During a recent visit to Chennai, I chose to eat Kanchipuram idlis for breakfast. These idlis were light yellow in colour, subtly spiced with peppercorn, cumin and dry ginger. Eaten with coconut and tomato chutney, they were mouth-wateringly delicious. Their name was equally delicious – it conveyed the flavours of the famous and bustling temple town of Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu. I was even more intrigued to hear that these idlis were served as a prasadam at the Varadarajar Perumal (Vishnu) temple in Kanchipuram, and this was the origin of their name. So here was an idli using its origin to appeal to consumers like me!

When I returned to Mumbai, I was struck by a new marketing campaign splashed across the city, for a new brand of carbonated coffee, inspired once again by an exotic origin. Called Café Cuba, it asked us whether we had ever tasted Cuba, and then went ahead to call itself a revolution launched by Parle Agro. The product and the marketing campaign evoke rich and revolutionary images of Cuba.

Later, I visited the Website, to discover Cuban amigos enthusiastically narrating the story of the brand. I am yet to fully understand the Cuban origins of this product, but this relatively new and exciting offering has certainly cut through the clutter with this masterful use of a unique origin in its brand name.

The power of origin Both these stories illustrate how products and brands can leverage the power of origin, in very different ways. It is my contention that origin is one of the most powerful and authentic storylines that brands can talk about, to build strong and enduring appeal with their consumers. When a person buys a brand, she is buying not merely a product, she is buying into the story of the brand. The deeper and more interesting this story, the more involved she is likely to be. And the story of an origin, whether it be Kanchipuram or Cuba, is always likely to be interesting and unique, if told very well.

Some of the most famous of these origin stories relate to entire categories, not just brands. These include Darjeeling teas, Swiss watches, Basmati rice and Persian carpets. They are typically based on geographical appellations, and their use is often protected by various rules. Consumers associate specific product or quality attributes with each of these origins; for example, the wonderful light muscatel flavour of Darjeeling teas, or the heady aroma of cooked long-grain Basmati rice.

Brands of famous geographic origins and confirming to these norms can however leverage these famous origins in more ways than one, while staying true to the core story.

For instance, a particular brand of Swiss watches can narrate the story of the watchmaking heritage of the Swiss Jura mountains, whereas another brand can talk about their skilled Swiss watchmakers, and yet another brand can base itself on the charming story of the Swiss family that created it more than a century ago. Yet all these three different stories can evoke in their consumers’ minds the precision and accuracy associated with Swiss watchmaking, which is the core product attribute linked to this origin.

Less known origins Brands do not have to restrict themselves to only such famous origins. As long as the story of the origin is authentic and deep-rooted, even lesser known origins work equally well. Take, for instance, niche European brands such as Ahava and Elle, which successfully market “dead sea salts”. These brands tell the story of the Dead Sea in Israel, located 1,200 ft below sea level. Bathing in this dense sea has been considered therapeutic for the skin and body, for many generations, which is a story that was not very well known in many parts of the world, including India, until a few years ago.

Yet through excellent marketing, this story is far better known today and lakhs of consumers in several countries buy Dead Sea salts to soothe and relieve their skin cells, or even to reduce the wrinkles on their ageing bodies.

Often, the more exotic the origin, the better it works for the brand. Chobani Greek Yoghurt has been one of the biggest success stories in the US, basing its entire tale on being a natural yoghurt made in the authentic Greek style.

Greece and the sunny Mediterranean are exotic locations which appeal greatly to modern urban consumers, who perhaps secretly desire to lead the somewhat laidback and healthy lifestyle associated with this distant Southern European country.

Eating a bowl of Chobani Yoghurt transports them to exotic Greece for those few moments.

Using the origin story Brands also use the story of their origin in many other interesting ways. Consider Apple. Most of its products are manufactured in China, yet look at the back of an Apple iPod or iPad, and it will say “Designed by Apple in California. Assembled in China.” Apple thus cleverly succeeds in conveying to consumers its Californian origin, which is a big positive and also fully aligned to the cult appeal of the brand. This mention of California perhaps also counterbalances some of the poor quality perceptions often associated with China, where the products are manufactured. I can think of many other brands, in categories as diverse as jewellery, garments and furniture, which can take such innovative routes to conveying their “true” origins.

Then, of course, you have the “origin imposters”, brands which suggest that they are from certain origins, whereas in actual fact they are not.

In several categories such as perfumes, fashion accessories and wines, you will find a profusion of French or Italian-sounding brand names in India, though the products may have nothing whatsoever to do with these origins.

While we may have differing views on whether this practice is correct, such branding cues do work well with certain segments of consumers, and are also legally permissible. So, as pragmatic marketers may well say, who are we to argue with that?

Some questions to think about

As you think about the subject of how and where brands can best leverage the concept of origin, here are some interesting questions to ponder:

Are there product categories where origin plays a far more significant role in consumers’ minds? For instance, can you conclude that origin is always more important in the foods category, vis-à-vis the electronics or home appliance categories?

Under what circumstances should you not refer to the origin of a brand? Are there “good” origins and “bad” origins?

In which product categories can the explicit use of Indian origin be a competitive advantage, for Indian brands which wish to market themselves globally? What are some criteria that can be used to reach the right conclusion here?

As marketers search for sources of differentiation for their offerings, origin will be one aspect that many of them will consider. Not all products or brands can distinguish themselves through their origin, but for those that can, this may well be a powerful route to sustained success. On that note, I will now relax with my favourite evening snack of Bikaneri Bhujia, washed down with Darjeeling Tea, and I have my favourite brands of both.

(Harish Bhat acknowledges valuable inputs from Anjuli Pandit, Tata Sons, in the writing of this article. Bhat is author of Tata Log: Eight Modern Stories from a Timeless Institution.These are his personal views. bhatharish@hotmail.com )