Richard Littlewood, the president of G.J. Littlewood & Son, a fiber dye house in Philadelphia, recently welcomed a client, Soraya Darabi, to his plant.
Littlewood colorizes wool and synthetic fibers for products ranging from pea coats for the Navy to N.B.A. mascots, from high-fashion pieces to home-crafting supplies. Mr. Littlewood develops colors and then dyes them onto fibers in the company’s brick-walled plant, which is dominated by giant dye kettles, dryers and bale pressers.
Mr. Littlewood’s great-great-grandfather opened for business in this same factory in 1869. “This is a piece of United States history,” Mr. Littlewood says, “and it’s still in motion, and it’s still supplying things, so we’re proud to be here.”
That kind of provenance matters to Ms. Darabi, a co-founder of the online retailer Zady with her friend Maxine Bédat. Zady, based in New York, sells clothing, household items, jewelry and office supplies from companies that the founders have researched for ethical practices and whose stories they share on the site.
The two women this year created their own clothing label, starting with a wool knit sweater, and they chose Littlewood to dye the fiber. Ms. Darabi was visiting Philadelphia to learn more about the manufacturer’s story.
“We are making it entirely in the U.S.,” Ms. Bédat says of the sweater. “And by make we mean source and make, from the sheep farm in Oregon to the wash house, dye house, processing and knitting. Along the way we’ve met some amazing characters. They really tell the story of the history of the country.”
Stories are important to Zady’s owners. Knowing where their products come from allows them to keep tabs on the way many of their products are made. The narratives also connect consumers to other people and places, adding a personal and experiential component to a tangible good and giving it an aura of authenticity.
For example, Zady sells leashes and collars from Found My Animal, started by a pair of friends who met while walking their rescue Chihuahuas. The products feature “New England marine-grade nautical rope and waxed thread, giving the collars and leashes an authentic look and sturdy design,” according to the Zady website.
Authenticity is a fuzzy concept, but Julie Napoli, a marketing professor at Curtin University, and colleagues recently reported in The Journal of Business Researchthat consumers see three dimensions to brand authenticity: heritage, sincerity and commitment to quality.
A sampling of the products sold by Zady, including a backpack “from a century-old textile factory in Maryland” whose slanted zipper represents “ ‘summiting’ your goals and aspirations,” according to the website. CreditHiroko Masuike/The New York Times
Ms. Bédat says people love being a part of an authentic brand because they aren’t just buying into a logo — but also “buying into a set of values.”
Tito’s Handmade Vodka, of Austin, Tex., is another company that emphasizes authenticity in its marketing. Its website tells the life story of Tito Beveridge, the founder, highlighting his commitment to quality while also pushing the heritage angle: The vodka is “made in small batches in an old-fashioned pot still,” using a “time-honored method.” The approach seems to be working: Last year, the company sold 1.3 million cases of vodka, compared with 365,000 in 2010.
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Heritage comes through loud and clear when a company puts down roots and stays there. George E. Newman and Ravi Dhar, professors at the Yale School of Management, reported this year in the Journal of Marketing Research that consumers especially valued products that came from a company’s original factory.
In one study, subjects who read about a pair of jeans made in the Levi Strauss plant built in San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake rated it as containing more of the “true essence” of the brand, compared with people who read about Levi jeans from a newer factory. The first group also rated the pants as more “authentic” and were more willing to pay a premium for them.
Another experiment found that original factories also increased the perceived authenticity and value of chocolates and handbags — and that the effect was stronger after subjects read about the spread of laughter or poison ivy, subtly enhancing thoughts of contagion, according to the authors. The Yale authors quote marketing language from several companies that play up a sense of tradition:
■ From Hershey’s: “Hershey, Pa. is where it all started more than 100 years ago, and it’s still where the famous Hershey’s Kisses are made.”
■ From Fuller’s Brewery: “Our brewery’s stood in London, beside the Thames, since 1845.”
■ From New Balance, referring to its factory in Norridgewock, Me.: “Built in 1945, the Depot Street building is the workplace of almost 400 associates. Each pair of shoes they produce is a proud work of craftsmanship that carries a little bit of the long history that is the town and its people.”
The French researchers Delphine Dion and Stéphane Borraz have reported in The Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services that luxury brand managers use myths and rituals to cast historical shops as sacred, which then lends authenticity to the merchandise and the brand. Talking to the researchers about Christian Dior’s first outlet, on the Avenue Montaigne in Paris, one manager said, “It’s a mythical place.” He added: “These stores keep the traces of something that has gone.”
Several studies have shown that authenticity — real or perceived — can affect the bottom line. Brian Wansink, a marketing professor at Cornell University, found that when menu items had geographical or nostalgic labels (“traditional Cajun” red beans with rice, “Grandma’s” zucchini cookies), diners bought them more often and said they tasted better.
A cynic might ask whether Zady itself really needs to tell the brand story of something as ordinary as paper clips. “But these are amazing paper clips!” Ms. Bédat protests. Her site explains that the maker of the paper clips, the Mondial Lus company, has been making office supplies in Saronno, Italy, since 1931, using “time-honored production methods.”
Zady, based in New York, sells clothing, household items, jewelry and office supplies from companies that the founders have researched for ethical practices and whose stories they share on the site. CreditHiroko Masuike/The New York Times
You could argue that these stories are a reaction against goods delivered by container from China, to be bought at Walmart. James H. Gilmore, a marketing consultant and a co-author of the book “Authenticity,” said in an interview that consumers felt a desire for the real “in an increasingly staged, contrived, mediated world.”
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But of course, companies have been known to slap the words “artisanal,” “traditional” and “authentic” on their products without an accompanying story to back up their words.
And then there’s J. Crew, which secured the name and logo of the American workwear company Madewell and began manufacturing much of the clothing overseas after Madewell became a subsidiary less than a decade ago. Dan Nosowitz, whose great-grandfather started Madewell in 1937, recently wrote in an essay for BuzzFeed, “How many corporations are out there rifling through the defunct brands of America’s past like a bin of used records, looking for something, anything, that will give them that soft Edison-bulb glow of authenticity?”
In defense of the new Madewell, its head of design did tell Mr. Nosowitz that the brand’s quality was a reflection of its heritage. “We know this name is a great name and we know this brand is a great brand,” Mr. Nosowitz quoted him as saying.
Another factor that could be affecting consumers’ authenticity-seeking is what Ms. Bédat calls Globalization 2.0, a new awareness of the ethical and environmental costs of consumerism, enabled by technology.
Ms. Bédat and Ms. Darabi look to Patagonia, the outdoor clothing store, for inspiration. Seven years ago, that company started the Footprint Chronicles on its website, documenting its supply chain with videos, articles and an interactive map showing the farms, factories and textile mills it works with.
Jill Dumain, Patagonia’s director of environmental strategy, says that the company’s transparency has led to some criticisms — that it should be using more recycled polyester, for example — but says that it has also forged loyalty among its customers. When Patagonia started the Chronicles, she says, “The reaction I feel like I heard the most was, ‘I trust what you tell me on the good, because you’re willing to tell me about the bad.’ ”
Ms. Dumain says people are now better informed about their purchases. “We get better questions from customers,” she says. “We get deeper questions.”
Or as Ms. Darabi of Zady said: “We’re at a precipice in what people are about to begin questioning, and our brand is there to give them some answers.”
Although Zady did not provide specific revenue figures, its staff has expanded from an initial team of six people in August 2013 to a total of 20 employees now. The first run of its sweater, a batch of 300, sold out in 24 hours, according to the company.
This holiday season, Zady is operating two pop-up shops in New York City, one in SoHo and one at Kennedy International Airport. Staff members at the stores are encouraged to engage customers in conversations about the brands.
“It’s storytelling,” Ms. Bédat says. “It’s people getting to feel that connection and wanting to be part of it.”