authenticity marketing

Given that authenticity is only “real” as a brand-management phenomenon, I figured the book Authenticity by marketing consultants James Gilmore and Joseph Pine would give me some useful insight. So far I am not disappointed.

1. Gilmore and Pine regard authenticity as a means to create consumer demand in the midst of abundance. Authenticity is fundamentally a means for creating a perceived scarcity in a populace of satiated consumers.

2. The authenticity or “realness” of a consumer good is not a matter of its physical properties or utility. It is a matter of the way consumers experience buying and consuming the good. (Gilmore and Pine view Authenticity as an elaboration of their previous book, The Experience Economy.) Authentic doesn’t describe an experience, but is itself the experience. Things (or people) are not in themselves authentic; authenticity is an affect, a structure of feeling. Gilmore and Pine suggest authenticity is a service: Consumers pay someone to make them feel real for a time.

3. Authenticity constitutes a kind of utility beyond the conventional idea of usefulness; it makes goods useful for how they make people specifically aware of their own individuality, their own supposed uniqueness. Goods are “authentic” when they evoke a self-conscious subjectivity, when they permit you to revel in the fact that you are you.

4. Establishing a person’s need to feel unique — by no means an intrinsic human desire, but an ideological proposition — is at the core of generating the demand for “authentic” goods. The authenticity fetish relies on a culture that incessantly preaches individualism and devalues collectivity. When authenticity is enlisted as a marketing tool, it makes devaluing collectivity directly profitable.

5. Authenticity is about identity — mathematical identity: a = a. But this identity is not given but made. It can’t be postulated but instead must be routed through “authentic goods” that can unfold the tautology of selfhood as an experience in time. So, as manifest in allows a to recognize itself as a: a = b = a. (One could probably bring in Heidegger and Badiou and Lacan here to buttress this point.)

6. To experience authenticity, one must have a comparison staged between the self and some external thing that resolves them as being essentially equivalent. Authenticity-as-a-service must create that stage (or a platform, a la social media), supply the points of comparison.

7. The accepted bases for that comparison (what sorts of things are considered comparable, and in what ways) determines what sorts of things can be considered “authentic." Authenticity isn’t established through nonstrategic spontaneity; a reified sense of spontaneity is the product being sold. So authenticity is not guaranteed by being uncalculated, as with the illusion of sprezzatura. It is instead expressed through deliberate consumer choices that can be construed retroactively as impulses that express the essential self. Gilmore and Pine regard the offer of customization options as a way companies can "render” authenticity for consumers through their products.

8. The bases for authenticity, the criteria, constitute genres. The points of possible comparison are preformatted, in order to be legible and supply a framework for personal choices. (You can customize goods, but only along predetermined axes.) Fidelity to generic conventions, not spontaneous originality, makes for authenticity. Authenticity is, in this sense, formulaic.

9. An individual’s consumption data provides one convenient basis for the comparisons required to generate “authenticity.” Authenticity becomes a matter of matching data sets, one of which defines the self and another which defines a consumer good. To experience authenticity in those convenient terms, one must consent to being represented as data and abet the construction of the data simulacrum of the self.

10. Goods (whose physical properties are irrelevant to this procedure) must also become enriched with the identity data of those who affiliate themselves with them or consume them. Consumption produces the identity data for goods, gives them “meaning,” but only in the limited sense of allowing them to speak the authenticity of a certain group of people whose situationally salient data matches up.

11. When goods are consumed for their supposed authenticity, they are treated as media objects. They communicate a single message about users’ having become or expressed themselves. The goods are not authentic; they are generic in ways that permit the consumer to feel authentic.

12. For a good to be authentic, there needs to be a consumer (performing authenticity by consuming/experiencing  the good) and an audience validating the performance. Sometimes — maybe ideally — the performer and the audience is one and the same person: a = a. But in that case, authenticity is not about integrating the self but dividing it into a self that can watch over itself. (One could bring in Foucault at this point.)

13. The authenticity performance (the Foucauldian “game of truth”) is a fictional performance, akin to a kind of historical re-enactment. In Club Cultures, Sarah Thornton describes authenticity as the “reassuring reward for suspending disbelief.”Authenticity is what one feels in successfully forgetting the effort one has made to put on its performance. It’s what happens when you can regard something you made or chose as something you discovered (about yourself) — when you can forget the calculations that went into the postures you are trying to strike for yourself. 

14. When companies try to invest their products with the air of authenticity, what they are hoping to inspire in customers is the enjoyable experience of the suspension of disbelief. Chipotle doesn’t expect customers to genuinely believe the weird tchotchkes on their walls are made by Aztecs, or that the exposed brick proves some sort of fidelity to “how things really are.” They want to give customers the opportunity to play along. Authenticity is a staged moment of forgetting fakery.

15. Gilmore and Pine point out that authenticity is not a moral issue: “The pursuit of authenticity should not be mistaken for the way to eternity.” It might be more accurate, though, to say that authenticity cloaks itself as a moral issue to help disguise itself, to help the suspension of disbelief. Increasing the stakes of authenticity enhances the dissonance involved in pursuing it. We want to believe we are not faking what we know we are faking much more intensely. This prompts us to commit to the fantasy and to the self-censure that invalidates it simultaneously, assuring a more rapid cycling between the two poles.


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