The Quest For Authenticity

A poet’s hope: to be, like some valley cheese, local, but prized elsewhere.
—W. H. Auden (1907-1973), Collected Poems

In poetry is truth and in Auden’s truth, he captures both the longings of the artisanal producer and the quest for authenticity by the consumer.

Much has been written about consumers seeking “local,” and this quest has invigorated not only local “Green Markets” and farm stands, but it has also played a part in community groups resisting “big box” stores and national fast food chains. It has also affected the assortment and merchandising that supermarkets and other retailers of food are utilizing.

Yet consumer research by Deli Business and its sister publications, Produce Business and, consisting of focus groups in the United Kingdom and the United States, points out that consumers have complex feelings about ideas such as “local” and “sustainability.” The research provides important clues about how national retailers and marketers can tap into this weltanschauung while distributing product on a large-scale basis.

Although the industry thinks of “local” in the context of the environmental movement—with a focus on “food miles,” reducing carbon output and supporting local green space by sustaining local agriculture—our research indicates that consumers are often thinking in more practical terms.

For example, U.S. consumers identify specific advantages they think will be derived from eating locally produced foods. They anticipate food will be fresher as it spent less time in transit. They think it will be more economical because producers or retailers save money by not transporting it long distances. They anticipate products will taste better, such as baked goods because they are fresher, and produce because it can be picked riper. Also, consumers believe foods are more likely to be prepared to regional tastes.

In contrast, consumers in the United Kingdom seem to impute a kind of nationalism to the term “local,” and the residents of southern England near the English Channel seemed quite horrified when we suggested that boosting imports from nearby Calais would be a way to meet consumer demand for “local” food. Unanimously, these British consumers thought of food from the distant hinterlands of Scotland as more authentically “local” than nearby France.

What came through clearly is that consumer perceptions of “local” actually had little to do with geography. Certainly, there was a small minority—let’s call them “activists”—who went on about carbon footprints and global warming. This was more pronounced in the United Kingdom than in the United States, but it wasn’t the mainstream in either country.

Some U.S. retailers have begun to catch heat because their “local” programs are not all that local. Whole Foods, for example, places great emphasis on its two local programs: one to support local growers and the other to support local vendors. Whole Foods has been attacked by Michael Pollan, the well-known author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, as supporting “industrial organic” as opposed to truly local production.

Whole Foods doesn’t explain what makes one a local vendor, but it defines “locally grown produce” as produce that traveled no more than seven hours by car or truck to get to a Whole Foods facility. Depending on the location of a distribution center and the speed of travel, it is easy to imagine that a product grown in Maryland and sold in Florida could qualify as a “locally grown” product.

Yet our research implies that a focus on constricting the geography to qualify as locally grown is a misguided approach. Yes, a Jacksonville, FL, shopper probably won’t relate to a product from Baltimore, MD, as “locally grown,” but a consumer in Fort Lee, NJ, wouldn’t think of a vendor from Greenwich, CT, as local either, and those cities are only 22 miles apart.

When we asked consumers in non-traditional agricultural areas if they wanted locally grown food, they were positively hostile. In Houston, one woman put it this way: “Not if it is grown down by the BP refinery, I don’t want it.”

What consumers seemed to really want was knowing things were done authentically, properly, by people who know what they are doing and in places where it made sense to produce these products. An example of this kind of authenticity would be the association between Napa Valley in California and wine. Consumers feel confident that this is a good place to make wine, that winemakers in the Napa Valley know what they are doing, that the grapes are right, the weather correct and the soil appropriate.

In this, there is a clue. Whether we are selling cheese, meat or prepared foods from down the block or half-way around the world, the challenge is to persuade the consumer that our products are authentically produced by people who know how to make them, in a place that makes sense.

Marketing efforts need to reinforce this authenticity. Who is the person behind the product, where does it come from and why is that the right place? Each product must have pictures of real people explaining their expertise, the appropriateness of the location for making the item, and a narrative for every product.

And then a retailer becomes a kind of bookseller, where each food has a story to tell and the retailer showcases those stories. And each yearns, to paraphrase Auden, to remain rooted in its place, yet appreciated everywhere.