It’s been a good week for the Olive Garden in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Marilyn Hagerty, a senior citizen, food critic, and writer for the local Grand Forks Herald newspaper visited the newly-opened restaurant and wrote a positive review in her “EatBeat” column. The column, published on the newspaper’s website, was mentioned on the Gawker food blog, which blew it into a viral sensation.
How did a humble Olive Garden impress this food critic? Not surprisingly, she was not overwhelmed by their similarity to real Italian food. In some ways, in fact, it was just the opposite that impressed her. The Olive Garden presented themselves as exactly who they are- an Italian-American restaurant that offers delicious Italian-American food at a reasonable price.
Ms. Hagerty noticed architecture and decorations that added warmth and a relaxed ambiance to the restaurant. The servers were friendly and eager to assist their patrons. Though the food may not have been “authentic” Italian, it was tasty and warm. Italian-American food is what the Olive Garden does, and they do it well.
Authenticity is especially critical in our 21st-century world, where the negative consequences of a single errant tweet can potentially reverberate for years. Remember New Coke, the spectacular failure of the Coca-Cola Company to reformulate their 100-year-old recipe? What about Harley-Davidson’s 1990s attempt to sell perfume, aftershave, and wine coolers, or the Coors Brewing Company’s turn-of-the-century attempt to sell “Rocky Mountain Sparkling Water”? Though these companies eventually recovered, they all suffered as a result of their attempts to be who they are not.
The formula for authenticity is both the simplest and most complex formula in marketing: just be yourself. This is what will set you apart from your competitors. In a world of high-gloss, full-page, “pay-attention-to-me” ads, an authentic connection will help you find and keep customers.