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“Being Authentic in a Paris Hilton World” – a Q&A with writer Bill Breen

A No-Nonsense Marketing Smart Tip May 17, 2007

Bill Breen is Senior Projects Editor for Fast Company magazine and the author of a piece in the May 2007 issue titled “Who Do You Love? The Appeal and Risks of Authenticity.” The article is available online here.

Listen to the full 15 minute interview here (what follows is only an abbreviated transcript).

Bill, who cares about “authenticity”? What happened to just being good?

People are always calculating “is this thing real or not?” but it almost happens subconsciously. Consumers have gotten very sophisticated about marketing and can instantly smell when someone is not sincere, when they’re not real, when they’re not acting with integrity.

But I think the hunger for authenticity also comes from our sense of disconnect from what is really “original” in life. The source word for authenticity goes back to the Greek word for originality – there’s a search underway; it’s almost a spiritual thing.

When you start really digging at this notion of authenticity, you find that we’re also willing to accept a version of “fake real” that can become more “real” to us than the real world. Think about the success of Jon Stewart. He cuts through the pomposity of network news. And in that sense, he is real. He is authentic, even though what he’s giving us is fake. And people respond to that.

Authenticity can be created, and that’s part of what the article is about.

So you’re saying that authenticity isn’t about being real per se. It’s about not being fake.

Well that’s part of it. I have a line in the piece which says, “The opposite of authenticity isn’t fake, it’s cynicism.” Think about the cornerstones of authenticity: One is “integrity” – you are who you say you are.

Now consider an insincere marketing campaign like this one from McDonald’s – “We love to see you smile.” It was an abject failure because consumers really didn’t believe that McDonalds made them smile. Even Ronald McDonald was a clown who didn’t make you laugh.

And so the message did not connect with the reality of the experience. And that’s one of the core things about authenticity: What you’re saying has to be real, and the experience and the communication around it have to connect. If what you’re saying doesn’t sync up with what you’re actually producing, you will breed cynicism in people. And that’s the danger.

When you look at Starbucks, it is built around a fabricated experience of Milan espresso bars. And in its early days it pulled that off beautifully, and it was very successful doing so. But now a lot of the things that made Starbucks feel authentic have been diluted as the brand has grown and grown and grown. And when you lose authenticity, you end up in a world of trouble. Levi’s has gone through the same thing – it’s an iconic American brand, but it didn’t stay relevant to its times. And that’s one of the hard things with authenticity. You have to respect your values and your heritage and yet evolve at the same time or else you become irrelevant.

Your challenge is to stay true to your values but not get bound by them.

What makes Apple so much more “authentic” than its numerous competitors?

I think one of the cornerstones of authenticity is the idea of serving a larger purpose. And Steve Jobs really does believe that he and his company are there to do that. His mission is to change the world through technology and design. That’s something consumers can get behind – when you have a mission, when you think you’re serving a larger purpose.

Every business has a “money story,” but a business needs to be about more than that “money story” in order to be “authentic” and win the affection of its market. Apple comes off very well in that regard, and Microsoft does very poorly. Microsoft is the ubiquitous company that’s largely unloved because people get the sense that it’s only about the bottom line there, that they don’t particularly serve a higher purpose despite some of their marketing claims.

So to be authentic you need integrity and to serve a larger purpose. Your piece also mentions the importance of a strong point of view.

Right. I live in the Boston area, and I listen to WEEI, a sports/talk station. I constantly find myself making the calculation, “are these guys authentic or not?” And I think they score very highly on the passion point of view. I mean this is “Red Sox Nation” out here, and they are very, very passionate for the team, even hypercritical. And they also exude this sense of place which I think is another criterion – authenticity springs out of the idea that there’s a place here, a place with a story. And these guys know Red Sox baseball or any New England sport inside and out.

But at the same time (and I find this happens a lot with AM stations) there’s the marketing side, the hyper- masculine voice you hear on the promos: “We’ve got the best sports talk in town, and don’t listen to the rest of those weenies.” Or promos like, “Be the fifth caller and you’ll win a couple of tickets.” That’s when listeners sense that their message, their passion, is not syncing up with their communications.

Look, I’m willing to accept the ads, but when the promos start getting in the way I find myself turning the channel to something else. That’s one example of how we make these subconscious calculations. “Are these guys being authentic at the moment? Am I really gonna stick with them?” And if they are, we stay. If they’re not, we’re outta there.

Too often, radio promos are clichés. And clichés by their very nature, by their very definition, are insincere. There’s nothing authentic about them.

What’s real are these guys when they’re actually talking about sports and their passion comes through. Then it’s enjoyable and fun and entertaining and all the rest.

So where’s the line between positioning language that communicates with consistency and inauthentic and damaging clichés?

Words are powerful. But marketers in general and radio in particular must stop thinking about their audience as a market and start thinking about it as a community.

When WEEI’s hosts are talking about sports they have a sense of place. They’re passionate about it. They have a community of people who care about what they’re talking about. They are community-builders.

But when the promos come on, that’s the marketing side. Now I’m getting the “money story.” And if it becomes too much about the “market” and not enough about the community, listeners will shut it down.

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