Jake Athey
Jake Athey 5 June 2019

Why DAM is Operating on the Frontiers of Truth

Of all the challenges brands face in a digital society, quality of information is one of the most daunting. The genius of the web is its lack of gatekeepers (in free societies, at least). However, the last decade has shown that our mechanisms for refereeing digital information are broken.

There is fake news, fake social media users, and fake services. There are knock off products for sale, copycat brands, and IP cybertheft. Misinformation is carried out over Wikipedia, YouTube, and the blogosphere. Companies fabricate “research”, and others cite it, legitimizing falsehoods. Lies, say researchers at MIT, spread faster and far wider on Twitter than do truths.

When marketers like me call a digital asset management (DAM) system a “central source of truth,” we aren’t exaggerating. The degradation of information has forced DAM out to the frontiers of truth in digital society. There, marketers are ever-more protective of the quality, consistency, and use of their content. Their words and images are too easily distorted – usually by mistake, but sometimes by design.

I’d like to discuss how global brands use DAM systems to protect the integrity of their brand information. By information, I mean all types of content assets: product images, tech specs, ingredients, instructional videos, in-store collateral, and so on.

A DAM system is not just a repository of information anymore. At the edge, it’s guarding over brands and offering protection that wasn’t necessary until the Digital Age. To illustrate the problem, let’s talk about cheese.

The Clicker-Gatherer

When food brands were nudged into e-commerce, few were prepared. Online shopping kicked off in 1989 with the founding of Peapod in Chicago. It intensified with the rise of FreshDirect, My Cloud Grocer, Instacart, and Amazon Prime Pantry. In 2017, Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods made brands realize that online grocery shopping was about to get competitive.

Sargento, the Wisconsin-based company that was the first to sell shredded packaged cheese, had to confront this new reality. For the first 7,000 or so years of cheese eating, people made it at home or shopped in person, not remotely. Sargento thrived in stores, becoming one of America’s most successful food brands. Could it win shoppers online?

Grocers considered how to compete with Amazon, but they were outgunned technologically. Their default move was to use data and content that they already had access to.

Holes in the Cheese

Sargento’s content already lived in systems like the Global Data Synchronization Network (GDSN), which was used for supply chain management, not e-commerce. Nevertheless, retailers started pulling data and imagery from GDSN for their e-commerce sites.

The information was far from complete. The name “Sargento” could be missing from a product title. GDSN often failed to distinguish whether cheese was sliced or shredded. The images looked shoddy, too. Sargento was being misrepresented.

Amazon, meanwhile, provided tons of content on their grocery products. It welcomed brands to include features and benefits imagery, extra copy and content, comparison charts, and more. Thanks to the standardized data, shoppers could rank items by price per ounce or filter down to organics – and usually trust the results.


The solution was less than obvious. Sargento had thousands of product images spread across multiple servers, and it was difficult to get them to marketing, sales, and agency partners in a timely manner. Although Sargento couldn’t control its partners’ retail websites, it could reassert control over the quality and use of its information.

So, Sargento launched Widen’s DAM in 2016 and moved all product content and data there. Next, they integrated Widen with Salsify, a product information management (PIM) system designed to syndicate e-commerce data to retailers like Kroger, Walmart, and Albertsons in the form that they prefer.

Essentially, the DAM system guarded the quality of Sargento’s information, ensuring that e-commerce sites portrayed the brand accurately. The integration with Salsify spared Sargento from duplicating everything it did in Widen and thus eliminated untold hours of work.

Protecting a Truth

By using a DAM system and integrating it to deliver product information, Sargento could protect the integrity of its brand. Although it may seem strange to compare truth in cheese with truth in, say, economic or health data, the mechanisms are strikingly similar.

Few people are qualified to vet the truth of a given thing. For Sargento, marketers depend on a long list of professionals to provide or verify information. Here’s what this cheese is called. Here’s what it contains. Here’s what the packaging should say about it. Here’s how people are likely to cook with it. Here’s a finished package of cheese you can photograph.

It can’t be taken for granted that accurate information will spread from source to salespoint. Sargento had to change its workflow and gather assets in a central source of truth before that could happen online.  

Mistruths Multiply

As a native of Wisconsin, the ancestral homeland of America’s cheese, you have no idea how pleased I am that cheese can teach us about the importance of accurate information. We’re at a stage where inaccurate information is easily spread and reinforced by machines that, rather cutely, assume that whatever we give them is the truth. As shopping becomes more digitized and automated, mistruths risk multiplying.

Imagine if an AI voice assistant parsed the GDSN supply chain database to tell consumers what products were available. It’s likely that Sargento would be left out of some results or offered in the wrong context. Even on sophisticated e-commerce sites, it’s shocking how often filters and search results exclude the products you expected to find. The metadata just isn’t as good as it needs to be.

It’s fun to discuss a societal problem with cheese, but let’s not trivialize the situation. Global brands that seek to share truthful information – in multiple languages and cultures, across e-commerce websites, in highly regulated industries, on review platforms, and across social networks – are in this situation.

Marketing isn’t reknowned for its commitment to accuracy and truth, but I think our profession is growing wiser as we, too, suffer the consequences of misrepresentation online. What we figure out with cheese may well have broader applications in government, education, and health. For now though, cheese is a gouda place to start.

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