Most contemporary consumers consider ourselves too savvy to be taken in by a corporation’s attempts to integrate seamlessly into our Facebook feeds, and openly rag on any brand that dares try too hard. Nonetheless, even the most massive corporations continue to try anything to make themselves seem in-touch and available to consumers. (JPMorgan Chase & Co., for example, just launched a new bank app for millennials that lets them give feedback in emojis.)
That’s because we are more susceptible to clever marketing than we realize. While we may think of “authenticity” as an inherent, unknowable quality, a 2010 study found that it is highly subjective, and possible to purposefully engender. Among scholars, “there is widespread agreement that authenticity is a socially constructed interpretation of the essence of what is observed rather than properties inherent in an object.”
Through interviews with various consumers, researchers found that there are three major factors that contribute to a brand’s authenticity.
Feeling in Control
“Michael: [Apple] gives us a greater view of the world. It’s been able to allow us to achieve things that we would never have been able to achieve. The reach for the stars, if you like.
Interviewer: So authentic includes things humans cannot do by ourselves?
Michael: Not so much can’t do by ourselves but certainly can’t do as quickly. More accurately as well, of course.”
Control of one’s environment is a comforting feeling, and that extends to brands. For example, one surfer rejected more popular and expensive brands for those he knew would work better in the environment he practiced in, because mastery of the sport and mastery of the self was what created authenticity.
“Campagnolo is more traditional. I think it’s going back to the grass roots of cycling. Whereas Shimano make fishing rod reels and all that sort of stuff; so you get the feeling that Campagnolo are completely focused on what they’re doing for cycling and that makes them a little bit more authentic. … I always relate the general sense to a feeling you get, its just people talking about them [Campagnolo] more than anything else. I’ve never used them before but I assume they’re better.“
As the researchers explain, this cyclist had never actually used Campagnolo. He was hinging his assertion on the fact that “other cyclists constantly talk about it as the quality leader, which lends it subcultural legitimacy,” and connects him to the wider community of cycling. For him, authenticity had less to do with the product itself and more with the product’s place in the community, how much esteem others hold it in.
Another respondent, John, stated that “legendary” cigarette manufacturers like Malboro and Winfield had lost their authenticity. When asked why, he explained, “Because the companies are not allowed to advertise as much anymore so people aren’t as aware of these products as much because it’s not in their face all of the time,” concluding that if something was less recognizable in popular culture, less woven into everyday experience with other people, “it loses its image, loses its authenticity.”
A Sense of Morality
“Interviewer: What is it about Nike?
Renee: I put them in an inauthentic category just because although they became the market leader and did a lot of creative stuff, I think that they’ve exploited their reputation in the meanwhile by general employment practices.
Interviewer: Employment practices?
Renee: They’ve made a lot of money partly because they’re authentic but at the same time they are paying low wages and they do a lot of exploitation as well.”
Perhaps the most obvious factor that undermines a brand’s authenticity are when it is perceived to commit a moral transgression. Recently, Volkswagen and Wells Fargo learned that being bad is bad for business, taking a hit to their value as well as their reputations.
These aren’t the only attributes that conjure a feeling of “realness,” and how much each matters changes from person to person. But they all reveal that authenticity isn’t an organic, irreplicable thing. Rather, it is very subjective quality. Whether it’s a desire to conquer our environment, feel part of something bigger, or reward companies we perceive as virtuous, a savvy marketer knows that there are many different ways to polish a brand until it gleams with authenticity.