In this article, we examine “what makes a corporate heritage brand authentic for customers”. Hence, we study authenticity vis-à-vis corporate heritage from a consumer-focused view, an approach that had not been reported previously. The data have been analysed with a semiotic approach, and the findings are discussed next. Since this section gives many practical examples, we hope it also inspires practitioners.
Uniqueness as a dimension of indexical authenticity in corporate heritage brands
One major contribution of our study lies in the three interrelated dimensions of authenticity we have identified. Uniqueness is the first dimension. In our empirical setting, the assessment of the links between the current company and its original roots emerges as a relevant dimension of authenticity. Our work shows that a corporate brand is regarded as authentic if it is somehow understood as still bearing continuity from its origins. The characterisation of these origins—often claimed by a brand that communicate its company’s place of origin and year of foundation—sets the brand as distinct from others and thus unique. Thus, this provenance locates the historical origins of Fazer, establishing a unique spatio-temporally situated past (see Burghausen and Balmer 2014a; Balmer and Burghausen 2015), which our study empirically demonstrates to be central in consumers considerations about authenticity. The temporal beginnings of the company and the significance of the corporate origins (Burghausen and Balmer 2014a) co-substantiates the uniqueness of its heritage and assumes a prominent role in the consumers’ assessments of authenticity of corporate brands.
A concern with the connections between a corporate brand and its origins fits within the view on indexical authenticity as originally proposed by Grayson and Martinec (2004) and subsequently addressed in several studies (e.g. Leigh et al. 2006; Hudson and Balmer 2013). Based on the findings, we propose indexical authenticity as a relevant aspect of assessments of authenticity and detail how it is envisaged by consumers in the context of corporate heritage brands.
Credibility as a dimension of iconic authenticity in corporate heritage brands
The second dimension of authenticity judgements is based on the assessment of a company’s current operations correlating with the consumers’ expectations, built over time, about the corporate heritage. In other words, consumers use their image heritage (Rindell 2013, 2017) to evaluate how a company should ideally be and act at present. In an organisation, such as Fazer, that offers its products to the markets, this ideal is related to the products themselves. Fazer’s chocolate bar is idealised as the standard against which the market category should be regarded.
As our study shows, products form an important part of the heritage in the corporate heritage brand, and a company’s heritage is often prominently embedded in its market offerings (see Santos et al. 2016). Thus, what consumers expect the company to “look and feel” is commonly articulated in or around its market offerings (Grayson and Martinec 2004; Hudson and Balmer 2013; Santos et al. 2016; Balmer and Chen 2017). Consumers do make assessments of quintessential properties of corporate brands through their products and the possible verisimilitude with an ideal type stands as central in assessment of iconic authenticity (Hudson and Balmer 2013).
If consumers’ expectations are satisfied, then the authenticity of the corporate heritage brand will be judged favourably, and the current corporate activities will be regarded as credible or plausible. Accordingly, we name this dimension of authenticity judgements about corporate brands as credibility. Balmer (2012) has early emphasised credibility as an imperative in the management of corporate brands and has related it to authenticity. Thus, our findings support Balmer’s (2012) proposal. Brands activities should not only be acceptable but also believable (Balmer 2012) in order for being authentic in reflecting the firm’s identity and to overall endow the corporate brand with credibility.
In essence, this judgement of authenticity is related to iconic authenticity, as proposed by Grayson and Martinec (2004)—authenticity as fitting the expectations idealised by consumers as the right ones. There is thus a verisimilitude between consumers’ expectations and actual observations what consumers expect and what they find (Grayson and Martinec 2004). However, our work presents iconic authenticity in a particular way, apart from other research. In some previous studies (e.g. Leigh et al. 2006), it is stated that iconic authenticity is what consumers expect to see. This is true to a certain extent although iconic authenticity is not only based on what a person expects something to look like but also on how the company is experienced holistically over time. This resembles corporate image heritage, as defined by Rindell (2013; 2017). According to Peirce (1998), icons are associated with experiences processed through one’s senses. Thus, in the context of corporate heritage brands, consumers can expect different things, and if their expectations match their observation, it leads to iconic authenticity assessments.
In particular, as Santos et al. (2016) have argued, the materiality of products enables the embodiment of the tripartite timeframe of past, present and future in an immediate and tangible way, potentially fostering a sense of authenticity in the setting of product heritage brands. Our study further demonstrates that the materiality of products also enables sensorial experiences (the visual gaze, the taste) that are employed to assess corporate brand heritage authenticity. Materiality enables an unmediated experiential comparison between expectations constructed over time and the encounters with the brand in the form of products and their packages. Relying on their senses and their memories, consumers establish assessments of what is authentic or not. The past is thus brought to the present and materiality authenticates the veracity of heritage (Balmer and Burghausen 2019; Rindell 2013, 2017). The brand is authentic if it continues to be credible, that is, if the current products and activities of the brand continue to be experienced as exemplar, an ideal of the market category.
Symbolic authenticity in corporate heritage brands
Finally, the third dimension of authenticity judgements is based on the representations of the brand. What has the corporate brand come to symbolise over the years? What values does it represent for consumers? Closely embedded in this ability to continue being meaningful is the consistency of communication over time. Some aspects of a corporate brand’s identity might become associated, by convention, to the brand itself. The assessments of authenticity in this regard take into account these associations and their consistency over time.
Through repetition and consistency over time, some signs thus become symbolically tied to the brand and assume meaningfulness for consumers. As our study shows, consumers value this consistency (e.g. the colour blue symbolising Finland) as an important dimension of authenticity. Some sort of continuity in identity was previously suggested as essential in the framework of institutional corporate brand management (Balmer et al. 2006; Urde et al. 2007; Balmer 2011b; Burghausen and Balmer 2014b). Our study empirically details this perspective from the consumers’ side.
The nature of symbolic authenticity is based on the idea of convention. Symbolism is derived from signs whose relation to their referents results from shared conventions or rules (Santos 2012). In Fazer’s case, the brand has come to represent Finland and its families’ gatherings over time, providing a tight emotional linkage between the customer and the corporate heritage brand.
The nature of symbolic authenticity is that signs become shared and accepted by a specific referent through repetition over time. Symbolic authenticity lies in the strength of meaningfulness for consumers. Signs need time to become symbols—widespread and shared. Only then does the connection between symbols and the company become established over time, as well as what the company has come to represent.
As our study shows, the consumers assessment of Fazer’s authenticity embraces precisely what the brand represents, and this symbolic dimension is naturally related to its identity. Fazer’s corporate heritage enables an augmented role identity in terms of customer relationship with the brand (see Balmer and Chen 2017) because the brand accomplished a cultural significance that makes it to represent a meaningful and tangible link with the past of consumers. Furthermore, Fazer’s augmented identity came, over time, to encompass associations to Finnish identity, something that was notably built. The colour blue of Fazer packages of chocolate, for example, is also the colour of Finnish national flag.
It is important to note that consistency in communication is not simply a matter of repetition, but rather emerges from a tension between sameness and difference. What the brand communicated in the past is still brought to the present, but not exactly in the same way. The packages of Fazer chocolates, for example, from the present day, are not the same of 60, 30 or even 10 years ago. However, some characteristics bear continuity, the colour blue, the brand’s taglines and even the founder’s signature on the logo. Thus, the tension between continuity and change (see Burghausen and Balmer 2014b) is especially evident here. As Burghausen and Balmer (2014b) have detailed, the conflation of past and present, old and new, and traditional and modern underlies the paradoxical similarity and difference in the identity of corporate heritage brands.
These tensions can be regarded within the notions of relative invariance/trait constancy of corporate heritage brands (Balmer 2011a, b; 2013). Fazer represents the country and quality family time in the past, but not under a static prism. Rather, the brand Fazer continues to be symbolically meaningful by being the same from the past but different from this past. The brand is from the past, but it is no longer the past, because the past is gone. However, the brand stands out in time and continues to exhibit (generically) the same signs and values, as in the past. Fazer continues to represent what it has been representing in the past.
It is important to emphasise that the brand communication of Fazer evolved over time, as the consumers also evolved and continued to live their lives into the future, going through different experiences, in distinct contexts. Clearly, we have here omnitemporality (Balmer 2011a, b; 2013) that is the defining characteristics of corporate heritage brands. Our study shows that omnitemporality can also be envisaged from the consumer’s side (see also Balmer and Chen 2017), particularly in terms of assessment of authenticity. The symbolic nature of authenticity, as revealed by our study, is especially fruitful in this regard.
Finally, and importantly, in their assessments of authenticity, Fazer’s consumers seemingly expect that the brand remains meaningful: there is no foreseen predicament that the symbolic associations to Fazer will change in the future. And this is because there seems to be no anticipation that the brand is going to be different (or even might be) in the future, since it was not different in the past. Symbolism is endowed with this fluidity: representations will continue to hold the same meaning in the future (Santos 2013). In a way, over time, Fazer authenticity in terms of symbolism derives from having accomplished a legitimate position (Van Leeuwen 2007) as representing some values (Balmer and Chen 2017), in this case pertaining to Finnish national identity and the related associations of having been present in family life over generations. Table 3 provides an overview of the analysis and the findings.
Although iconic and symbolic authenticity judgements can often overlap in practice, different logics set them apart. On the one hand, iconic authenticity judgements are essentially connected with a perspective of the ideal. Iconic authenticity is thus proposed as follows: ideally, what would a company as an organisation—and its products—be, look like, eventually taste and feel, and how would it be experienced, based on its corporate heritage? Hence, it is a question of ability and qualities that (ideally) characterise a corporate heritage brand. On the other hand, symbolic authenticity is related to aspects of the company’s activities that become widespread in the marketplace as representations of a specific corporate heritage. Therefore, the key aspect of symbolic authenticity is repeated representation that becomes a convention. This perspective expands those of previous studies (e.g. Leigh et al. 2006) by empirically detailing this difference between iconic and symbolic authenticity, enriching the branding literature on authenticity through the lenses of Peirce’s (1966, 1998) seminal works.
More broadly, our research findings partially corroborate those of studies on brand authenticity but expand them in a relevant way. Bruhn et al. (2012) identified uniqueness as a dimension of consumers’ authenticity judgements, and Morhart et al. (2015) and Napoli et al. (2013) identified credibility as another dimension. Finally, Morhart et al. (2015) and Bruhn et al. (2012) also mentioned consistency as an important aspect of brand authenticity. However, our work presents a more concise and integrated framework than those of previous studies and empirically details how each of the authenticity dimensions is regarded by consumers. Furthermore, our research offers a nuanced perspective on authenticity as a social construction, imbued with personal memories and expectations, as well as with shared symbolic aspects, that sustain consumers’ assessments. The temporal dimension of authenticity judgements is highlighted in our study, shedding light on the dynamic nature of these processes. Finally, this study advances the current knowledge on corporate heritage brands by unveiling the particular ways that consumers assess the authenticity of such brands.
Corporate heritage, omnitemporality and authenticity
Corporate heritage brands are omnitemporal and embrace three time frames: the past, the present and the future (Balmer et al. 2006; Urde et al. 2007; Balmer 2011b). Furthermore, corporate heritage brands present an apparent relative invariance despite continuous change over the years (see Balmer et al. 2006; Urde et al. 2007; Balmer 2011b; Santos et al. 2016). Concurrently, our study shows that omnitemporality is central to how consumers regard corporate brands with heritage.
In our study, we find that authenticity is a key dimension of consumers’ corporate image heritage. Consumers look for the distinctive character of a heritage brand in the present based on connections to its past. Furthermore, expectations of what the corporate brand ought to be and ought to do in the present and in the future show the importance of individual customer experiences over time in judging authenticity. Finally, another important insight from our study is that consumers value consistency when assessing authenticity. In turn, consistency is related to omnitemporality; consistency cannot be found without continuity over time in the identity and communication of corporate brands.
Our study supports and empirically advances what Balmer (2011a) has proposed: maintaining authenticity is a process built upon the relationship of the corporate heritage brand with its community. To maintain authenticity there must be a dynamic process between the organisation and the market, where managers should be clearly aware of their organisation’s key identity traits (Balmer (2011a). As our study shows, consumers do construct their interpretation over time of what is meaningful to them regarding the corporate heritage brand identity. It is by relying on this interpretation that they evaluate the authenticity of the brand.
Furthermore, the authenticity of the corporate heritage brand can be envisaged as a promise (Balmer 2011a). The concept of iconic authenticity is especially relevant in this regard: the promise of the brand—from the organisation side—relates essentially to the expectations about the brand that consumers construct, over time. Alignment is thus essential to maintain authenticity (Balmer 2011a) and the concept of iconicity important to understand it.
The symbolic dimension of authenticity we are proposing in this article is also important in relation to the role of corporate heritage brands in the construction of national identity. Balmer and Chen (2017) have shown that the augmented role identity of the Chinese brand TRT is highly significant in terms of link to the nation’s past, contributing to the satisfaction of the consumers also because of this relevance and meaningfulness. Our study has strengthened this perspective by demonstrating similarly that Fazer has this role in Finnish society and that this corporate heritage brand is assessed as authentic also because of its tangible, living nature and its relevance in the history of the country.
Ultimately, and as Hudson and Balmer (2013, p. 355) have suggested, the authenticity of corporate heritage brands “is determined by consumers who must subjectively perceive quintessential properties in the brand” and our study does clearly show how consumers construct their understanding of these properties based on their corporate image heritage and through the prisms of the three types of authenticity we are proposing. Our work thus empirically co-substantiates and expands the literature on corporate heritage brands, offering a more nuanced understanding on how these brands can be regarded and managed.
In essence, the concepts of indexical, iconic and symbolical authenticity (Peirce 1966, 1998) are found to have a utility in providing a finer-grained understanding of authenticity in relation to corporate heritage (Balmer et al. 2006; Balmer and Burghausen 2015). In particular, the semiotic approach, as articulated here, enables scholars and managers to gain a deeper understanding of authenticity dimensions of corporate heritage brands—based on what consumers perceive as relevant—in order to communicate accordingly (Balmer et al. 2006).