VOL. MMXIII..No. 209

Bertrand on Brand

The ‘A’ Word: When is a Brand ‘Authentic’ — And When Are You?

In the past several years, politicians, marketers, entertainment personalities, and just plain ordinary people have waxed poetic about their “authenticity.” To be authentic is to be grounded, honest, and unabashedly sincere — or so one might believe from any number of pundits on the subject.

Even when I worked at an architecture firm, a client meeting was not complete without at least one reference to “authenticity,” but this was in regards to design principles. We would deliver a store design that “spoke authentically of the brand” and gave customers an “authentic experience.”

In a recent New York Times article, reporter Stephanie Rosenbloom writes that the digital age has caused an increased preoccupation with what it means to be “authentic,” with even the Pope himself weighing in on the subject, saying that life in the age of social media “inevitably poses questions not only of how to act properly, but also about the authenticity of one’s own being.”

“I think I love to be my authentic self.” Well you sure are in this picture — now that’s “perky.”
I’ve always tried to just be authentic and real.” OK Andy, you go, girl.
“I believe in being as authentic as possible.” We hope not in the same way as your husband.

Authenticity is now applied to people, events, brands, causes, and art; to be branded “authentic” is essentially a ne plus ultra that ultimately means that one’s purity and integrity cannot possibly be called into question. “Hey, I’m just being me — the real me.”

The truth is, it has become increasingly difficult to distinguish the authentic from the inauthentic, perhaps because it has become easier and easier to masquerade as authentic. In the world of branding, that’s pretty much the message that so many brands are beating to death. It certainly makes a marketer’s job easier.

All those “designer collaborations” with the likes of Levi’s, LL Bean, Carhartt, and a countless other so-called heritage brands? Thats the work of celebrity-designer starpower bringing cachet to a dull, drab brand you had long-since forgotten about [Read my previous post on designer collaborations.]

Consider how many brands have dug up their “vintage” labels and reused them, or simply invented a vintage label altogether (Hello Gucci, Louis Vuitton, and even Banana Republic.) Or how about a store that features antiques, reclaimed wood (yawn), and archival photographs. Gosh, which store were you thinking of — Confusing isn’t it?

Maybe it’s that old feels good. Old feels “authentic” because it existed before everything became disposable, redundant, and insincere.

Before a brand twittered.

The fact is, as much as one might want to believe one is being authentic, the culture of social media has potentially made us entirely too self-conscious to actually be truly “authentic” — and that goes for most brands too. In short,  authenticity has simply become another word for, what Rosenbloom calls, “stage management.”

Which might mean, judging from what one sees on facebook, that some people might need a bit more stage management than others. Joe Pine of Strategic Horizons LLP, a guru of sorts for those who preach at the altar of TED seminars, puts authenticity this way:

1. Don’t say you are authentic unless you really are authentic

2. It’s easier to be authentic if you don’t say you’re authentic

3. If you say you are authentic you better be authentic

If you understood any of that then you must be really authentic. But don’t tell anybody I said so. Afterall, my facebook page is nothing more than a stage-managed version of me. But you knew that — right?

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