Where Do You Come From? Tips For Creating A Powerful Provenance For Your Brand

There’s a good reason Apple puts “Designed in California” on its products, rather than “Built in China.” Lessons for all of us on developing a successful backstory.

Where Do You Come From? Tips For Creating A Powerful Provenance For Your Brand

One of the first things we like to know about people when we meet them is where they’re from and what’s their story. The same is true for brands. In the business this is often called brand “provenance,” which comes from the French word “provenir,” meaning “to come forth” or “originate.”


It’s an irony of this age of globalization (or perhaps because of it) that people want to tie brands to specific locations. A classic example of the importance of provenance is French champagne. Only sparkling wines made from grapes from the province of Champagne can use the word “champagne” in their title. Provenance is crucial for many brands because it proves their authenticity and is shorthand for the craftsmanship and ingredients that go into these products as well as the history behind them. Provenance is a key element that sets them apart and, in many cases, allows them to charge a premium.

So how should you manage a brand in a category where provenance is important? Here are a few principles:

1. Understand Customer Perceptions
As always with marketing it starts with the customer. How do they view the location your brand is from? What attracts them to it? What emotions does it elicit? What is magical about it?

For example, Paris evokes romance and fashion. To take advantage of that “L’Oreal has consistently tied itself to Paris,” states Eric Zeitoun, president of Dragon Rouge, a global design and innovation company. “This reinforces the stylish aspect of the brand and differentiates it from brands like Olay, which can only claim scientific heritage. Similarly, most luxury watches have consistently claimed their Swiss heritage as a way to associate themselves with precision and craftsmanship.”

2. Leverage Location–But Build On It
Once you understand customer perceptions you have a base on which to build. And while it’s important to utilize your place of origin, it’s crucial not to just do what Fred Richards, worldwide creative director, Consumer Branding at The Brand Union calls “postcard branding.” This refers to what Richards calls “the lazy application of location images on the front of packaging in a vain effort to indicate provenance as ‘postcard graphics.’ Simply placing an Eiffel Tower image on the front of your package does not make you French.”

Instead you need to think through how your brand represents your place of origin and go from there. Per Barbara Apple Sullivan, managing partner of the Sullivan agency, Ikea puts Sweden’s reputation for clean design and simplicity at the heart of its product portfolio, then builds on that. Ikea’s “visual identity system is built around the Swedish national colors of blue and gold, and each store’s unique layout is designed to maximize efficiency for the consumer. Product names like the Fjordgard and Finnvik mattress and Swedish meatballs served in the store cafeterias serve as subtle callbacks to the company’s homeland.”


3. Focus On The Details And Tell The Story
A brand’s provenance comes to life not only through the offering but the story around it. As Camilo La Cruz, EVP and director of Innovation and Experience Design at RAPP, states, “The where and how are a powerful source of myth at a time when we seem to be obsessed with the craft, authenticity, and personality of the places and people behind the things we buy.”

Ghurka leather bags provide an excellent example here. The story of their heritage and attention to detail is beautifully told in this video.

4. For Comeback Brands–Rediscover Your Heritage
Chrysler, with its “Imported from Detroit” campaign, provides a path to follow here. As Paul Kuzma, chief idea officer of TRIS3CT points out, the car company “has grown from a tag line to a brand unto itself and has given Chrysler a runway for success. Plus it helped the brand find supporters who are lining up for the cause, including Michigan friends like Carhartt.”

(Two caveats here: 1. Will Chrysler build cars that live up to the tagline? and 2. How Detroit fares can affect how this campaign is received. The more Detroit struggles the more problematic that is for the campaign. To a certain extent tying too closely to a location puts your brand at the mercy of the locale’s dynamics and perceptions. )

5. For New Brands–Find Your Story
Just because your brand is new doesn’t mean you have no opportunity to build on your provenance or heritage. There are many new brands from locales around the U.S. and around the world that have interesting heritage and stories that capture them. A local example here in North Carolina is Fullsteam Brewery. Their vision is to “create a distinctly Southern beer style that celebrates the culinary and agricultural heritage of the South.” They do this by using unique, Southern ingredients and working with local chefs and even musicians to create interesting beers. Like Fullsteam, many other craft brewers around the U.S. have taken advantage of their provenance to build their brand.

6. If You’re Provenance Isn’t Attractive, Don’t Emphasize It

Not every brand has the benefit of positive provenance. For example, while Japanese companies set the standard for quality products in the auto industry, other Asian countries are not perceived similarly. That’s why Apple puts “Designed in California” on its computer packaging instead of “Built in China.”


Over time this may change, but until it does, for some brands it may be more beneficial to focus on attributes other than provenance to position themselves.

In sum, provenance is something many brands can leverage. It’s just a matter of figuring out how best to do so. Hopefully the guidelines above provide a path to do so.

[Image: Flickr user Halfrain]

About the author

Mark is the author of three books (including the popular Sun Tzu and the Art of Business: Six Principles for Managers) and a Lecturer at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. Prior to that Mark was a marketing executive with experience at IBM and Lenovo