Want to know what provenance is? Watch Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech for a few minutes. Is there any doubt that he knows of what he speaks? That his vision comes from a path he’s walked his whole life and is in every cell of his body? He speaks with such authority because he’s lived every word he’s saying.

Provenance means source, or place of origin. It also stands for a record of ownership, used to authenticate a work of art. Provenance conveys a hard-won authority earned by paying your dues. A sculptor of 30 years has more provenance to speak about their art than does a newbie, because they’ve lived it. Having a “record of ownership” applies to what we can and cannot credibly talk about.

For brands looking to take a stand, provenance is a guide to solid ground.

Where does your brand come from, both literally and metaphorically? What do you have the authority to speak about based on what you do? Nike is a brand that comes from the world of sport. It has spent decades serving athletes of every stripe, which gives it provenance to share insights from its world. When Nike takes a stand on a social subject like equality, it feels real because it’s a point of view that comes from some place authentic.

Provenance would have counseled Pepsi not to make its infamous Kendall Jenner commercial, because the brand has not earned the right to speak about the struggle for social justice. That’s not where Pepsi is from. What looks like cultural appropriation is often a brand’s not understanding the limits of its provenance.

These days, as we seek to understand what it means to take a stand, it’s just as important to know where you stand. Provenance can help.

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