Apr 25, 2012

What is authentic?

We might as well start with the dictionary definition:

1 Of undisputed origin; genuine: authentic 14th-century furniture.

2 Made or done in the traditional or original way: authentic Italian meals.

3 True to one’s personality, spirit or character: an authentic blues singer.

Over recent years we have witnessed a massive increase in consumers’ appetite for authentic brands, two words which on closer examination sit rather uncomfortably next to each other. After all a brand can be something of a contrived concept, and too many brands disguise an average product with a glossy veneer of applied marketing.

Joseph Pine, author of ‘mass customisation’, describes authenticity for a business as being two interrelated things:

1 Being true to yourself and your heritage.

The biggest mistake companies make here is not understanding their own heritage, and so making unwise acquisitions or brand extensions. It’s easy to see how this can happen when what were once family companies become bought and sold by a sequence of profit-hungry multinationals.

2 Being what you say you are.

Here the obvious pitfall is creating a fantastic promise that the product or service simply doesn’t deliver.

Pine proposes 3 basic rules for businesses trying to deal with the issue of being ‘authentic’:

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’re authentic, you’d better be authentic.

The main driver behind the consumer desire for authenticity is disillusionment, a perfectly fitting word for the process of having your illusions taken away by overpromising and underdelivery. The antidote can be found in trusted A-brands that still deliver superior performance, but there’s also another powerful brand story in the world today, which I like to call ‘the little guy’.

This refers to a growing number of small, specialist brands apparently driven by passion, expertise and quality, all values that are perceived to be lacking in many cost-optimised, advertising-fuelled brands of the past.

These ‘little guy’ brands are moving quickly from their natural habitat of the deli onto supermarket shelves, where their weapon of choice is packaging. This is carefully designed to tell their story of honest, rugged, low-budget authenticity with great conviction, and it’s a story that many mainstream brands can’t begin to copy because they instantly look like a fish out of water.

It’s a fascinating arms race to the most hand-made, least designed or shabbiest chic, and not everyone gets it right…