Rendering Authenticity in an Experiential Economy

Authenticity is perhaps one of the most over-used buzzwords in marketing, but what does it really mean? And why is it important?

Some people will describe for you in detail how to come across as authentic in your messaging, why it’s important to be authentic to your customers, or why authenticity is the holy grail of marketing. At the same time, others will tell you never to be authentic or why people simply don’t want the “real” you. But these sorts of approaches tend to focus more on aspects of authenticity rather than getting to the core of the issue. More than just a habit worth practicing, choosing authenticity results in competitive advantage, especially when it comes to brand messaging and connecting with customers. Below are two reasons why.

1. Consumers Want Authenticity

In Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want (Harvard Business School Press), authors James Gilmore and Joseph Pine II argue that the virtualization of life has led to a deep consumer yearning for the authentic. The more virtual our lives get, the more we crave the real, honest thing. They emphasize that companies must grasp, manage, and excel at rendering authenticity (in part by creating the opportunity for genuine experiences) in order to remain successful.

Below is a TED talk given by Joseph Pine, an internationally acclaimed author, speaker, and management advisor to Fortune 500 companies and entrepreneurial start-ups alike. He is co-founder of Strategic Horizons LLP, a thinking studio dedicated to helping businesses conceive and design new ways of adding value to their economic offerings. In this video he discusses the concept of authenticity and what consumers really want:

Pine discusses the various dimensions of authenticity ranging from “real fake” (Universal Citywalk), “fake real” (Disneyland – a fake reality), “fake fake,” (not what you say you are/not true) or “real real” (what you say you are/true) and the implications this has for business. Below are his three rules for business people with regard to capitalizing on authenticity:

  1. Don’t say you’re authentic unless you really are
  2. It’s easier to be authentic if you don’t say you’re authentic
  3. If you say you’re authentic, you better be authentic

2. Rendering Authenticity Leads to Differentiation and Fosters Creativity

In 2005 my professor Greg Tropea gave me a copy of his dissertation from his PhD program at Syracuse University (where he received an M.A. in Linguistic Theory, an M.A. in Religion, and a PhD in Religion and Cultural Symbol Systems) entitled Religion, Ideology, and Heidegger’s Concept of Falling. In the book, Tropea provides an analysis of German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s concept of “falling” in Being and Time, the 1926 book that attempts to decipher what is meant by the phrase “to be.” Central to Heidegger’s framework is his idea of authenticity vs. inauthenticity. Tropea writes:

In authenticity, says Heidegger, Dasein chooses itself and wins itself, while in inauthenticity, Dasein chooses the public interpretations of the ‘they” and thereby loses itself … To Dasein’s state of being belongs falling. Proximally and for the most part Dasein is lost in its ‘world.’ Its understanding, as a projection upon possibilities of Being, has diverted itself thither. Its absorption in the ‘they’ signifies that it is dominated by the way things are publicly interpreted. That which has been uncovered and disclosed stands in a mode in which it has been disguised and closed off by idle talk, curiosity, and ambiguity.

At the risk of having lost you (and trust me, it took a certain amount of stamina for me to make it successfully through this book!), Tropea is simply saying that the second an individual diverts his attention from his own authentic possibilities toward the real or fictional possibilities of others—that he falsely imagines to be his own as a result of getting caught up in the gossip, idle talk, and news analysis of the day— the potential for authenticity is lost.

To render authenticity then, “to thy own self one must be true.” Companies such as Apple that focus on innovation and stick to their core missions, or companies like Starbucks that have placed the emphasis on experiencing coffee as opposed to the product of coffee itself have been most successful at this. Another way of looking at this: to be authentic from a company perspective is to “create blue oceans.” By focusing on value creation and product positioning fueled by research and introspection in terms of one’s core mission and values, a company can avoid getting caught up in a never-ending cycle of ruthless competition marked by simply  (mindlessly) copying the strategies of others.

Implications for Authentic Marketing

All too often, marketers get caught up in doing what they think they should be doing rather than what they know they should be doing. Inauthenticity as a strategy no longer works. No one wants to receive an impersonally targeted direct mail piece, an email blast that wasn’t genuine, a call from a salesperson without ever having had a prior relationship. Being authentic, now more than ever, is the key to building your business and selling your products and services.

The path to authenticity, however, requires consciousness. No longer can one propagate the industrial-age machine paradigm, committed to mechanical causality. In order to be authentic one must never become lost in the realm of the “public interpretations of the they.”  The key to success lies in understanding your mission and competitive position in the marketplace, while at the same time fostering creativity and focusing on what you perceive to be the most important aspects of an intrinsically authentic transaction.

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