2018 Grant Award: Rachel Ebner

Today marketers live in a world in which brands must be culturally relevant in order to thrive. However, this attempt at relevance must be perceived as authentic in order to be effective. Brand authenticity is becoming increasingly important in a time where consumers are turned off by commercialism. It is for this reason that I chose brand authenticity as my thesis topic.

Current research has identified six attributes of brand authenticity – Heritage, Stylistic Consistency, Quality Commitment, Relationship to Place, Method of Production and Downplaying Commercial Motives. Brands that are able to successfully encompass these attributes are much more likely to be perceived as authentic in the marketplace and thus have a competitive advantage. What I wanted to determine is how perceptions of brand authenticity shift when a brand is acquired by a large corporation. My hypothesis was that the perception of certain attributes such as downplaying commercial motives and quality commitment would be negatively impacted by the acquisition, and thus impact perceptions of authenticity overall. Due to the generosity of the Presidential Leadership Academy, I was able to run two studies via Amazon Mechanical Turk in order to test these hypotheses.

The first study I ran looked at 1.) what attributes are most critical to a brand’s perceived authenticity and 2.) how perceived authenticity is affected by the acquisition by a large corporation. My results suggested that there are two attributes that drive perceived authenticity – perceived quality and perceived commercial motives. Results also suggested that acquisition by a large corporation did in fact hurt a brand’s authenticity.

Taking my first study into consideration, I ran a second study to test whether or not corporate communications around the acquisition could mitigate some of the threat to a brand’s authenticity. The results of the study suggested that corporate communications were not effective due to negative perceptions of large corporations and feelings of distrust.

Both of these studies allowed me to not only fulfill thesis requirements, but to genuinely contribute to the existing literature on brand authenticity. Because I was able to utilize quality data, I now have the opportunity to push to get my research published. Thanks to the funding of the PLA, I was able to experience the challenge of conducting primary research and exercise my critical thinking skills without carrying the financial burden often accompanied by research endeavors.