As a founder, you and your company’s origin stories are more important than you think.
Yes, that’s become conventional wisdom in entrepreneurship circles — but it is now being backed by emerging research, including my own work at the University of Iowa and colleagues’ work elsewhere. Data shows that a founder’s story isn’t just appealing; it is central to whether consumers buy what you’re selling.
There’s a good reason for this. We live in an age of manufacturing excellence, where what differentiates a product is not necessarily its quality or durability, or even its specific functionality. Instead, it is a story: Where the product comes from, what makes it unique, and who inspired it.
Consider Toms canvas shoes. Why would a consumer choose Toms over other canvas shoes? Keds and Vans have been around for much longer and have a deep history of quality and durability. Toms, however, became attractive because of its founder’s story: Blake Mycoskie went to Argentina, noticed many children were shoeless, and developed a canvas shoe with a unique “buy one, give one” model. For every pair of Toms purchased, Mycoskie would donate one pair to a child in need. Consumers could get behind that — and they did. Within six years, Toms was available at over 500 retailers globally and had donated over 2 million pairs of shoes.
But this effect isn’t just limited to mission-oriented brands. Instead, the critical factor here is authenticity — a coveted quality of products that often guides consumer choice and impacts how much consumers are willing to pay for something. When consumers buy Toms, for example, they are not just buying a pair of canvas shoes, or doing a semicharitable deed. They are, in their minds, also buying an authentic representation of Mycoskie himself.
That raises a literal million-dollar question: How does a consumer decide if something is authentic?
Research is providing an answer: Consumers look for cues about the product’s “essence.”
You can think of essence as the “DNA” of the product. Essence allows the product to be what it is, and gives consumers a clear way to understand a product’s purpose and meaning. This goes beyond simple branding, because a brand is easily created — all you need is a name and a logo. But essence is what happens when that brand comes to mean something to people, and therefore develops an intangible quality that people cannot see but intuitively understand. They also use essence to infer other qualities about the product and those who buy it. For example, if you saw someone wearing plain canvas shoes, you might not think much about that person. But as soon as you saw that the shoes are Toms, you might assume that the wearer is socially conscious — or at least, that they’d like to be seen that way. You’re engaging with the brand’s essence.
How do products come to have essence? Research shows that the essence of your product is, well, you: your personality and values, your intentions for the product, the original design, and even the original manufacturing location and process you established for the product. All of these decisions — made by a real, thinking, feeling human being — form the foundation for beliefs about that product’s essence, and therefore its authenticity.
Consumers want products that reflect your sensibilities, and they define products by who you, the founder, are, and by what you originally intended those products to be. For example, studies have shown that consumers believe owning a product designed by Britney Spears will make the user more similar to Britney Spears, because the product contains her essence. Some research has even shown that lower serial numbers (e.g., 2/1000) are preferred to higher ones (e.g., 992/1000), because consumers believe lower serial numbers are closer to the founder and therefore have more of the founder’s essence.
Further, research shows that consumers will categorize a product based on the founder’s intended use for the product — even if the product is often used for a different purpose. For example, people consider a product originally designed to detect underground gases to be a gas detector, even if the product is more often — and better — used as a kitchen thermometer.
So how can we leverage the “you” in your product story to build your brand’s authenticity? It does not matter if you’re widely recognizable like Blake Mycoskie, or if you’re just known to the clients you serve. Anything that emphasizes a connection between the product as it is offered today and you — or at least, your original conception of the product — will help amplify perceptions of essence, and therefore make your product more authentic.
For instance, you could emphasize that the product was made in an original manufacturing location. Studies have shown that products manufactured at an original location are perceived to have more of the creator’s essence, and are more valued, than products made at newer locations.
You could also emphasize that the product is made according to your original design. Past studies found that consumers see more of a founder’s essence in products that the founder designed. Likewise, you could emphasize that the product was made using your original manufacturing process: My research has shown that the original process, regardless of manufacturing location or design, increases perceptions of essence and authenticity.
Consider Ghirardelli chocolates. The ideal way to ensure consumers see Ghirardelli chocolates as authentic would be if Domenico Ghirardelli himself made the product with his own hands. However, he died in 1894, so chocolate aficionados must look elsewhere to measure the authenticity of their experience.
We asked consumers to judge which was more authentic: Ghirardelli chocolate made using Domenico’s original process at a new manufacturing location, or made using a new process but at the original manufacturing location. Consumers preferred process — they thought that a chocolate bar made using Ghirardelli’s original process was more authentic than a bar made using a new process. We concluded that a founder’s original process is a codification of the founder’s essence, connecting the product to the founder even long after the founder is gone.
In short, when developing your product’s story, don’t forget to add a good dose of you. Make sure people understand the moments in your life that led to your company concept, and what your original intentions were for the products you set out to create. That will form the basis for how people conceptualize the authenticity of your product. You are what makes your product unique.
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