Experts weigh in on what it takes to make a brand authentic
The recent court case between the owners of luxury tea retailer TWG Tea, which had thrown the brand into the spotlight, made one thing clear: Many consumers were still in the dark about its origins. Comments that followed after the news hit headlines showed irate consumers pointing out that it was not a “heritage” brand, and that the year ‘1837’, which is on the company logo, did not in fact indicate the year the company was established (it was actually launched in 2008).
Experts say such branding exercises are common. Many brands tend to project their image a certain way, either by copying from other brands or carefully crafting a concept they want consumers to buy into. While problematic if done in excess, when done cleverly and subtly, it could turn out to be a successful and convincing strategy, they added.
For TWG Tea, this “misconception” of its history, was not a deliberate attempt by TWG Tea to deceive. Afterall, its website clearly states that it “celebrates the year 1837 when the island became a trading post for teas, spices and fine epicurean products”.
However, the company’s logo does bear a resemblance to that of long-established French gourmet tea company Mariage Freres.
“It is clever brand positioning,” explained Saxone Woon, director and founder of brand engagement consultancy Immortal Design. Pointing out the way the company marketed the brand, including how retail products were packaged, and the concept and look of the store, Woon said this helped “push the positioning of what they were trying to do with TWG Tea”.
“It showed and communicated that it’s a heritage brand even though it’s a pretty new brand. They have actually kind of emulated Mariage Freres, but still (managed to have) a very distinct look. They have executed very close to what they wanted, and very successfully,” he observed.
TWG Tea declined to comment for this story. To be fair, it is hardly the only company to mirror a more successful brand, or project a different image from its roots.
Haagen-Dazs, for example, originated from New York, despite its Danish-sounding name.
According to Dr Han Jin-Kyung, Professor of Marketing at Singapore Management University specialising in brand strategy and consumer behaviour, competitors constantly mimic one another. “Generally speaking, new product ideas, let alone very good ones, are not easy to generate. Therefore, companies, even established ones, often ‘imitate’ other brands.”
Imitation is not necessarily a bad thing, as it could bring benefits to the consumer such as improving upon functionalities, image, features, or pricing, noted Dr Han.
He added that a company’s adaptation from another brand will not cause its own customers to defect — if it has a strong brand-loyal customer base to start with. For instance, when Apple decided to introduce larger-sized smart phones inspired by Samsung’s smartphone models, this move did not result in Apple’s customers jumping ship, he pointed out.
Woon, who has worked on the branding of Kong Guan Biscuits, Marina Bay Sands and BHG, concurs that he often gets requests from clients who would like their product branding to look like that of another. It goes without saying they have to be careful not to overstep the line when it comes to mirroring another brand as they could open themselves to copyright infringement lawsuits.
“Yes, if done too much, then such a strategy may be problematic, ethically and legally. However, if it is subtle enough, then it could be considered a clever strategy,” said Dr Han.
Woon cited local patisserie Antoinette as a brand which looks similar to a renowned foreign counterpart but with its own identity. “Antoinette is very similar to Laduree. The look and feel may be similar. But there’s nothing similar about their brand identity. So, they could be selling macaroons and cakes, same as what Laduree has produced, but they are not Laduree.”
Herein lies the difference between brand image and brand identity. Dr Han explained that there should be “high correspondence between the two” in a well-managed brand. “Brand image is the picture the consumer has about a brand based on the signals (advertisement, product, word-of-mouth, competitor’s marketing efforts, for example) the consumer received from a variety of sources, whereas, brand identity is what the actual brand is.”
He added: “Companies should systematically monitor the brand image from the consumer’s perspective to make sure that the image they see is what the company has intended.”
Branding expert Luke Lim of Louken Group agrees. “Brands and consumers interact in a very highly dynamic way. It’s always evolving. Brands communicate their message and then absorb the feedback. Because of this constant dynamism, brands have to evolve constantly themselves over time, based on their foundation.”
One needs only to compare home-grown brands like Ya Kun Kaya Toast, Killiney Kopitiam and Toast Box to understand what the experts are expounding. All three offer similar products, although two are heritage brands, having had their beginnings from decades ago, while Toast Box is considered a newcomer.
“Ya Kun and Killiney have transformed the kopi tiam into a modern concept. That’s what the customers expect and want. So the concept has evolved,” said Woon, adding that while Toast Box has the same concept, it still has an identity of its own.
It does appear that consumers do not always mind that a brand bears certain resemblance to a more established brand, as long as the product has substance and is authentic. Lim, whose clients include Charles & Keith, Neo Garden Catering and Skin Inc, detailed: “In today’s time and age, and especially in our social media world where everyone is highly connected, there’s a need for authenticity in the brand messaging. Brands which will do well are actually promoting certain key messages and yet are authentic. This is because consumers would be savvy enough to discern what are the right messages to pick and buy based on the real benefit that the brand delivers to them.”
According to him, what matters is a brand’s “unique core competitive advantage”, and that usually comes from “real benefits”. “It doesn’t come from hollow pretty packaging. We prefer to work with brands which are sustainable where we can go back to their source, go back to their foundation. We help them build on their source and from there, we are able to help them project their strength,” said Lim.
All three experts agree that trends are shifting and Singaporeans are becoming proud of their own products. There is less of a need for local brands to mask the fact that they are ‘Made in Singapore’. “The local consumer know that our quality is comparable to any foreign brand,” mused Woon.
Dr Han compares the evolution of Singaporean brands and consumer preferences to that of the Koreans. While Korean consumers used to look to foreign brands as superior options for, say, electronics and cosmetics, that started to change about 10 years ago. Korean brands, such as Samsung and LG for electronics, are now hot sellers in Korean and overseas markets.
Said Dr Han: “If the brand has both design factor and substance (which serve) as a valid reason for even foreign customers to buy, then that would be convincing enough for the local consumers. The same can be said about made in Singapore products.”