Authenticity, but not as you know it

Authentic is a word that is over-used and rarely understood

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Marketers, business leaders and people in general, to be honest, get so confused about what “authentic” means. As in “we need our brand to be authentic.” (The definition to the right is from Merriam Webster.)

The general public works on the basis of “I know it when I see it.” If you’re trying to build or market a brand, that doesn’t cut it. Unfortunately, the term still gets bandied around in ways that are often unhelpful and sometimes outright dangerous to a brand’s strategy.

I can’t think of a better way to put it than Simon Sinek, so over to him:

What do companies do to make their marketing or their sales or whatever they’re doing authentic? The common solution is hilarious. They go out and...ask their customers, what would we have to tell you for us to be authentic? This entirely misses the point.

(See page 68 in Sinek, S: Start with why: how great leaders inspire everyone to take action (Portfolio Penguin, London, 2011))

This is not going to produce smart strategies. We prefer smart strategies. So, here is how to understand authenticity. We take it for granted, but several people told us recently it was “unique” and “amazing” (their words, not ours!)

Reluctantly Brave to the rescue

Authenticity is important, fundamental even - we’ll be posting a series of pieces about how and why it matters.

But first we must be clear what we talk about when we talk about authenticity. If you remember one thing it is to always ask:

What is this authentic to?

Ask that question each time you hear or see someone spouting hot air about authenticity and you’ll soon sort genius from jargon.

Authentic to...

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“Is my table authentic?” is a dumb question, right? Authentic how? It looks pretty real - I can touch it, it counteracts gravity when I place objects on its apparent surface…but that’s not really what we’re getting at.

“Is my table an authentic teak 1950s Danish design classic?” is a real question you can actually make sense of.

That is because there is a reality you’re making a claim to - a relation between the statement “table is authentic” and the reality of that table’s construction/provenance. This is when it helps to use the word “authentic.”

Brands are no different. Are all your brand’s communications, across all touchpoints, authentic to the brand’s construction/provenance? That construction/provenance is the team/company behind it, its purpose and the reality of how it conducts its business?

Please, bear in mind that “purpose” doesn’t mean you have to be saving the world - it’s why your company exists (no, not just “to make x product(s)”, don’t be a smart-alec, and please, go read Simon Sinek’s “Start with Why”).

This is as old as branding itself

Remember why brands exist, how they came into being? To show this product comes from that trustworthy group of people who make good, trustworthy products.

Each branded product was therefore authentic to the company or individual behind it, what they did, ultimately to what they stood for.

Obviously, the world and businesses are way more complex now than they were 100 years ago. The principle still stands:

What are you authentic to?

Adam Papaphilippopoulos

Partner & Operations Officer


Adam