Death to Authentic

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Illustration by Jacob Tobey
Hero image
Illustration by Jacob Tobey
I can guarantee that at some point, one of the participants will insist that this brand should ensure that above all, it is “authentic”.
Let’s consider the hypothesis that the test of a good brand promise is to ask, “Would someone want to own its opposite?”

I have facilitated such meetings for the better part of two decades. While the specific businesses and myriad industries keep the work fresh, I can guarantee that at some point, one of the participants will insist that this brand should ensure that above all, it is authentic.

As a young strategist, I quite embraced the word; found its use appropriate and edgy. “Of course brands should be authentic,” young me must have mused. “Well…only the most influential brands are.”

And yet, over time and with the repeated use of this single word, my perception began to change. Something felt wrong. Seemed off. I began to truly reconsider the basing of a set of guiding principles and communications parameters on this word: “Authentic.”

It’s not that the ambition or premise is misguided. There is a good bit of wisdom in telling our clients or cohorts to “be authentic.” The underlying desire, I know, is to make sure an organization acts in the spirit of its truest purpose. In reality, every company should have authenticity at its core. However, I would argue that it is not a defining or differentiating characteristic.

Authenticity is actually a foundational concept that begs a company to further define the actions and behaviors that allow them to embrace their deepest sense of authenticity. In other words, the notion of authenticity is a placeholder — an empty vessel needing clear intention and specificity of purpose to make it come to life with resonance.

Let’s consider the hypothesis that the test of a good brand promise is to ask, “Would someone want to own its opposite?” Because Nike stands for individual athletic achievement, Under Armour can stand for team pursuit. Because Starbucks is about delivering a third-place experience, McCafe can own value and Dunkin’ Donuts can be a source of fuel for your day. And if BMW is the ultimate driving machine, Volvo can be the champion of safety.

The downfall of anointing “authentic” as a front-and-center brand trait is that no brand would ever purposely seek to be “inauthentic.” What company leadership, in wrestling with a decision, reminds themselves that the best course of action — the one most aligned with the interests of the company, its people, and its consumers — is the one utterly lacking in reality or sincerity?

Yes, companies make mistakes and act without integrity or against the grain of their purpose. Sometimes to colossally problematic effect. But I defy you to point to a company (one not blatantly corrupt, of course) that does so as a core tenet of its brand.

The reason to keep a close eye on a company’s authenticity is that sometimes companies grow, expand, focus too much on what, where and how the competition is doing their thing, or due to other circumstances, lose touch with what they’re about and why they were founded in the first place.

This is where I would recommend your brand begin the search for the qualities and traits that lead to your authenticity:

  • What is it that you do that gives you the truest sense of purpose?
  • What, above all else, do you, and will you always, fight for?
  • On your best day as a company, what are the behaviors and attitudes you see within your organization?
  • What are the conditions and parameters you need in order to operate in the best possible light and livelihood?
  • What do you want to be for people — internally and externally?

The answers to those questions are your principles for a strong brand. These are the choices that will lead you to an authentic brand.

We are 90 minutes into the exercise when the CMO suggests that above all, this company needs to be “authentic”. She’s not wrong, but inside I groan. And then I remember my own sense of purpose, which in this moment is to help people see what they can’t see for themselves.

Against all scheduling odds, the key stakeholders are gathered. The meeting of this many directors and senior advisors of marketing, distribution, product, engineering, and media is a critical step requiring an effort just shy of Herculean.

It’s time for this group of leaders to weigh in on the values, traits, differentiators and ambitions that will help define this brand’s purpose, promise, principles and personality. The strategic thinking processed after this session will serve as the backbone for everything from corporate identity, advertising and hiring practices to social outreach, future innovations and product development.

As a brand strategist, my job is to uncover and define that purpose. I’m not always successful. But the more I am willing to hold myself, my colleagues and our partners to a standard of highest truth in its pursuit, the more I am able to help brands find their way, achieve success, and make an impact.

“Authentic” is a cop-out. Stand for something or be nothing.

“Authentic” is a cop-out.
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