The Story Behind The Stuff: Consumers’ Growing Interest In “Real” Products


By Mike Doherty [1]
October 18, 2012

Sure, your sweater might be genuine wool. But can you trace its fibers back to the very sheep from which it was shorn? This is the granular level of “realness” consumers now increasingly seek. What is your company doing about it?


There’s evidence all around us–whether it’s watching someone gush over the sleek design of a new phone and then seek out the perfect hand-carved, petrified-jungle-wood case to put it in, or the proliferation of farmers markets in big cities–people are looking for, and need, realness. There is a powerful urge to get in touch with what they believe is a more “real” world, and it’s leading us to a place where signs of realness take on greater value.

Is it because more of us are living in urban environments? Or is it because connection tools have reduced personal communication and kept us multi-tasking 24/7? Or is it because of a rise in health scares from food being mass-produced in unknown places?

There are many contributing factors, but the desire for “real” seems to be driven by things that are bigger and more lasting than the usual “trend and counter-trend” shifts that we often see.

Here are where the biggest shifts are happening:

Real Food: The movement toward real food isn’t just about being a locavore. It’s also been fueled by health and safety concerns. Increasingly people want to know where their food comes from and what’s in it. In fact, Mintel reports that despite the recession, sales of natural, organic food and beverages have increased 20% [2]from 2009. And manufacturers have taken note…more than half (56%) of the food and beverage product categories in the U.S. showed decreases in the average number of ingredients per product in the same period. Even in snack foods, “better for you” is the top innovation area with a myriad of new natural products coming to market. California Prop 37 [3] is also an example of people’s desire to know what’s real and what’s not.

Real Behaviors: While we are more connected, it’s clear that we aren’t more social or having more personal interactions. In the U.S. we spend an average of 30 hours per week online and that only compounds when you add in smartphones. Melanie Howard of the Future Foundation reports that many consumers are also seeking the “simplification of complexity which is about the urge people feel to get in touch with what they believe to be a more real world.” We have seen the importance of family meals steadily increase over the last decade, and according to a study by CASA [4], the desire for real personal interactions is so strong that two-thirds of teens (65 percent) and three-quarters of parents (75 percent) say they would be willing to give up a weeknight activity if it meant they could have a family dinner.

Real Lifestyle: There is also a shift in people’s activities toward things that represent a more holistic and real lifestyle. This is supported by Mintel data showing a rise in cooking among young people. They found that 59% of 25-44 year-olds love cooking and do so as a way of connecting with their friends. Other creative and real activities like gardening and knitting have been on the rise for some time. The latest poll from [5] shows vegetable gardening among members of its survey panel increased from 79% in 2011 to 85% in 2012. And while knitting has been on the rise for a decade, Google searches for ‘knitting for beginners’ rose by over 250% last year and sales of Rowan yarn have risen by 57% worldwide over 2010 levels.

Real Flaws: The computer-generated, overly-designed world that we are surrounded by is so polished and perfect, it lacks the humanity we desire. People want openness, transparency and honesty…warts and all. In fact, a new term has been coined: Flawsome. Like a petrified-wood iPhone case, flaws and physicality are more human and satisfying. Researchers (Millet, Van den Bergh, Pandelaere) argue that people might even prefer an inferior but authentic product [6] to another that is superior but not authentic. They give the example that at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, a little girl named Lin Miaoke lip-synched the Hymn to the Motherland. People were outraged when they learned that the real singer, Yang Peiyi, was not allowed to perform live due to esthetic aspects of her appearance. Flaws make people and brands more real, more human, more relatable and ultimately more forgivable. Bill Clinton’s brand is a great example. It’s stronger than ever.

The rise of real in each of these areas presents opportunities for brands that can embrace the shift. Here’s how:

Offer Real Experiences: As people seek things that are more personal, worthwhile, and connected to the natural world, there’s an opportunity for brands to create deeper more meaningful experiences. Years ago, car brands like BMW and Volvo started offering the opportunity to take delivery of your car at their factory so you could tour the countryside in your new car. But increasingly, consumers of all types of products expect to feel or experience something that they can’t get online or even in-store. Companies can fulfill this desire for a real experience by offering new ways for people to see, touch and feel where the products they buy come from. “Consumer aafaris” enable people to travel to where a product is made to meet the craftspeople who make it. Cooking schools now offer trips to hunt and forage for the truffles and wild boar you’ll spend the week learning to cook. And according to the International Ecotourism Society, “voluntourism” (or philanthropic vacations) is one of the fastest-growing markets in tourism today. Organizations like Artisans of Leisure [7] and Conscious Journeys [8] offer travelers the opportunity to have fun doing some good and really immersing themselves into the real culture of a country.

Play A Real Role That Inspires: The rise of real has created new opportunities to help people achieve a more holistic and meaningful life. While brands like Jack Daniels have emphasized the slow, the real and the authentic in their messaging, there is an opportunity to inspire people in bigger ways…to think about your marketing through the lens of giving people an interesting idea. Whole Foods gives people ideas on how to play and have fun with food, not just eat healthier. But couldn’t products and the way we merchandise them further people’s desire for realness? Couldn’t Williams Sonoma offer “grow and cook kits” that combine everything you need to grow and cook your own tomato recipes? Or Insurance companies could apply the mechanics of Nike+ to help people really engage with their health and be rewarded for their accomplishments.

Create Real Products: The rise of real is already driving a myriad of new healthier products like Lentil Chips and Rocky Mountain Naked Popcorn with just 3 ingredients. According to Mintel, sales growth in natural and organic salty snacks far outpaced growth in conventional salty snacks from 2010-11. And there’s an even bigger opportunity to ground your brand’s mission in a place that supports people’s desire for realness. Chipotle’s “Food with Integrity” positioning is a good example, as is another one of my favorites, Icebreaker Merino [9]. Each Icebreaker Merino garment comes with a “baacode” that lets you trace the merino wool in your garment back to the source in New Zealand where you can see how the sheep live, read about their growers, and follow its production through to the finished garment.

Give Real Access: More and more, people want to get to know what’s real and authentic to the culture and the people behind the products and services they use. The desire for real access is just one reason why sites like Etsy have a tribal following. Pinterest also enables brands to show who they are, not just what they offer. The Today Show has a board dedicated to “Anchor Antics” that allows people to see the anchors as just that–people. And, it’s an opportunity to gain access to a part of the brand that most people can’t experience first hand.

Whatever brands do to embrace the rise of real, it is more important than ever for brands to give people things to DO rather than just tell them what you have. More and more, consumers are seeking realness in the way they live and the products they buy. Even a grocery list is an expression of a person’s values. Your ability to engage people with things to think about and do will not only inspire them but also make your brand more interesting in their eyes.

–Mike Doherty, president of Cole & Weber United, has created effective growth strategies for clients like Capella University, Nike, Gallo, Kellogg’s and the International Olympic Committee. His clients’ campaigns have been recognized in nearly every award show including Cannes, Effies, Communication Arts, Clios and the Addys.