Authenticity is is the new client sensibility in today’s “experience economy.” People no longer accept fake offerings from slickly marketed phonies; they want real offerings from genuinely transparent sources.
Phoniness is endemic, it is damaging, and it has to stop. This is becoming of paramount importance because in today’s “experience economy” — where people increasingly bypass commoditized goods and service to spend time with companies that stage engaging experiences — authenticity is becoming the new client sensibility.
Both consumers and business-to-business customers now purchase offerings based on how well those purchases conform to their own self-image. What they buy must reflect who there are and who they aspire to be in relation to how they perceive the world — with lightning-quick judgments of “real” or “fake” hanging in the balance. People no longer accept fake offerings from slickly marketed phonies; they want real offerings from genuinely transparent sources.
Identity vs. Representation
To be perceived as real, therefore, every company should seek to understand its own identity, what it is. What is the self to which you and your values evolved — for better or worse — over the course of your history? What are the defining characteristics that set you apart from every other company, not just in your industry but in the world? How would you delineate this identity for your enterprise? If you do not know, you cannot possibly hope to be viewed as authentic relative to this key standard: being true to self.
But there is a second standard of authenticity, one that so many organizations fail because of their advertising campaigns: is what it says it is. What you say about your business and its offerings must match the reality people encounter. What exactly does your business say about itself? What does it lead others to believe? How does it reveal itself through its words and deeds and how it represents its business and offerings?
As a group, such statements make up what the branding community likes to call “identity,” often modified by “brand” or “corporate.” However, such use confuses actuality with representation. Corporations, places, and offerings have actual identities (the selves to which they must be true to be perceived as authentic), not just articulations of those identities (the representations that must accurately reflect those selves to be perceived as authentic). There’s an old saw in advertising circles: Nothing makes a bad product fail faster than good advertising. There should be a new one in branding circles: Nothing makes a branding effort fail faster than a phony product. Such phoniness results from representations detached from the reality of a company’s actual identity.
Identify Your Statements
For this standard of authenticity, there are five key elements that, although not exhaustive, together help to explain the substance of the other-focused task of representing your identity in the marketplace.
Assigned Names = Dimensions + Designations
Who you call yourself — the formal designations used to designate various dimensions of your self — especially the names assigned to your company, your brands, and your individual offerings.
Many meaningful names readily connote authenticity. Tops on the list are those companies referentially named after their founders, such as Sears, Roebuck and Co., J.C. Penney, Ford Motor Co., E.I. du Pont de Nemours, Kellogg Co., Harley-Davidson, and Levi Strauss & Co. Such appellations refer back to the companies’ origin, associating the companies with one or more real, live, breathing people who caused these entities to come into being. People also tend to perceive companies as authentic when their names place them in particular, well, places. Place-based names may come from regions, such as Land O’Lakes and Williams-Sonoma (which is a twofer, combining the name of founder Chuck Williams with the Californian foody’s favorite valley); cities, such as Boise Cascade and Smithfield Foods; or even particular locales within cities, such as Saks Fifth Avenue (New York), State Street Corp. (Boston), and the Savile Row Co. (London).
Names also help render authenticity when they refer back to times when life was simpler, slower-paced, and (seemingly at least) more authentic. Many firms, for example, have “Main Street” in their name for this reason. Others employ words that referentially evoke previous economic eras, including putting “raft” (suggesting agrarian hands) or “works” (suggesting industrial labor) in their names, as if every offering were handmade by a skilled craftsman in a workshop or small factory.Businesses should not use authenticity as the sole criterion in choosing company, brand, or offering names, but they should recognize that more than anything else names define who you say you are. Are there any misnomers that do not accurately, appropriately, or adequately convey the essence of your enterprise? Remember: Every designation — of your company, your brands, your offerings, employee titles, places, props, promotions, or any other dimension of your enterprise — provides an opportunity to render that thing more authentic.
Expressed Statements = Media + Messages
What you articulate you are through the use of any media, including advertising, marketing and sales materials, Web site pages, public statements, filings, and all other communiqués, sends messages about you.
Most companies express themselves via advertising. What you say in such advertisements still goes a long way to developing opinion about your authenticity or lack thereof. A prime example: Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty,” featuring real, full-bodied women under taglines such as “Real women have real curves,” challenged stereotypes about beauty (e.g., only the thin, only blondes, or only the young are beautiful). Unilever even put the picture of a beautiful 96-year-old woman named Irene on a giant electronic billboard in Times Square. Unilever public relations told us that “total media impressions” surpassed 650 million by the end year 2005.
Web sites have become effectively mandatory for businesses of all sizes to express what they are, often explicitly. A Google search yields more than 350,000 Web sites with all three of the exact phrases “Who we are,” “What we do,” and “How we do it.” It can also be done with panache: Go to experience creator Jack Morton Worldwide’s Web site and encounter “this really long sentence that explains who we are” proceeding a really long sentence that explains who they are.
So what statements are you articulating about your company, your offerings, your customers, your employees, and your suppliers? How is your choice of media enhancing or detracting from the perceived authenticity of those statements? Recognize that any message running counter to what’s actually experienced by customers will tend to brand you as inauthentic.
Established Places = Venues + Events
Where and when you’re encountered — the indigenous character of your venues — geographical regions and territories (city, state/province, country) as well as particular locales and sites within each — distinguish you from others, and the events that originate (as sources), traverse (through channels), and exhibit (at outlets) your self in physical and virtual domains.
The growing number of companies identifying with their locale shows the importance of place to authenticity, as we saw with assigned names. Emphasizing roots, with the sense of being extended into the earth at a particular place, lies at the core of such place-based companies. Hence the rise of farmers markets, of restaurants serving locally grown produce and grocery stores selling it, of the French word terroir being applied to more than just wine — and the decline of so many chains, in terms of perceived authenticity if not also in operations. It’s easier for a small local company to accentuate its locale than for a large national, or especially multinational one. Big companies all too often seem to be from nowhere while chains become perceived as the same everywhere.
To avoid that fate, turn generic space into specific place. Hence the rise of “lifestyle centers” such as Country Club Plaza in Kansas City (the original of the genre); Crocker Park and Legacy Village outside Cleveland; Mayfaire Town Center in Wilmington, N.C.; CityPlace in West Palm Beach, Fla.; and The Grove in Los Angeles. Such places remain open-air, where leisurely walking becomes a significant part of the experience. The Grove, for example, appears to rise organically from the adjacent 1930s-era Farmers Market. Developed by Rick J. Caruso, founder and CEO of Caruso Affiliated, the venue encompasses a trolley barn at one end, the commissioned statue The Spirit of Los Angeles near the other, and a wide pedestrian boulevard with antique lights, trees, benches, and distinctive storefronts between. The Grove mixes in local businesses — such as Bodega Chocolates, Surf City Squeeze, and the Amadeeus Spa — with unique (but multistore) companies such as Anthropologie, Quicksilver Boardriders Club, and L’Occitane, plus a few chain stores including the Gap, Barnes & Noble, and Crate and Barrel. Here, however, even these national outfits changed their typical retail designs to fit in to this unique locale.
In thinking of venue + events, what venues lack staged events — daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, annually, once-in-a-lifetime — to render them more authentic places? What events are making do with inadequate venues? Most particularly: where and when do you run the risk of having your names and statements being perceived as inauthentic? Wherever and whenever that is, focus on establishing effectively rendered places.
Declared Motivations = Ideals + Incentives
Why you say you are in business — the public ideals for which you claim to be in business, beyond merely (and rightfully) wanting to make a buck as well as the incentives (both internal and external) that exist to encourage those ideals.
One form of declared motivations, we believe, is a direct consequence of executives struggling with the company self and what to say about it, who aim it primarily at enlightening and inspiring employees and only secondarily (and often not at all) at informing or influencing outsiders. These are formal statements — credos, manifestos, declarations, and other such proclamations — that document a company’s purpose, set forth its ideals, and provide incentives to employees to live up to those ideals.
One of the oldest is the famous Johnson & Johnson credo, written on one page by its longtime leader General Robert Wood Johnson in 1943. It has served J&J admirably over the past 60-plus years, most notably during the Tylenol scares of 1982 and 1989. Luxury hotelier Ritz-Carlton also has a well-known credo consisting of only three easily memorized sentences, beginning with the company’s purpose, “The Ritz-Carlton Hotel is a place where the genuine care and comfort of our guests is our highest mission.” Hotel managers take employees through the credo or the basic principles derived from it every single day.
So what do you declare about why you are in business internally and externally? What are the ideals you uphold publicly and the incentives you furnish to ensure everyone is held accountable to those ideals? The proper answers to these questions go a long way to being perceived as authentic. Being half-hearted (ideals without incentives) or fool-hearted (incentives without ideals) provide two surefire paths to the inauthentic.
Displayed Appearances = Representations + Perceptions
How you show what you are — attributes of self communicated beyond text alone, including your logo, symbols, colors, packaging, and other such representations depicting your enterprise and its offerings to induce a specific set of perceptions from others about your self.
This final element is the purview of graphic designers, who provide physical cues that create the all-important first impression for offerings — and, of course, encourage potential customers to buy them. They should recall the dictate not to slap “real” or “authentic” all over the packaging, but rather render such representations to be perceived as authentic. Kraft Foods’ Post cereal unit recently changed the packaging of Post Selects Blueberry Morning, for example, to eliminate all such references, instead saying only “Inspired by the taste of home-baked blueberry almond muffins” with images of such muffins next to a bowl of cereal. By no longer screaming “REAL,” Kraft renders it more so.
H.J. Heinz Co. redesigned its logo and labeling in 2006 specifically to connote authenticity. Rob Wallace, founder of Wallace Church Associates, calls Heinz one of a handful of “ion brands” that “evolve over time…but always stay true to their essence.” His team designed new labels that, Wallace says, effectively “married late 19th century conventions with early 21st century sensibilities.” These labels retain the instantly recognizable Heinz keystone shape and lettering, but place it in a context where authenticity can be instantly perceived, with “1869,” the date of the company’s founding, front and center, and whatever natural commodity from which the product was made — tomatoes for ketchup, pickles for relish, and a cornucopia of vegetables for vinegar — on the outside.
What depictions have you designed to represent your enterprise, its offerings, and the places in which they are offered? How do current and potential customers then perceive the sum total of these representations? The entire goal of rendering authenticity is to get people to perceive your offerings as real. Because authenticity is personally determined, this perception will come (or not) more from your displayed appearances than from ay other element. People may not think much about your names, they may ignore you statements, they may disregard your places, and they may not even consider your motivations but they will take in your representations and hold you accountable to their personal perceptions of them.
That accountability now lies at the heart of every chief marketing officer’s job. Do not let your company’s offerings be perceived as inauthentic because of how you execute your responsibilities across all five of these key elements. Follow the old Shaker motto: Be what you seem to be, and seem to be what you really are. If you desire to be perceived as authentic, do everything in your power for your company, its brands, and its offerings to be true to what you say they are.