Authenticity and Disruption: Mortal Enemies or Best Buddies?

4 min read

20141118_085509There are a couple of touchstone words that have been buzzing around business and marketing circles for a while, and they seem, in a weird way, to be at odds with one another. Authenticity┬áand┬ádisruption are on everybody’s lips these days, and they’re both interesting frameworks for looking at how organizations should go to market.

They are also both products of our increasingly digital culture. Disruption, the big idea behind Clayton M. Christensen’s 1997 book The Innovator’s Dilemma┬áand the business consulting industry it spawned,┬áhas been the tech world’s favorite growth strategy for a going on two decades. Make it small, fast, cheap–inferior quality, but good enough–and you win. This whole idea has been effectively challenged by Jill Lepore in┬áThe New Yorker,┬ábut it’s certainly made millions of dollars for a handful of (mostly) young entrepreneurs.

Whether or not disruption is a great long-term business strategy, it’s undoubtedly great marketing strategy. Most advertising is about reinforcing an idea or changing someone’s mind and moving people to action. In the vast sea of bad advertising–same as it ever was–you need to stand out. You need to disrupt people’s attention and capture it, fleetingly, for your product.

Consider this in the friendly, locally grown light of┬áauthenticity.┬áIt seems at first blush a contradiction, but the World Wide Web has focused our culture more locally than it has been for all the decades I’ve been alive. The digital world we live in has made us yearn for something real. We’re lousy with great local restaurants, craft breweries, art and handicraft fairs, DIY concerts, and Indiana-themed t-shirts. It’s kind of great.

And our digital networks give us the means to connect deeply with our local friends and neighbors–and the local people who are as plugged into social media as we are. Who tend to be the people out doing interesting things in the world.

You can’t fake authenticity in marketing. It’s either real, or it looks like it came from the ad agency. Which makes it suspect and ultimately worthless.

Unless it’s disruptive in a good way. In which case it’s great.

They seem at odds. But can authenticity and disruption actually be compatible?

I think so. Here are a few ways:

You can be authentically disruptive.

Sometimes, disruption is about technique. It’s not the idea that’s disruptive so much as the execution. In other words, you may not have to have a crazy, breakthrough idea. You can simply present your authentic self in a disruptive way.

Here’s an example of a TV spot we wrote that was directed and produced by Mays Entertainment for Best Buddies International. It’s not a breakthrough script–but it’s real. It does a beautiful job of authentically presenting the organization and their mission. It’s actually the realness–accentuated by the black-and-white photography and the close-ups of obviously real people–that makes it arresting.

You can be disruptively authentic.

What is true about your culture that disrupts the conversation about what you do? What’s the thing about your product or service that makes it different from your competitors? If you truly do zag while everybody else is zigging, it might make for disruptively interesting marketing.

The Charles A. Tindley Accelerated School is different from most other high schools in one regard: All of its┬ágraduates are destined for prestigious colleges and universities. The words “College or Die” are written six feet tall in the school’s main hallway, and it’s a philosophy that everyone there embraces. We developed a series of videos (shot and edited by Vinnie Manganello) featuring Tindley graduates at their colleges to show parents of prospective students what’s possible when their kids learn the Tindley way.

You can take advantage of authentic existing resources.

One of the key features of our digital culture is that it is relatively easy for everyone to opt in. If you love fancy belt buckles, for example, note that our Google search of belt buckle collectors yielded 408,000 results. Lots of people are writing about belt buckles.

So imagine how many are writing about health care or insurance or good things happening in your city. You don’t always have to create much authentic content to be authentic. You can also link to helpful resources and expose opinions you agree with–and disagree with–just by starting conversations about them in your digital channels.

Have an opinion.

This goes hand in hand with the above recommendation. Please: don’t be afraid to show who you are. That in and of itself can be disruptive. Even in the Age of Oversharing, most people are lurkers. When you have an opinion about your field of endeavor, you stand out.

Authenticity and disruption don’t have to be enemies; in fact, they actually play very nicely together. The key is to┬ábe┬áauthentic and then find a way to be disruptive, and not the other way around. Know who you are and figure out what’s so cool about that–then tell people in a way that makes them take notice.

In other words, do good marketing. Same as it ever was.