Once, while reading through a journalist friend’s nonfiction memoir, I asked him if any parts of his story were romanticized or fictionalized.
“Naw,” he told me. “People want real.”
I’m not sure if he realized how profoundly his seemingly obvious statement resonated with me. He was right: people are attracted to realness. They are attracted to authenticity. Though he meant it primarily in a journalistic context, I have found it equally important to branding, public relations, and the Internet.
In this anarchic Information Age, where information is being produced at magnanimous rates, authenticity is a flag that people seek out to separate the winners from the losers. The web is full of options and forking pathways, and people are going to follow the path that appears the most authentic. For brands, a strong aura of authenticity will help ensure that their path is chosen among the others.
Searching for Authenticity
Walter Benjamin, in his influential 1936 essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, gave heed to the increasingly dubious nature of authenticity as a result of technology. Though his essay focused on art, his arguments could just as easily be applied to the concept of the brand.
The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced. Since the historical testimony rests on the authenticity, the former, too, is jeopardized by reproduction when substantive duration ceases to matter.
Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936)
Benjamin wrote this long before the rise of the Internet. He would have been astounded to see how far technological reproduction has come since then.
On YouTube, where there are countless (often illicit) copies of any given music video, I find myself continually drawn towards videos posted by the actual record label. Very often these official versions also have the highest number of total views.
On Twitter, a plethora of phony imitator accounts has created the necessity for “Verified” accounts. Facebook is working towards a similar system by allowing businesses to officially claim their check-in pages. For individuals, Facebook and LinkedIn have struggled to maintain a sense of authenticity by requiring users to use their real names when registering (a feature which MySpace lacked).
It is one of the foremost goals of traditional search engines is to seek out and deliver authentic results from the billions of web pages out there. If I search for “Pepsi,” I want to find Pepsi’s authentic homepage at the top of the list. On Facebook, a search for “Veggie Straws” should bring me to the official, authentic Veggie Straws Fan Page.
With everything becoming digitized, replicated, imitated, spammed and buried, it is clear that the search for authenticity is something that deserves attention.
How to Communicate Authenticity
There is by no means a deficit of authenticity in today’s world. It is merely the fact that, in a world of information overload, what has traditionally been deemed authentic has become harder to find. As the waters of the Web get muddier with more information, brands are needing to fight harder to stand out above the rest.
Steve Rubel has dubbed the coming era as the Validation Era, in which the flags of authenticity will be raised through a process of validation similar to Twitter’s Verified Accounts. Google’s +1 feature is another example of how validation (in this case user-generated) is being used to help sift the diamonds from the dirt. However, fully conveying authenticity requires more than a simple signpost or tally. Authenticity needs to seep through the pores of the brand.
The following aspects are what I often use, consciously or unconsciously, to identify a brand as authentic:
- Consistency - An adherence to core values, mission and visual brand image. It ensures easy identification, distinction, and predictability. Also, it helps prevent alienation.
- “Truthiness” – To borrow a term from Stephen Colbert, I use it here to refer to how much something actually is what it describes itself as. I’m reminded of the “Authentically Indigenous” merchandise that I saw being sold in Costa Rica, each with little “Made in Indonesia” stickers on the back. If it says it’s Green, it better be environmentally friendly. If it says it’s 100% juice, it better be pure juice.
- Official License – This is a simple one. If a brand is incorporated, a name registered or a product patented, let it show. When my eyes see LLC, Inc., TM or even CreativeCommons, I’m more likely to give my attention to something that is officially protected. It’s the legal version of Twitter Verification.
- Self-Confidence – Not of the individual, but of the brand itself. If Veggie Straws directly or indirectly communicate an unwavering belief that they’re the most delicious snack in the world (which, they are), then I’m more likely to perceive their brand as serious and authentic. Five Guys is perhaps my favorite example: marketing-wise, they are unusually simple, placing full confidence in the experience of their food. And they are hugely successful at it.
- Outside Recognition – Seeing a brand get acknowledged by another entity lets me know that somebody else has already verified it. I think of it as a form of the herd instinct.
At best, the concept of authenticity is a rather hazy one. In our post-modern world, perhaps it’s as much of an ideal as perfection itself. On the other end of things, a lack of authenticity may only feed recent tides of societal cynicism. A sense of authenticity can be powerful and effective. It is sufficient to turn fans into fanatics, likers into lovers, and it enables the most durable and robust relationships possible.
Please debate, supplement and respond to this article by commenting below.
Links in this Article
- Study: Digital universe and its impact bigger than we thought – Computerworld - By Lucas Mearian
- The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction – By Walter Benjamin
- Marketers, Get Ready for the ‘Validation Era’ – AdAge – By Steve Rubel
- Twitter Help Center – About Verified Accounts
- Everything You Need To Know About Google’s +1 – Mashable – Todd Wasserman
- Users Revolt Against New Digg – Mashable – By Vadim Lavrusik
- Five Guys: an America’s Hottest Brands Case Study – AdAge - By Emily Bryson York
- Beware of Cynicism – By Emmanuel Tchividjian