authentic? Is it its history? Its originality? Its uniqueness?

Brand authenticity can make or break a brand’s best efforts to market itself if consumers detect even a whiff of fakery. But just how authentic does a brand have to be for customers to believe in the company?

A British fit
What could be more authentic than a brand of British-made men’s dress shirts with a Dickensian brand name and beautifully designed cotton fabric with French cuffs and spread collars?  That’s exactly what drew me to read the catalog I received in the mail from Charles Tyrwhitt, a British menswear retailer that has recently made itself a major presence in New York with retail stores and an aggressive direct mail and online presence. Best of all, I got a coupon that priced the usually $170 shirts at $39 each!  I called their 866-number on the catalog and spoke to a young British guy who had the calm and reserve of a classy tailor. So “pip pip and cherrio” I was off to see just how British these shirts were at that price.

Founded in 1986 as a mail order men’s shirt company by Bristol University student, Nicholas Charles Tyrwhitt Wheeler, the company opened its first store in 1997 on Jermyn Street in London, the historic area for finely crafted British shirt making. The store on Sixth Avenue was about as British as Lipton’s tea. Racks of shirts had the same “Made in China” label.  True, the company is British by its roots, and does manufacturer some of its higher end goods in the U.K., but I was disappointed that the shirts were only a bit better made than the $25 sale priced ones at Macy’s. Although, their three “fit sizes”, brass collar stays and free sleeve tailoring are in their favor.

So is Charles Tyrwhitt an authentic brand? Its roots and style are British. The logo and name are. So, I’d have to say, “kind of”.

G’day, mate
Is there anyone who hasn’t seen an Outback Steakhouse commercial showing young good-looking men and women frolicking on the beaches and forests of Australia? “Put another shrimp on the Barbie” as voiced by the Australian accented announcer has become one of those catch phrases that Outback catapulted to fame on. The reality is, Outback started in Tampa, Florida as a concept restaurant dreamed up by a group of restaurateurs to fill a niche in the market for affordable “casual dining” that featured mid-priced steaks and seafood.  Is that what they eat in Australia? Far from it: the menus focus on steak and change to reflect regional tastes in the U.S. With over 1,200 locations in 23 countries throughout North and South America, Europe, Asia (and even Australia!) the chain is now privately held.

If the authentic brand image the chain hopes to portray in its advertising is of fun-loving, healthy people, their menu is the complete opposite. Steaks are cooked in butter; food is fried in beef tallow (long since abandoned by McDonald’s fryers). Their use of major quantities of fats has many health advocates giving the Outback the thumb’s down. And in Australia, shrimp are called prawns.

Authentic? Don’t think so, Mate.

Goodbye Sweden. Hello China.
There are a lot of car marques out there, but few have had the brand pedigree and authenticity of Volvo. The well-known Swedish company was founded in 1927 and in the years since then, the brand capitalized on its early adoption of safety engineering with seat belts, crumple zone construction and other features. Volvo’s boxy design, Scandinavian sensibilities towards utilitarian service and cold weather sturdiness made the car a hero around the world, and the U.S. in particular.

Then came the Japanese luxury imports with better styling and more appealing features, and Volvo saw such a decline in its market that its parent corporation sold the car company to Ford in 1999. Ford redesigned the car and pushed it higher up into the luxury market to compete with Lexus and Mercedes in its classes. But that wasn’t enough to keep it financially healthy. What came next was an ugly and desperate search for a buyer, any buyer, in numerous countries. In the end, the Volvo Car Company was bought by the Zhejiang Geely Holding Group parent company of the Chinese motor manufacturer Geely Automobile. Recently, NBA star, Jeremy Lin, was drafted to be their celebrity brand ambassador.

Has the standardization of safety that Volvo pioneered and its rough ride through different international owners and redesigns diminished the brand’s authenticity? Having owned two Volvos in the 1980s, I’d have to say for me, sadly, yes.

What do you think makes a brand authentic? Are there brands out there that have held on to their authenticity through tough times? Add a comment and let us know.

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