A Is For Authenticity (Yes, That Word Again)

by Sarah Hoffman

When it comes to the ABCs of advertising, I can’t think of a word that’s more overused in the marketer’s lexicon than authenticity. It’s how we tell brands they need to behave and it’s what we think our most coveted demographic (read: millennials) want. But have we stopped to ask if our definition is right?

For years, we used this narrative: brands have to rely on real, shared, human values to connect with people. In order to fit in they have to 1) be genuine and transparent in their purpose; 2) communicate beliefs that align with their demographic; 3) and engineer communities and relationships around common values.

Brands Are Going Off Book

In the last month, brands have challenged the idea that they have to fit in to stand out. Maybe it’s not only human values and “unbrandedness” that skeptical audiences (read: millennials) want to connect with after all.

Last week’s global consumer survey on authentic brands, which revealed tech companies like Amazon, Microsoft and PayPal in the top spots, was a bit of surprise. That’s right, tech companies—the least fluffy, feely and inherently least human of all brands—make up 7 of the top 10 logos on the list.

Not only that but companies like Cadillac, Dunkin’ Donuts, TBS, and Casper staked some serious claims during September’s New York Fashion Week. Partnering with Refinery29 for their 29Rooms exhibition, these brands were front and center in creative and Instagram-able art installations.

Moving Into Public Spaces

Probably the most notable company to out itself over the last month is Apple. If you weren’t paying close attention during the iPhone X launch, you may have missed this soundbite from the company’s retail chief, Angela Ahrendts:

“We actually don’t call them stores anymore. We call them town squares, because they’re gathering places… We’re going to open Apple town squares in cities around the world.”

I’ll give your ears a second to adjust from the record scratch that just went off in your head. Because that’s right…Apple is making branded town squares in public places where people can go and hang out. Now if that’s not an affront to the authenticity story, I don’t know what is.

Perhaps the strangest part is that people seem (mostly) okay with it. Afterall, they aren’t just going to be selling you things—worry not, they’ll do that there too—they’re also going to provide free education classes and meeting places where people can get together, relax and listen to local music.

Value Beyond Shared Values

While these types of announcements and interactions over the last month are hardly an indication of changing tides, it’s something to think about. And though we can’t rewrite any brand books just yet, we can ask ourselves this: do brands have to align their values with their customers’ or do they just have to provide value to their customers?

Is giving someone (read: millennials) social currency by offering up the perfect Instagram setting at the Dunkin’ Donuts art installation enough? What about a free, safe hangout space where they can relax on weekends, even if it’s covered in Apple logos?

We shouldn’t wear our current definition of authenticity like a scarlet letter by any means because honestly, it probably still stands. (Though boy, does it perfectly fit that metaphor because hello—it’s literally an “A.”)

But we can look for ways to extend it as people’s relationships with brands evolve and as they themselves explore new ways to build connections and provide value to their own customers.

Sarah Hoffman

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