Authenticity only sells if you don’t brag about it

Today the conceit of being “authentic” has become an indispensable and ubiquitous selling point. Restaurants employ it most frequently, but so do the makers of common consumer goods such as shoes and furniture—and even such unlikely products as cosmetics and vacation tours.

Glenn R. Carroll, professor of organizations at Stanford Graduate School of Business, studies authenticity both as a tangible attribute and as a social construct. Here he discusses how authenticity is created, how it’s defined, and why consumers are increasingly drawn to it.

Q

When did the concept of selling authenticity start?

A

It’s only been in the last 20 or 30 years that the idea has gained purchase. Of course, the idea of using authenticity to sell something is kind of self-contradictory and ironic, because the whole point of being authentic is not being strategic but instead behaving in a way consistent with true underlying identity and values.

Q

If you think of it in terms of a human characteristic, anyone who is truly authentic never draws attention to it.

A

That’s right. In fact, we have a paper in the works now that shows that restaurants that explicitly claim to be authentic on their menu or in their advertising in fact suffer penalties. So if you’re perceived as authentic, it’s good for you—but only if others say it about you. You, yourself, you almost need to disown it.

Q

Which presents a dilemma if you know it’s going to be good for business.

A

Not necessarily. It’s just revealing who you are and what you are—your identity—and making that transparent. And to the extent that the authenticity in a brand is simply about transparency of your true identity, then it doesn’t have to be contradictory.

Q

In your paper, you describe authenticity as a social construct—a cultural attribution versus some kind of measurable, intrinsic value. Can you expound on that?

A

There’s a long tradition of trying to verify the origins of works of art, or documents, or any artifact. It can make a big difference in the thing’s market value. It’s called authentication, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be about origins. It could be, “Did Jackie Onassis [former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy] wear this dress?” That’s an objective question with an objective answer.

Now that’s very different than saying a restaurant serves authentic Greek food or that Donald Trump is an authentic person, because in those cases there is no objective answer. It’s simply an attribution. We can argue about the facts and the criteria that are relevant to it, but no matter how long we go at it, there will still be doubts about whether or not it’s truly authentic.

Now, as a sociologist I’m interested in questions about the subjectivity of things, because even though the answer to that question—is a restaurant authentically Greek?—is absolutely subjective, people behave as if there’s an objective answer.

Q

They think of authenticity as quantifiable.

A

Yes. People will pay more for dinner at a Greek restaurant that they believe to be authentic even if the quality of the food is not as high, or even it’s known to be less hygienic. When I first started studying the beer-brewing industry 25 or 30 years ago, it was dominated by mass-producers, but then a specialty segment of microbreweries arose and began to flourish.

Some of the early microbreweries and brewpubs were very, very good—high-quality operations making excellent beer. But many of them were not. They were just trading on the fact that they were small-scale craft producers doing something different. And they didn’t really know how to brew beer.

Q

A lot of beer drinkers believe that almost any microbrew is better than a mass-produced beer.

A

Yes, but the truth was that Anheuser-Busch, Coors, and Miller had all the beer-making expertise and technology you’d ever want. They were truly masters at brewing—just this unparalleled kind of production and quality control in that system. Even if you didn’t consider the volume, their quality was, without a doubt, stellar. And the microbreweries’ quality was, at times, questionable. But people associated the craft operation with higher quality and certainly with higher value and were willing to suspend a lot of judgment. I think that’s true for lots of products and services these days.

Q

How much does anti-corporate sentiment play into it?

A

It’s often a big part of it. With the microbreweries, that was explicitly part of their early campaign: “Let’s get off mass production.” It’s oppositional. The irony with people who are primarily oppositional is that they don’t always like it when the big corporations start to listen to them.

Take organic food and Walmart. A lot of people who were advocating for organic products and sustainability got very upset when Walmart got on board with them. Walmart embracing organic food should be a great thing, right? But everyone was like, “No, no. They’re not allowed to because they’re the bad guys.”

Q

Why are we drawn to authenticity?

A

Part of it is an attempt to individuate ourselves and find something that’s different and more appealing to us than it is to the masses. We all do that. We find satisfaction and gratification in it. And I think that’s fine. There are theories that it has to do with the loss of identity in mass society—that we’re all trying to individuate ourselves.

But the irony there is that you can predict how people are going to individuate themselves pretty much by their social class, their upbringing, where they live, stuff like that. You and I, living and working in the Bay Area, are much more likely to have similar tastes than someone who grew up in Iowa and works on a hog farm.

Q

What has surprised you the most as you’ve looked deeper into the concept of authenticity?

A

Well, this is rather preliminary at the moment, but the thing that surprised me about the research we’re doing now is the power of moral authenticity, which is a claim about the underlying values at work in the producer organization and held by its owner-founder. It seems to be stronger than any of the other kinds, such as “type” authenticity, which is about category or genre fit and is the kind of authenticity that many restaurants claim—that they’re authentically Greek or Italian or whatever.

Q

Tell us more about moral authenticity.

A

It’s most often referring to people. When people call someone authentic, they’re saying, “This is a person who thinks through things themselves, who has made a set of choices about his or her life, or whatever they’re doing, that is based on his or her own kind of morals and beliefs. They’re not just accepting the script that’s been handed to them by society. They’ve worked it out themselves and they’re an individual. They’re an authentic individual.”

That usually applies when we agree with the person’s moral choices, but not always. I might think of you as authentic even if I don’t like you. This brings us back to Donald Trump. There are many people who think he’s authentic but don’t necessarily agree with him. They admire that he’s doing things a different way and has chosen his own path.

Q

How does moral authenticity apply to a business?

A

It’s all in what the values are behind the business and how you tell the story about them. Can you explain why your business is morally different? Why it is not simply seeking profits or market share to enrich you or someone else? Clearly, you can tell the story wrong and get into trouble, especially if you’re only trying to act like you’re authentic. Also, you need to be fully transparent, which goes against a lot of people’s impulses, because they want to control information.

If you open up and start telling your story, you better make sure it’s true and that you’re actually doing what you claim you’re doing, because you’ll be found out if you lie or exaggerate. Someone will eventually discover the hypocrisy and go around telling everybody about it, and you’ll be worse off than if you hadn’t gone down that route in the first place.

Q

So the takeaway for someone starting a business is to make sure you do something you believe in?

A

Well, again, the first thing is to make sure the story is true. Of course, there will always be people who won’t like your story. You have to accept that and hope that the people who do like it are strongly attracted to it. When that works, when people are attracted to your moral authenticity, it gives them a unique attachment to your product or service, because your identity is inalienable. Nobody else has your story, and no one can take it away from you. That’s the ultimate strategic position a firm can have.

Q

What else has surprised you?

A

What strikes me as really interesting is that in advanced economic systems, we’re seeing that more and more products and services—at least, personal products and services—are being chosen on the basis of their perceived authenticity. Among consumers, the appeal of authenticity is stronger than almost any other attribute. I don’t know whether it means that quality has become so good that we can now make choices on this new basis or whether we’re just not as concerned about quality anymore.

Q

Why in advanced economies?

A

Again, I’ll go back to microbreweries. When I was doing these studies in the ’90s, I spent six months in Hong Kong and went to visit the South China microbrewery there. The managers told me that most of their customers were expatriates from the US and Europe, who all came to their product because it harkened back to old, handcrafted methods.

But the brewery was having trouble breaking into the Chinese market, because the last thing the locals wanted was something handcrafted. They wanted their beer to come from big, modern factories that used the latest methods and quality-control systems. I’ve spent a lot of time in China, and only lately are you starting to see an increased interest in product authenticity. Before that, it was like the 19th century in the US, where mass production and automation was regarded as a good thing, because it made products that were cheaper, safer, and more readily available.

So it wasn’t that the Chinese saw the mass-produced beers as more authentic.
They just wanted a high-quality, low-cost beer. So that led me to think, “Isn’t there something in these Asian societies that has the same kind of appeal that microbrewed beers have in the US—something that’s romanticized beyond its objective characteristics?”

Q

And did you find that?

A

We did. It was tea, especially green tea and white tea.

Q

Tea?

A

Yes. Many Asian countries, including China, have these little gourmet tea houses, and a lot of them tell stories about how the tea they serve comes from these special mountains and is picked in the moonlight by monkeys and crazy stuff like that. A lot of the appeal is found in the story behind the tea. And the tea is good—don’t get me wrong. But I suspect that in any objective taste test, it would be hard to distinguish the teas that have these authentic stories from those that don’t.

Source: Steve Hawk for Stanford University