The Authenticity Trap
Originally published in AdAge
I have a mantra when it comes to marketing: Brands don’t influence people, people do.
In today’s complicated media mix, it’s imperative we embrace the art of messaging as a form of popular psychology, not as a fusion of “industry standard” tactics. That’s not to say it’s not our job to sell stuff. It is. Rather, progressive marketing acknowledges the wildly advanced state of mind today’s consumer possesses and, furthermore, pays respect to it.
The sophistication of the millennial generation—the largest and most diverse ever—is something few agencies, and even fewer brands, want to acknowledge. Not only are we not smarter than them, we’re falling into rhetorical pits that they’ve dug for us. The biggest example of this is what we can call the “authenticity” trap.
Simply put, authenticity means little to millennials. They use the word in focus groups because they’ve learned it’s what millennials want to hear. Influencers use it in pitches because they know it’s what will garner big brand checks. Media picks up on it as a cure-all because it generates traffic and offers simple solutions to complex problems.
But it’s not that easy.
There are a few issues at hand here: Semantics, Messaging and Targeting. All are opportunities to plummet into the authenticity trap. Smart brand marketers will navigate around them and reap the rewards.
Take a look at what authenticity actually means. Synonyms from The Merriam-Webster Thesaurus include “validity,” “genuineness” and “dependability.” But this definition presents a double-edged sword for Madison Avenue. There’s nothing valid, genuine or dependable about selling things to people. There’s no such thing as the world’s most valid automobile, genuine pair of sneakers or dependable bottle of vodka.
Every product or service has an interesting story to tell, but few are authentic. And that’s 100% OK.
Think about those words again — valid, genuine, dependable. They’re not exciting, and excitement is what moves products and builds brands.
Would you rather have dinner with the most dependable man in the world or the most interesting man in the world? An enticing personality matters more than a brand’s bona fides.
The way for brands to build loyalty in the 21st century is to behave more like people. Elements of humanity are more important to emphasize than blanket declarations of authenticity. Examples of this abound in popular culture.
Vice has built a powerful brand rooted in counter-culture and anti-establishment mentalities despite quite literally “selling out” to conservative entities — first in 2013 when it sold a stake to Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox, then again in 2014 when it sold a stake to Disney and Hearst’s A&E Networks. It even shut down an iconic Brooklyn music venue in order to gulp up more real estate.
Kanye West is not authentic, yet he’s the most influential celebrity alive. He preaches accessibility in fashion, then turns around to create hyper-limited, $200 to $525 runs of sneakers, or charges $55 for $4 Gildan tees in his promotional pop-ups.
Vice and Kanye are hypocrites. But aren’t we all? It’s what makes us human. They may not be authentic, but the way they talk to people is.
This is why they’re winning millennial hearts and minds.
Herein lies the underlying disease that the rush to authenticity is merely a symptom: millennial as target. It is proof that people making decisions at many major corporations have little respect for consumers, but a great desire to drain their pockets.
Through some nebulous form of groupthink, we discovered that millennials value “authentic” experiences. So let’s not look any further. Authenticity. It seems new. Down-to-earth. Organic. It’s a word that glides through marketing documents. Maybe even secures promotions. It can get press. It’s a clear and simple talking point.
But it’s intellectual napalm.
Through the lazy embrace of authenticity as a key selling point, brands lose energy that could be used to craft a nuanced persona. By being “about” authenticity, a brand ironically loses most of its temperament. It’s not very authentic to spend huge budgets talking about how authentic your brand is.
Furthermore, some of the most authentic people in the world are also the most self-absorbed. The word today is most used in the mainstream media as a descriptor for presidential candidate Donald Trump.
Trump is authentic. He seems genuine to a large portion of the American electorate. Yet very few brands would seek to emulate his personality. His poll numbers are historically low among millennials. So much so, in fact, that the attempt to make a #millennialsfortrump hashtag had predictably disastrous results.
On the flip side, some of the least authentic brands are the most popular with younger consumers. They’ve not only created clear, powerful brand personalities, they’ve paid respect to their targets by segmenting them by lifestyle, interest and consumption habits—not just generational stereotypes.
Remember that famous line from Shakespeare (not a particularly authentic playwright in his own regard), “What is the city but the people?”
Brands should stop focusing on cold, tactical, self-promotional messaging geared toward garnering points on the ephemeral authenticity scale. Instead, they should rally around personalities. Focus on creating an interesting story and a unique aesthetic. Plug in some unexpected people to help weave that narrative. See what happens.
It might not be authentic, but it might actually work.