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It’s all about being real

May 1, 2011


Authenticity is one of the key words in today’s branding and marketing, as I discovered these last years. Wanting to know more about this concept, I downloaded some more articles, purchased Gilmore & Pine’s  ‘Authenticity’ (2007) and borrowed a copy of ‘How Cool Brands Stay Hot’ (Van Den Bergh, 2011). I highlight my key findings and show some examples I collected in an attempt to shed more light on the concept of  ‘authenticity’

As Gilmore & Pine describe, authentic is what consumers perceive to be real, genuine and sincere. The word ‘perceive’ is quite important here. Firms adapt their product offer to serve clients, they fabricate products which are therefore in principle always ‘fake’. Brands and products can range from being very fake to being hardly fake, and thus perceived as authentic. Needless to say, this concept seems to be full of contradictions. The authors argue that consumers view the world in terms of real or fake, and are in search of meaningful experiences that engage them on a personal level.

In ‘How Cool Brands Stay Hot’ the importance of authenticity to youngsters (generation Y) is addressed. Van Den Bergh claims that it is not effective to stress brand origin, history and heritage in order to be perceived as authentic. Especially to youngsters, this tactic is considered an ‘advertising trick’. Authenticity should be addressed quite subtly and indirectly and instead there should be a focus on humor and irony (see examples a the bottom of this post). Furthermore, the author stresses the importance of being true (not imitating or faking), respectful, transparent, open and human.

Now we know a bit more about the concept, let’s take a look at some examples:

TV commercials

Dove campaign for real women (Unilever, 2004)
The Dove campaign for real women is one of the best-known worldwide marketing campaigns. Launched in 2004 it mocked the artificiality of beauty concepts in modern advertising. The campaign underlined and visualized the beauty of ‘ordinary’ women, women that don’t match the supermodel look. Note: the Unilever brand was also criticized since some of their other brands do apply idealized images in their campaigns (Axe, or Lynx as it is called in the UK). The lesson according to Michael Nutley in Marketing Week: brands no longer exist in isolation.

Kleenex ‘Let it out’ (Kimberley-Clark, 2007)
While the brand once imparted the message that Kleenex helps one retain control, the new campaign is based on the premise that Kleenex allows one to let it all out, according to Sigrid Jakob, the creator of the campaign (Adweek, 2007). In this campaign ordinary people openly tell personal stories, after they are invited to sit down on a couch somewhere in New York, San Francisco or London.

Nizza biscuits (United Biscuits, 2010)
The Dutch brand Verkade explicitly refers to the history and heritage of their Nizza biscuits brand. The TV commercial takes places in a 50s setting –with appropriate video quality and styling- and aims to humorously show that back then Nizza was quite modern and exotic. There is no fancy take-home message or claim to end the commercial, just that Nizza is now still available, in a new packaging.

 ‘Ik Ben verlost’ campaign (Ben (T-mobile), 2011)
The commercial features regular Dutch people and is a plea for independence and against obligations. The shots appear to be taken with a simple video camera and the participants look like they have been randomly addressed on the streets, resulting in an authentic look and feel. The message: Ben is human, independent and adheres to the same norms and values you do.

Reality TV

One of the first successful reality shows in Holland was the 1999 ‘Big Brother’ program. It documented all aspects of the daily life of eight regular people that agreed to live in an enclosed environment, and who had to compete in order to remain in the show and win. The show was well-received and created a media hype with its new approach of observing regular and unknown people in their day-to-day practices. This was something that was not done before on television. Viewers could identify with the participants of the show, who made mistakes, said funny or stupid things, got into arguments or fell in love. Note: There has also been a lot of criticism nowadays regarding the authenticity of reality TV. This criticism mainly regards the influence of the editors and directors, who decide on the content of the broadcast and who also pay the participants to partake in the show.

Here is a selection of some other Dutch TV shows that aim at portraying regular, or a bit extraordinary, people and their daily practices:

Man Bijt Hond: My personal favourite! The show, originally Flemish, first aired in Holland in 1998 and has the reputation of addressing current issues with a hint of irony. Different issues are discussed from the viewpoints of regular people, and gives insights into their thoughts and behavior. (Watch a compilation)

Boer zoekt Vrouw: Starting in 2004, this hugely successful show has recently concluded its fifth edition. During the show, ten Dutch farmers are filmed during their search for a husband or wife.  (watch a (Dutch) promo)

Expeditie Robinson: First aired in 2000, this -originally Swedish- reality soap is successful every year. The idea is that a group of people are dropped on one or two islands and need to survive together and compete each other to avoid elimination. (watch the 2010 intro)

Hello Goodbye: This program, first aired in 2005, focuses on random encounters with people travelling through Schiphol Airport. It features their personal stories about goodbyes, reunions, love, family and friendship.



Humor and irony

To have people identify with the brand and make it more realness, often humor and irony are used:


Relating the topic of authenticity back to co-creation, the topic of my MSc thesis, I wonder how this aspect is affected. When brands collaborate with consumers, will people consider these brands to be more sincere, more honest and genuine? Does co-creation enable consumers to identify more with a brand, since it was developed by ‘people just like them’? Also, how exactly should the aspect of co-creation be communicated to the public? There is always the risk that it might be perceived as a ‘marketing trick’, how can this be avoided? Interesting topics to explore!

I am looking forward to any comments on this or examples you might have on ‘authenticity’, feel free to respond!

One Comment leave one →
  1. July 6, 2011 2:58 pm

    Hi Joyce,

    Thank you for your wonderful post. In addition I would like to add the Polonius test as it is stated in P&G’s Authenticity book;

    This above all; to thine own self be true.
    And it must follow, as the night the day,
    Thou canst not then be false to any man.
    – Shakespeare

    Pine and Gilmore then derive two standards of authenticity from this scene, namely;
    • Being true to your own self
    • Being who you say you are to others

    This implies that you must know ‘who you are’ before using any means to get a certain message across. So in order to be true to yourself you have to know what value you commit to continuoulsy co-create with your stakeholders (as opposed to stressing your brand origin, history and heritage).

    After this first, yet very important step you can start thinking on how you want to engage people and build personal and meaningful relationships with them.

    To illustrate this thinking I am a big fan of the Diesel – Be Stupid campaign, in which they use their Be Stupid Manifesto in order to come up with new touchpoints and ideas to enhance the brand’s identity. Hereby you can think of the current ‘Diesel Island Project’ as well as the ‘Be Stupid at Work Software’ which turns your Facebook into an excell sheet.

    From a branding perspective I therefore think that authenticity is not about using real and ordinary people at all, it is about the way you are able to consistently translate your brand’s identity within your touchpoints.

    Rob van Vlokhoven

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