A journey through the wormhole of authenticity

‘Authenticity’ is one of those words. Marketers are obsessed with it. Consumers refer to it all the time…but what does it really mean?

Let’s start with the dictionary. Oxford defines it as, ‘of undisputed origin and not a copy; genuine’.

However, this doesn’t quite cover the full extent of its usage. Because, like charisma (that other indefinable quality), authenticity comes in many, and sometimes contradictory, guises. For example, a recipe can be said to be ‘authentic’ if it adheres to tradition, but so can an artisanal, ‘craft’ brewer tearing up the rule book. 

Confused? You’re not the only one.   

But if we track its many, and varied, guises we might come closer to understanding what it’s all about. So, like a Victorian naturalist surveying their butterfly collection, here’s a few choice specimens of ‘the authentic’.

The genuine article

Brands have been exploiting our desire for the ‘real thing’ for decades, either through design cues (official-looking stamps/crests, evocations of provenance etc.) or by, quite literally, telling us.


The fruit of human labour

‘Handmade’, ‘handcrafted’ and even ‘handbaked’ (?!)… all signifiers that the product was made by an actual person. But why do we care? Yes, it implies a certain degree of quality – but the fact that it was touched by human hand is also used to suggest that it’s in some way more genuine, more real.


The passion play

Many brands talk about how ‘passionate’ they are about what they do. However, this is where it all gets a bit problematic. Consumers frequently mistake the authenticity of the maker for the authenticity of the product, which is not the same thing; they may be genuinely passionate about what they do but that doesn’t mean that what they produce is authentic.

Nonetheless, brands have been profitably mining this confusion for years (and thereby entrenching it further): witness the amount of packaging telling you how much ‘love’ has gone into the product.   


The honest approach

There are honest brands which quietly go about their work and then there are honest brands which actively make a virtue out of it. They come in strident, anti-bullshit form or through gentler appeals to transparency and integrity (Honest Tea). However, as in Oasis’ case (below), being honest is not the same as being genuine.


This is really just the tip of the iceberg as far as authenticity in branding is concerned.

As I’ve hopefully shown, it’s not without its contradictions. The fact that authenticity applies differently to product (i.e. ‘made to the authentic recipe’) as it does to brand behaviour (e.g. tone of voice and personality) can make for a confused, if compelling, mess. 

But one that ultimately still proves winning with consumers.