market, because the last thing the locals
wanted was something handcrafted. They
wanted their beer to come from big, modern
factories that used the latest methods and
quality-control systems. I’ve spent a lot
of time in China, and only lately are you
starting to see an increased interest in
product authenticity. Before that, it was like
the 19th century in the U.S., where mass
production and automation were regarded
as good things, because they made
products that were cheaper, safer, and more
So it wasn’t that the Chinese saw the
mass-produced beers as more authentic.
They just wanted a high quality, low cost
beer. So that led me to think, “Isn’t there
something in these Asian societies that has
the same kind of appeal that microbrewed
beers have in the U.S. — something
that’s romanticized beyond its objective
And did you find that? We did. It was tea,
especially green tea and white tea.
Tea. Yes. Many Asian countries, including
China, have these little gourmet tea houses,
and a lot of them tell stories about how
the tea they serve comes from these special
mountains and is picked in the moonlight
by monkeys and crazy stuff like that.
A lot of the appeal is found in the story
behind the tea. And the tea is good — don’t
get me wrong. But I suspect that in any
objective taste test, it would be hard
to distinguish the teas that have these
authentic stories from those that don’t. Δ
“Nobody else has
your story, and
no one can take it
away from you.”
themselves pretty much by their social
class, their upbringing, where they live,
stuff like that. You and I, living and working
in the Bay Area, are much more likely to
have similar tastes than someone who grew
up in Iowa and works on a hog farm.
What has surprised you the most as
you’ve looked deeper into the concept
of authenticity? Well, this is rather
preliminary at the moment, but the
thing that surprised me about the research
we’re doing now is the power of moral
authenticity, which is a claim about the
underlying values at work in the producer
organization and held by its owner-founder.
It seems to be stronger than any of the other
kinds, such as “type” authenticity, which
is about category or genre fit and is the kind
of authenticity that many restaurants
claim — that they’re authentically Greek
or Italian or whatever.
Tell us more about moral authenticity.
It’s most often referring to people. When
people call someone authentic, they’re
saying, “This is a person who thinks
through things, who has made a set of
choices about his or her life, or whatever
they’re doing, that is based on his or
her own kind of morals and beliefs. They’re
not just accepting the script that’s been
handed to them by society. They’ve worked
it out themselves and they’re an individual.
They’re an authentic individual.”
That usually applies when we agree with
the person’s moral choices, but not always.
I might think of you as authentic even
if I don’t like you. This brings us back to
Donald Trump. There are many people who
think he’s authentic but don’t necessarily
agree with him. They admire that he’s
doing things a different way and has chosen
his own path.
How does moral authenticity apply to
a business? It’s all in what the values are
behind the business and how you tell the
story about them. Can you explain why
your business is morally different? Why
it is not simply seeking profits or market
share to enrich you or someone else?
Clearly, you can tell the story wrong and
get into trouble, especially if you’re only
trying to act like you’re authentic. Also,
you need to be fully transparent, which
goes against a lot of people’s impulses,
because they want to control information.
If you open up and start telling your story,
you better make sure it’s true and that
you’re actually doing what you claim
you’re doing, because you’ll be found out
if you lie or exaggerate. Someone will
eventually discover the hypocrisy and go
around telling everybody about it, and
you’ll be worse off than if you hadn’t gone
down that route in the first place.
So the takeaway for someone starting
a business is to make sure you do
something you believe in? Well, again, the
first thing is to make sure the story is true.
Of course, there will always be people who
won’t like your story. You have to accept
that and hope that the people who do like
it are strongly attracted to it. When that
works, when people are attracted to your
moral authenticity, it gives them a unique
attachment to your product or service,
because your identity is inalienable.
Nobody else has your story, and no one can
take it away from you. That’s the ultimate
strategic position a firm can have.
What else has surprised you? What strikes
me as really interesting is that in advanced
economic systems, we’re seeing that more
and more products and services — at least,
personal products and services — are being
chosen on the basis of their perceived
authenticity. Among consumers, the appeal
of authenticity is stronger than almost
any other attribute. I don’t know whether
it means that quality has become so good
that we can now make choices on this new
basis or whether we’re just not as concerned
about quality anymore.
Why in advanced economies? Again, I’ll
go back to microbreweries. When I was
doing these studies in the ’90s, I spent six
months in Hong Kong and went to visit
the South China microbrewery there.
The managers told me that most of their
customers were expatriates from the U.S.
and Europe, who all came to their
product because it harkened back to old,
handcrafted methods. But the brewery was
having trouble breaking into the Chinese