How to Fake Authenticity

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There are two kinds of authenticity: the kind you can sense in your marrow — and the kind you can prove with research and provenance. It's easy for marketing to paint a certain picture for consumers. After all, companies wouldn't go to the trouble if we didn't spend more for the real deal.

A new study from the University of Mississippi looks into what exactly we're looking for when we want to buy something authentic. Packaging and branding can go pretty far, of course: Did you know that Häagen-Dazs originated in Brooklyn in 1961, born of a Bronx-based business called Senator Frozen Products? The real kicker for consumers isn't tangible at all, though. Authenticity comes from a product's origin story.

Researchers provided study participants with a variety of background information on some made-up brands. Some products were born of monetizing a hobby or a passion, while others identified a market gap and were crafted to fill it. Participants who were told the first condition believed the products were more authentic. "If inferences about authenticity lead to judgments that products are higher quality," said author Melissa Cinelli, "then people may be more willing to buy products and also pay more for them."

Another study released this week bore out these observations. When consumers buy locally made products at higher prices, they presume the quality is higher than a similar national brand. There are economic reasons why shopping locally benefits individuals and communities, but just because you're supporting a small business doesn't mean you should turn off baseline skepticism.