You can’t fake a good back story, but you can buy one

Every brand wants to be “authentic” now, but few get it right. Consumers can spot insincerity a mile away

 
Interior of Ma(i)sonry winery

The interior at Ma(i)sonry in the Napa Valley. Restoration Hardware recently bought it and is busily spreading its aesthetic throughout the chain. (Ma(i)sonry)

In the heart of California’s Napa Valley, in the town of Yountville, you’ll find a painstakingly restored stone house called Ma(i)sonry. There, you’ll relax into artfully patinated furniture, surrounded by art and bathed in quietly groovy music, and sip from a personalized flight of wines from the valley’s most independent-spirited producers, each one with a story to match. Ma(i)sonry’s creator envisioned the place as a cathedral to what he calls “a life aesthetic,” and being there is so immersive that you start to believe—even if only for an hour or two—that you could have such a life. Which is, no doubt, why Restoration Hardware bought the place. The furniture chain knows a little something about artful patina, most particularly that without a story, patina is just another word for threadbare.

There is no commodity more valued in branding these days than authenticity. As with most reliable trends in popular culture, this one has deeper roots than we might realize. The word was starting to make the rounds in marketing land as far back as the early ’90s, when a young Generation X was rejecting corporatism and the failed plastic culture of the preceding decade. Authenticity continued to gather energy as an antidote to globalization and then to conspicuous consumption, and it now rests comfortably at the heart of hipster consumerism, where any product worth buying has to have its terroir. And whether you’re selling Triumph motorcycles or cat beds on Etsy, the surest way to move it is with a story.

It’s not as flaky as it sounds. For consumers, a brand’s story is an efficient shortcut to understanding what motivates a company and its employees. It sets expectations, and expectations make companies accountable. People are almost unerringly instinctual about this. They can somehow sense, for example, Google’s idealistic origins in contrast to the opportunistic “hot or not” genesis of Facebook. It’s surely part of the reason the latter is among the world’s most disliked brands and the former among its most loved. A good story is to a brand what an alibi is to the accused: license to believe.

For marketers, the benefits are more tangible, because a good story generates value that goes straight to the bottom line. Ever since Joshua Glenn and Rob Walker’s notorious 2007 Significant Objects experiment, in which the value of a bunch of thrift-store junk sold on eBay was increased 28-fold by ascribing a story to each item, marketers with good narratives have guarded them like crown jewels. That’s because they make a product distinctive, even if it isn’t functionally unique. More than this, stories are powerful internal motivators. Nobody wants to work 60 hours a week to serve a business model, but everybody wants to be part of an epic tale. Stories give companies purpose, a quality the best ones all share.

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That is, of course, as long as those stories are true. Consumers know a fairy tale when they hear one. I’ve spent more hours than I care to think about in the company of suits questing for a genesis myth like tin men for hearts, and it never ends well. Invented stories make brands come across like stilted parvenus, which only makes people more wary. We all know Walmart wasn’t born out of an epiphany about helping people “live better,” just as we know there’s no such thing as a Keebler Elf. Even if it means buying one, authenticity has to have a wellspring.

And when it does, it can be magic. When Restoration Hardware—now rather awkwardly calling itself RH—opened its flagship store in Boston’s tony Back Bay, a well-stocked Ma(i)sonry wine bar featured prominently. Besides the obvious charm of sipping wine as you contemplate your $1,800 distressed leather armchair, it didn’t hurt to have such a bourgeois fantasyland grounded in something—someplace—real. There’s more to marketing than having a kick-ass product, no matter what last year’s keynote speaker told you. Any company can give customers a place to sit down. The art of branding is in giving them a story to tell when they do.

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