The Chinese Finger Trap of “Authenticity”

2 min read

Stop trying to be authentic. Instead, focus on being good.

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

“Be authentic!” the experts tell brands. Have authentic conversations with your customers. Produce authentic content, especially when posting on Twitter and Facebook.

Of all the overused marketing buzzwords, “authenticity” may be the most aggravating of all. It’s not hard to see why it’s popular, though. It’s a great word. While most other buzzwords make you want to stick a pencil in your eye (“integration,” anyone?) “authenticity” has a downright lovely ring to it. And it’s basically just another word for “realness,” and who can’t get on board with that?

Marketers, though, have crammed more fuzzy meaning into “authenticity” than it was ever meant to contain. It’s used to describe brands that have a long heritage. That are family-owned. That demonstrate moral qualities like transparency, honesty, and social responsibility. It’s also used to describe a style of customer communication that appropriates the language of the customer in a way that, if you ask me, is the opposite of authentic.

The problem is, authenticity is a wholly subjective concept. We know it when we see it—and we all see it differently. What seems authentic to me may look phony to you. Take, for example, Anne Hathaway. While she has her fans, a lot of people can’t stand her. Why? Because she tries too hard (at least that’s how it looks to me), and nothing screams inauthenticity more than that.

That’s the problem with marketing experts advising brands to be authentic. If you’re trying, you’ve already failed. The key to authenticity it is not trying. Authors James Gilmore and Joseph Pine articulated this in their 2007 book, Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want, when they offered up the following axiom: “If you are authentic, you don’t have to say you’re authentic.”

Authenticity, as much as anything, is the appearance of effortlessness. For example: Watch this video of a dog rushing down to the ocean. That is some Grade A, uncut authentic excitement (followed by equally authentic exaltation) right there.

In transcendental meditation—in which the goal is authentic freedom from thought—you can’t try to be thought-free. Because trying equals thinking, and not-thinking is the goal.

So it is with authenticity. It’s like a Chinese finger trap: the harder you try, the more you will fail. So don’t try to be authentic. Don’t even talk about it. Just do good work, and let the chips fall where they may. There’s no better way to “keep it real” than that.