Has the Word Authentic Lost its Authenticity?

By Russ Stoddard / Jun 05, 2014

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“There's no money in poetry, but then there's no poetry in money, either.” Robert Graves

My wife, Sarah, arched her eyebrows this morning when I told her I was writing an article about “authenticity.”

“So is that what you ad people are talking about these days?” she asked. “Is it trending?”

Sarah, as you may have already guessed, has a good sniffer when it comes to B.S., especially advertising and branding. 

And you know what? She's not alone.

Authenticity Sarah

We have experienced some mighty tough sledding during the extended economic winter of the Great Recession. Many people were forced to get back to the basics: growing home gardens, shopping second-hand, volunteering, slow-cooking meals. Which is good, right?

Unfortunately, one of the casualties of this movement has been the word “authentic.” (Throw in “genuine” and, yes, “real.”) The word is popping up everywhere. But it just doesn't have the ring of truth anymore.

And the culprits? Brand semanticists wear the villain's black hat here. In their shortsighted way, they have plastered these words on all manners of products or claims—with the most transparent and counterfeit of intentions. It's too bad, because the words authentic and genuine are pretty cool—both in meaning and even their sound (Go ahead, say them out loud.) 

Beauty and the Brand

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  • After Sarah's arched eyebrows, but before I sat down to write this morning, I cracked open the Sunday New York Times and had two inspiring stories leap off the pages at me.

    In the Styles section, I read about Lupita Nyong'o, Oscar winning actress from “12 Years a Slave,” who recently signed with Lancôme to become a brand ambassadress. “It's difficult to say what exactly we look for, though it's not necessarily perfect beauty,” said Silvia Galfo, senior vice president for marketing at Lancôme. “We want women who have their own authenticity, and with Lupita, it was obvious from the first that she was not fake, that she was not someone hiding behind a great dress and great makeup.”

    Did I mention the article was about the carefully orchestrated branding campaign to make the most (i.e. commercialize) of Ms. Nyon'o's moment in the sun?

    Introducing Corporate to Cool

    Authenticity Lupita

    And in the same section, there was another article titled, “Introducing Corporate to Cool,” about a woman, Katie Longmyer, who calls herself a “business artist.” As she is paraphrased in the article, “companies are eager to 'harness' the authenticity of young artists, but they lack the access to those subcultures.”

    It seems this overt notion of authenticity is everywhere these days. And nowhere. Which may be why so many brands have to buy it or disingenuously attach themselves to it, because so few companies and products can actually claim it through their actions.

    Of course, this means there is opportunity here to differentiate by actually being—I hate using the word, so I won't. But we'll get to that in a minute, because I'm having too much fun and surely don't want to single out only the fashion and beauty industries. 

    Just Another Case of Bull Sheet

    Take the lodging industry, for instance. Here's one of my favorite in-room experiences: The door hanger in the bathroom or the card on the pillow imploring you to join with the hotel and save the planet by reusing towels or not changing the bed sheets. Or as one recent boutique hotel I stayed at exhorted, “Help us influence positive ecological change.”

    Translation: You reuse and do the good. We, the hotel, save money. At least that's what they're saying to me as I channel my inner Sarah.

    So let's do some math here. Say you've got a 100-room property. For the sake of my English major's brain, we'll simply say that each room is booked every day of the year with two guests, each of whom uses two bath towels. Check this out—those simple base numbers translate into 146,000 towels each year. At an average of two pounds per bath towel, that's nearly 292,000 pounds of laundry that doesn't get washed each year.

    This is good for the environment—think of all the energy that's conserved, water that isn't used, wastewater that's averted, detergent that isn't needed, and labor that's saved.

    And while it's good for the environment, it's fantastic for the hotel. We're joining their movement to save the planet and save them tons of money as well.

    It would be easy for the hotel to tame the doubting Thomas among us and turn this into a brand advantage. How about something like this? “For every night a guest chooses to reuse their towels, we will donate 50 cents to an environmental nonprofit. Over the course of just one year, this could amount to more than $10,000. Please join us in thoughtfully conserving resources.  

    Like Good Poetry, Show—Don't Tell

    Whether you're a consumer or a company, the mutual goal should be to prove the poet Robert Graves wrong and put some poetry in your money.

    It isn't easy, but there are ways for brands to go about doing this.

    For starters, think about your vocabulary. Stop using “authentic” and “genuine” and “real” to describe your product benefits or your company's efforts. That shouldn't be too tough, unless you don't.

    Next, go a step better and start eliminating superlatives in your brand narrative: your platform isn't “powerful” or “robust.” Your product probably isn't “innovative.” Just state simply state the benefits and use personality and story to convey your brand case.

    When you've mastered your use of words, then do as the Zen master might and “forget about words.” Put actions, not words, into play, or as any good poet would tell us, “Show, don't tell.” 

    Brand Values and Purpose in Action

    Patagonia Logo

    In the realm of bringing meaning back to the word “authentic,” if you have to say it, it simply isn't. Here are some examples of how you might accomplish this.

    Patagonia's Common Threads Partnership promotes five progressive R's that are all conservative tenets in practice: reduce, repair, reuse, recycle, and reimagine. While all make sense, it's the first one, reduce, that resonates with me as a consumer because Patagonia is telling me, in essence, to buy less.

    “We make useful gear that lasts a long time,” proclaims the partnership. “As a consumer, the biggest thing you can do is to not buy what you don't really need.”

    The company publically supported this initiative with a Cyber Monday advertising campaign that displayed photos of products with headlines such as “Don't buy this jacket.”

    How refreshing when a company tells me I don't need to buy more of their stuff. Now I've been liberated—and simultaneously charged with the responsibility—of being truly more thoughtful about my purchases. This counterintuitive approach also makes me want to continue purchasing their products. A win for Patagonia. And a win for me as we now have a relationship forged by shared values, rather than simply another transaction built on consumer lust.

    Real is Beautiful

    Now it seems like a no-brainer, but the now widely acclaimed and much-discussed Dove Campaign for Real Beauty was a step out on a limb for the skin-care company.

    After all, it's beauty we're selling, and beauty is about who we want to be, right? Not about who we are...

    Wrong. Dove's campaign celebrates the natural physical variations in real women with an overall purpose "to create a world where beauty is a source of confidence and not anxiety.”

    And what could be more empowering than that. While there have been mixed-reactions to the campaign, Dove succeeded in elevating its brand by seeking a higher purpose with its brand—and using real people, not models. It's obviously working for Dove, as the campaign recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. 

    Can We Escape Our Commercial Selves?

    Ultimately, we can't escape our commercial selves. Perhaps it's because we so seldom see authenticity in the business world that we respond so favorably when we do see it. If more brands took this to heart, we would reward them with our loyalty. The challenge for companies, then, is to prove the poet Robert Graves wrong. Show us that there can be poetry in money. 

    Thumbnail image adapted from Geo Perdis (CC)

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    Thumbnails People Russ Stoddard

    Russ Stoddard

    Russ started Oliver Russell in 1991. He’s committed his career (nearly 30 years) to social responsibility, first inside the corporate world and then as an entrepreneur who’s started four companies and five nonprofit causes. Russ is the author of "Rise Up - How to Build a Socially Conscious Business," and his creative work has been honored with local, regional, and national creative awards. These days, Russ focuses on brand strategy for clients, spreading the Certified B Corp love, and connecting kindred spirits to multiply social impact.

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