It’s time to stop spruiking your brand’s ‘authenticity’


Everywhere I look, people are banging on about “authenticity”. The marketing press is full of it.

According to Mumbrella, via Jenna Orme from FleishmanHillard back in January: “In 2018, there’s no room for anything other than authenticity”.

B&T, via Publicis Media’s head of content for ANZ, Patrick Whitnall, is interested in how authenticity and influencers combine: “From perfection-obsessed to authenticity-driven: how brands can thrive via influencer marketing”.

And we find Forbes via Jayson DeMers, who “demystifies SEO and online marketing for business owners” whatever that means, venturing an opinion on: “Why authenticity is driving a content marketing revolution”.

Every award entry I read talks about authenticity, too. We talk to audiences in an “authentic” way. We bring services in house to “unlock authenticity”. It’s become a key feature of the industry lexicon.

Elsewhere though, there is another conversation going on. In this conversation, authenticity is an increasingly meaningless concept: we are, in fact, entering a post-authenticity age.

There’s a whole bunch of stuff driving this. In the political arena, the rise of Trump, Brexit, the alt-right and entrenched identity politics is driving it. Here’s Matthew d’Ancona writing about authenticity in The Guardian:

“What a weasel word that has become. It started life as a near-synonym for ‘sincerity’ or ‘honesty’, the opposite of spin. Now it has become code for ‘giving the voters permission to feel alright about their most irrational hatreds and least honourable emotions’. In this case, (Boris) Johnson’s ‘authenticity’ resides in his signal that is acceptable to use demeaning, dehumanising language about Muslim women in religious clothing.”

Indeed.

Culture is driving it, too. Remember back in the day when people talked about “sellouts”? You were “authentic” if you stuck to your guns as a struggling artist, but if you sought to monetise your success you became a “sellout”. You lost your authenticity. But at some point between 2008 and 2018, we not only stopped talking about sellouts, we started to praise sellout behaviour. Nobody criticises Kanye for running Yeezy Supply anymore. It’s seen as something to emulate.

Yeezy is no longer the definition of selling out

So how did we get here?

First, let’s try to understand what authenticity actually means. The Macquarie Dictionary says it is:

1. entitled to acceptance or belief; reliable; trustworthy: an authentic story.
2. of the authorship or origin reputed; of genuine origin: authentic documents.

Let’s start with the first definition.

In 2016, ‘Post-truth’ was named word of the year by the Oxford Dictionary. Post-truth is an adjective, defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”.

Simply put, this reflects the slide into identity politics, fuelled by social media ecosystems, filter bubbles and confirmation bias that has come to define the age we live in. On the face of it, it is anathema to the idea of authenticity as defined above – as ‘reliable and trustworthy’.

And yet… according to at least one school of philosophy, authenticity is the extent to which one stays true to one’s own personality, spirit or character, despite external pressures. Which matches very neatly with the idea of post-truth: factual correctness is secondary to perception.

In the words of the Manic Street Preachers: “This is my truth, tell me yours”.

And the second definition? Well, years of anthropological research reveal that authenticity – as defined as “of genuine origin” – is basically a construct. It doesn’t exist. But it’s nevertheless one of the most enduring of modern social concepts.

The research around this often focuses on tourist experiences and souvenir objects: academics such as Dean MacCannell and Jane C. Desmond complain that performances staged for tourists are “staged authenticity” and not seen as being as valuable as “original” experiences.

This kind of thinking arguably reached its apogee in the first decade and a half of the 20th century, with the rise of the hipster: the ultimate self-appointed authenticity guardian.

Hipsters experienced a visceral loss of value whenever something they were into became “mainstream” – ie. began to be done for monetary gain. But of course, in a commodity culture, everything eventually becomes mainstream: so hipsters were able to rationalise their inevitable eventual consumption of commodity products by applying irony – allowing them to consume whilst remaining distant.

The Bondi Hipsters are a dying breed

As this happened, the hipster aesthetic – visual cues based on folksy, mock-aged, hand-lettered graphics; language littered with words like “craft”, “small batch”, “artisan” and “atelier”, started to be picked up by the mainstream – to such an extent that today, supermarket shelves are packed with goods that appeal to this aesthetic, and even QSR brands heavily reference it.

At the same time, the hipster fetishisation of “maker culture” dovetailed with the start-up culture of Silicon Valley to jump the shark: suddenly making money was cool. Meaning you could sell out, and still talk in terms of heritage, traditional values and maker culture.

And so, by around 2012, hipsterism effectively became conformism, and the hipster aesthetic – built on authenticity – became a way to attach a premium price tag to midrange goods. Meaning we all sold out, but selling out was okay. Maybe because we all did it.

So even the second reading of authenticity – something that is ‘of genuine origin’ – is problematic. The aesthetics that once signified ‘authenticity’ in this sense have been co-opted by mass-produced brands. Not only that, but nobody seems to care.

What does all this mean for brands?

It’s all very interesting in a detached, academic sense, but surely brands have to be authentic, right? It’s how to ensure we stay relevant to customers?

Well, I’m not so sure. Much has been made of ‘post demographics’, but studies into generation Z – who of course came of age as hipsterism waned – increasingly talk down the concept of authenticity.

In fact, in one report, by Protein, a contributor mulls over the fact that nobody cares about authority any more, with the takeout: “the concept of authenticity [in brands] is increasingly deemed inauthentic”. Ouch.

What this means in practical terms is that in order to stay relevant in a post-authority age, brands need to think less about being true to themselves, and more about opening themselves up to interpretation by their consumers. People increasingly want to co-create their identities with brands, which means that rather than simply reflecting the values of society at large, brands need to think about their role in society as creators and collaborators – giving the opportunity, or even actively encouraging, consumers to play with their brand meaning, subvert it, and reinvent it, to make it meaningful and relevant to them and their lives.

This creates a disconnect between brands striving to be seen as ‘reliable and trustworthy’ as per our first reading of authenticity (a rigid, fixed and policed school of brand management), and consumers striving only to stay true to themselves, which requires brands to be what they want them to be (a much more fluid, adaptable idea of ‘brand’).

To embrace this latter way of thinking goes way beyond today’s fad of paying influencers to spruik a product in an “authentic” way. It’s about embracing working with influencers, makers and collaborators to shape products and services. It’s about being open to consumers subverting brand meaning – and embracing it. It’s why we see brands creating limited edition products that build hype and allow for brand experimentation. It explains Supreme’s brick. It explains the disruption of the skincare industry (see Glossier, Drunk Elephant). It’s anathema to traditional brand thinking. But then, sacred cows are being slain everywhere we look, from politics to education to culture. What makes the advertising industry any different?

I’m intrigued by post-authenticity as a concept. Is it a genuine change in behaviour that reflects gradual shifts in societal norms? Or just another example of over-hyping the impact an emerging demographic cohort (gen Z) will have on brand thinking? I’m not sure.

One thing that is for sure is that we have a mountain of evidence from marketing scholars all over the world, with some very robust data sets, that shows that a combination of distinctiveness and differentiation – managed closely, and adhering to a fairly fixed set of attributes – works for brands.

So I’m not sure we’re going to see any big global brands (as opposed to smaller start-ups and disruptors) embracing this kind of flexible brand identity any time soon. There’s simply very little evidence that it will work.

But maybe, just maybe, we’ll see some big brands start to experiment with the idea. And at the very least, maybe we can all stop banging on about the concept of authenticity quite so much. We are, after all, in the post-authenticity age.

Richard Parker_M360 2018

Richard Parker is executive planning director and partner at Edge.

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