Authenticity is hard to come by, especially for a business. And yet these days the conceit of being authentic has become an indispensable and ubiquitous selling point, most frequently employed by restaurants but also by the makers of such common consumer goods as shoes and furniture — and even such unlikely products as cosmetics and vacation tours. Few people have studied or thought more about authenticity, both as a tangible attribute and as a social construct, than Glenn R. Carroll, the Laurence W. Lane Professor of Organizations at Stanford Graduate School of Business. We talked
to him recently about how authenticity
is created, how it’s defined, and why
consumers are increasingly drawn to it.
When did the concept of selling
authenticity start? It’s only been in the
last 20 or 30 years that the idea has gained
purchase. Of course, the idea of using
authenticity to sell something is kind of
self-contradictory and ironic, because the
whole point of being authentic is not being
strategic but instead behaving in a way
consistent with true underlying identity
If you think of it in terms of a human
characteristic, anyone who is truly
authentic never draws attention to it.
That’s right. In fact, we have a paper in the
works now that shows that restaurants
that explicitly claim to be authentic on
their menu or in their advertising in fact
suffer penalties. So if you’re perceived
as authentic, it’s good for you — but only if
others say it about you. You, yourself, you
almost need to disown it.
Which presents a dilemma if you know
it’s going to be good for business. Not
necessarily. It’s just revealing who you are
and what you are — your identity — and
making that transparent. And to the extent
that the authenticity in a brand is simply
about transparency of your true identity,
then it doesn’t have to be contradictory.
Photographs by Jason Henry
Glenn Carroll is the Laurence W.
Lane Professor of Organizations and
senior associate dean for academic
affairs at Stanford GSB.
Sells — but Only
if You Don’t
A professor deconstructs the origins
and future of “authentic” branding.
BY STEVE HAWK