We live in a world where words continue to lose their meaning.
Take “authentic”. It has been hijacked by brands trying to stand out from the crowd, when what they’re really selling is as authentic as chicken tikka masala is to Indian food.
This wasn’t something I had given too much thought to until a recent panel I sat on, entitled “Craving Authenticity: The rise of artisanal, craft and street labels”.
At my company, we pride ourselves on selling highly curated artisan food to the community in an inclusive and sustainable way, so I had been excited to meet fellow artisans and craft business owners for an open discussion on authenticity.
It quickly dawned on me that the purposes of a considerable number of today’s entrepreneurs is not as “authentic” as I would have hoped.
Of the other three panellists, one was an operator of a well-known food hall group, which calls itself “artisanal” despite the fact that it pervasively sells a certain chemical-filled, red-branded, fizzy drink throughout its markets.
The stories were similar for the two other panellists, both founders of small “craft” breweries.
One considered their greatest achievement to be selling their beer to one of the UK’s largest supermarkets, which has often been at the centre of major criticisms, such as animal welfare controversies, dishonest corporate policies, bullying suppliers and farmers, and health and safety issues.
The second brewery founder sold out their business creation to the mass market, having been bought by a global beverage company after achieving some impressive recognition for their craft brewery concept.
There is a need to speak out about labelling mass-produced products as artisanal and authentic. This saturates the market and takes away from the truly authentic brands that care about their consumers, their stakeholders, and the world around them, not just about rapid growth and get-rich-quick schemes.
These criticisms are not of my fellow panellists as individuals per se, but of a system that says to entrepreneurs that the only path to success is spending three or four years working around the clock, then selling out to the highest bidder, rather than taking the genuinely authentic idea they may have started with and pushing it forward.
Innocent is a good example of this persistent issue. It was set up by friends who met at university, with the aim of curating delicious smoothies that were also healthy.
Coca-Cola bought the organisation in 2013, yet Innocent acts like this has not changed its operation or ethos. It is lightyears away from the small startup that produced smoothies at a community level, and I ask myself why Innocent should still be able to market itself to consumers in the same way.
We need to be far braver about how we approach authentic businesses – calling out hypocrisy and spotlighting the stand-out companies that are remaining true to their values.
This short-sighted way of doing business, constantly chasing the mythological “unicorn” status, also makes me wonder what has happened to the traditional, sustainable and organic model of creating lasting companies.
The tech world is full of stories of startups that have yet to make any money (let alone profit), yet they change hands on the back of multi-million-pound deals, as if value and profitability were two completely uncorrelated concepts.
This illusory approach seems to be infecting more and more traditional companies, where the perception of the basic elements of a strong business is becoming increasingly corrupted.
My fellow panellist who had sold out his craft beer business to an industrial-scale operator admittedly did so because he had reached production capacity in his artisanal brewery. Why not invest in bigger premises, employ more people, and grow the business organically? When did we go from multi-generational businesses to wannabe unicorns with a three-year horizon in their business plan?
Recently, I heard a story of a founder of one of the UK’s best organic farms.
The owner is a second-generation farmer employing over 600 people, and over the years he has rejected multiple attempts to buy him out. Instead, he is insistent that he wants to give away three quarters of his farm to his employees.
I tip my hat to such courage. It is commendable that he is dedicated to preserving the welfare of those who have grown his business with him as well as their families, and in turn also protecting the long-term integrity of his business.
We need to create greater awareness of legacy businesses and those who ensure that they remain authentic to their artisan values. It is important to have positive influences like this in a world where money seems to be the single most important thing in people’s mind.
It is worth fighting for a brand that has a purpose for the founder, its consumers, its suppliers and its stakeholders. It is certainly possible to be profitable and purposeful, without forgetting the reason you started your business in the first place.