November 07, 2018

What Is Authenticity?

This first appeared, with some additional edits, in the Courier Magazine, published on August 8th.

“Hi, I’m a consultant and I’m here to help you build your authentic brand.” This was an unsolicited email that slid into my inbox recently, and I couldn’t help but wonder (ala Carrie Bradshaw) if there is anything less authentic than painstakingly building and strategising An Authentic Brand, especially by someone who’s not you. Have we really reached a point in our digital culture where we need to employ random people to help us be ourselves and curate our own online personalities?

We are all brands now, swimming around on the Internet and broadcasting our own personal news. We’re all experimenting with how much we want to share and let people in. There’s nothing overly authentic about crafting a poetic caption to accompany a photo of your breakfast, but we are still learning and experimenting with how to be our real selves online. After all, it’s still quite a new thing to have this additional self — our online self — it’s like we’ve grown an additional limb and still unsure how to best use it. Our pixelated ‘self’ might appear differently to the world sometimes than how we move through the world in the flesh, through no fault of our own.

We also know it’s now possible to make a living by showcasing your ‘real’ online life — the girl and boy-next-door YouTubers rose to fame by being real through a DIY lens, their own clickbait headlines and Primark hauls. Even the coolest celebrities have invited us inside their homes on Instagram and show us their mundane lives. We feel like we know the people and brands we follow. Being ‘real’ maintains and engages an audience. But is it really them, or a glaze of faux-authenticity in order to sell stuff?

According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, trust in authority is vanishing and is being replaced by trust in those closest to us and most like us. Authenticity has become a buzzword, and once people started noticing it “working” it could therefore be sold. During times of major change, instability and the unknown, maintaining trust with consumers has never been more valuable or important to a business. According to a study by Cohn&Wolfe, 89 percent of customers expect companies to act with integrity at all times. We expect companies to be human, ’fess up to things and to have real conversations with us. Our standards are only getting higher when it comes to how brands interact with us.

Truly authentic companies thrive because of the people behind them. As Simon Sinek says: “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.” When the CEO makes the ‘why’ very clear, we feel closer to the brand’s mission. Emily Weiss’s brand Glossier is built on her own authenticity and journey, she posts on her Instagram Stories behind the scenes of the office, and links to the job specs for new hires. Whitney Wolfe’s personal story of overcoming sexism is a big part of Bumble’s feminist mission. One of the biggest selling cosmetic brands The Ordinary, owned by Deciem, is all about minimal branding and transparent basic packaging — with products such as “Granactive Retinoid 2% Emulsion” it’s all about just straight up showing the product ingredients. People keep tweeting Richard Branson their train delay complaints, but even though it will be handled by the official customer service team, it should also be seen as a compliment that people see his name as being synonymous with Virgin all these years later.

Can you over-do the authenticity? Writer Zak Slayback criticises the ‘authenticity genre’ as being bit too much: “there’s a new genre* of turn-your-guts-on-the-keyboard writing in the blogosphere”. Being authentic doesn’t mean showing everything, warts and all. Perhaps people have conflated “being authentic” with “being messy” but they aren’t necessarily the same. On a recent panel at SXSW, Lena Dunham spoke about what authenticity means to her: “People confuse authenticity with the idea of being messy or broken. I think Anna Wintour is authentic: she’s had that haircut for a f*king long time. She knows who she is.” So perhaps authenticity can mean a glossy haircut if that’s your ‘truth’, but it can also be a raw mobile-recorded video of something speaking openly about their mental health. Authenticity comes in different shapes and sizes and guises — there is no one-size-fits-all.

Brands, and individuals need to decide what they are doing, what they stand for and stick to it. Hamish Campbell coined the phrase ‘Brand Faux-Thenticity’ when a brand ‘jumps on every trend’ and therefore loses sight of their own identity. Just because something is on trend, doesn’t mean it is the best decision for your business.

To me, true authenticity thrives when you start saying no to things. It’s not just about what you do, but also (and perhaps even more importantly) what you don’t do. In existentialism, authenticity is described as “the degree to which one is true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character, despite external pressures”. In a world of increasing modern day pressures, it is having the strength to look at those tempting things around us, and step away from it. If it’s not really very “you”, then don’t do it. In essence, authenticity it’s about keeping your promises.

Like with most things in life, perhaps we shouldn’t try and overcomplicate it. Authenticity is simply about telling the truth, apologising when you get things wrong, being yourself and following your gut. Hashtag no filter.

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