GDI: True authenticity and how it is communicated

GDI: True authenticity and how it is communicated

Media release, 25 June 2008
GDI Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute:
True authenticity and how it is communicated

Why is everyone suddenly so interested in authenticity? What does "authentic" actually mean? And how can it be translated into sales? The Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute (GDI) addressed these questions at its sold-out 5th European Marketing and Sales Conference in early June. And it came up with some paradoxical answers.

Harrods would not necessarily be the first port of call for anyone interested in seeing country life. But the exclusive London department store recently showed a live transmission from the henhouse in which the eggs displayed on its shelves were produced. Egg packaging in Sweden is now also labelled with the farmer's photo and phone number. And anyone buying Timberland products also buys into total transparency in the form of a label providing information on where exactly a shoe has been produced, by whom, under what conditions and what its impact is on the environment.

The trend is clear: customers are experiencing a growing nostalgia for authenticity. Harrods, the Swedish egg producers and Timberland are only three of the countless providers that have identified this trend. Advertisers are competing to put across their authenticity claims, which range from "Echt Schweiz – echt gut" [Really Swiss – really good] (from baked-goods producer Midor) to "Milch. Echt stark!" [Milk. Really great] (Swiss milk-producers organisation), "Echt Kabel eins" [Really Kabel eins (German TV channel)] and "Echt bergfrisch." [Really mountain fresh] (Elmer Citro lemonade) to "Echt – Gut – Norddeutsch" ([Real – Good – North German] (Haake-Beck beer) or "Nur echt mit den drei Nonnen" [Real only with the three nuns](Klosterfrau Melissengeist, a beverage bearing the three-nuns logo). Everything has to be real now.

Not surprisingly, the advertising industry's highest award in 2007, the Cannes Film "Grand Prix" went to a commercial made for the Unilever-owned cosmetics producer Dove, which featured real-life, "ordinary" women. (The protests were then all the louder a few weeks ago when photos for another Dove campaign were assumed to have been touched up.)

Fetish for the "real thing"
"We're experiencing how a fetish is being made of the real thing", said David Bosshart, CEO of the Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute (GDI), at the 5th European Marketing and Sales Conference held early in June. "People want sensuality, they want to see, hear, smell and taste things that are 'real'." They have had enough of this over-deodorised world, where anything natural is blotted out. Even bad breath, he went on, is suddenly OK.

But the nostalgia for authenticity is going beyond consumer goods – it already has the whole of society in its grip. As an example, David Bosshart mentioned the current enthusiasm for the nude-filled landscapes of photographer Spencer Tunick (last winter on Switzerland's Aletsch Glacier, for instance). Or the fact that musicians and writers are increasingly earning their living from the intimate immediacy of live events rather than from selling books or CDs. Yes, even the eco-wave that is currently crashing over the Western World is an expression of this desire for authenticity.

Between bullshit and authenticity
The GDI conference showed very clearly that the perceptions of what constitutes "authenticity" are as numerous as the examples of what it is. It all started in 2003 with a book entitled "Authenticity. Brands, Fakes, Spin and the Lust for Real Life" in which the British business writer David Boyle listed ten different attributes. Those most often referred to at the conference were "credible", "genuine», "traditional", "sustainable", "high-value", "natural", "original" and "real". As David Bosshart emphasized, the cultural context can extend the meaning of something. In Asia, for instance, exact copies are considered a sign of respect towards the original, while in Western Europe they are treated as infringements of property laws.

The problem is that a product with so many meanings will soon have no meaning at all – that was also made clear at the conference. Authenticity risks becoming its own natural adversary by turning into "bullshit", the term US philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt uses for empty, meaningless talk. Deprived of its meaning, the concept lends itself as a tool and a surface on which to project all sorts of intentions. It is no wonder, then, that "authenticity" is becoming the favoured catchword of anyone with anything to sell, or that "real" and "fake" suddenly have intermediate grades such as "fake real" and "real fake" – and even "hyperfake".

Practical experience has yielded the "Polonius test" of US authors James H. Gilmore and B. Joseph Pine II ("Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want"), which draws on lines spoken by a character in "Hamlet". According to this test, everybody should, above all, be aware of what they, their company and their products really are. This is about looking inwards, about self-perception. Secondly, in all their claims, whether in advertising or on packaging, everybody should be what they say they are. This is about looking outwards and about the importance of trustworthiness and honesty in this regard. As keynote speaker at the 5th European Marketing and Sales Conference, James Gilmore explained what, traditionally, was not regarded as authentic: anything made by man, machine or money.

The longing for the rare
At this point David Bosshart added that what was authentic was not "made", it had "become", and was therefore unique. "People desire what is rare", Bosshart stated, which also explains the growing importance of authenticity. Today, a whole generation of "screenagers" experience reality above all from the screens of their TVs, computers and mobile phones. Ultra-rich Americans have already started demanding proper discussions – because they have largely been fed a diet of bullshit. According to Bosshart, the longing for authenticity embodies people's desire for direction in an increasingly unfathomable world.

For mistrust is indeed growing, as the head of research at the GDI, Karin Frick, showed at the conference on the basis of her study entitled "Trust 2.0". Consumers are least likely to trust providers and their advertising, and the traditional mass media. In the past, consumers took the advice of friends, acquaintances and family members – in other words, personal recommendations. They later came to rely increasingly on the product recommendations of marketing. Nowadays, Frick went on, there is a shift to "social" recommendations based on the experience of people with similar user behaviour and preferences. For providers, the loss of trust means that they are compelled to engage in feedback and dialogue, for instance via their websites. After all, trust is created on a foundation of positive experience.

Thus, consumers are gradually freeing themselves from traditional information channels and are becoming networked. Fetching second and third opinions from websites such as the holiday platform, holidaycheck.com, before making a purchase decision will soon become standard procedure. At the conference, Hakan Öktem, CEO of holidaycheck.com, underlined the importance of transparency: "If a customer does not trust a reviewer, he can check what the latter has written about other hotels."

And researcher Paula Payton from the Oxford Institute of Retail Management added in her presentation that accountability and responsibility, as well as transparency, were becoming increasingly important for retailers, with consumers increasingly taking companies up on their promises.

Moments in time in the landscape of consumer wishes
At the 5th European Marketing and Sales Conference, consumption expert Simonetta Carbonaro explained how it came to these feelings of mistrust and weariness in the first place. She argued in terms of cultural history, claiming that present-day consumers have a broken identity. The horrors of the two World Wars broke "the titanic self-confidence of modern man", and the subsequent Cold War undermined his unstable identity even further, marking the beginning of the "post-modern" age, a new era associated with an explosion of individuality.

According to Carbonaro, increasingly fragile and fragmented views of the world have led to a shift in marketing, moving away from a focus on customers' needs towards a fixation on their desires, from a benefit-based economy to one of added value. Symbolic and immaterial values have, she claimed, become more important than the material and functional attributes of products and services: instead of "form follows function", we now have "form follows fiction".

As a result, the existing sociodemographic segmentation of target groups has had to be replaced by a psychographic classification based on living habits and behavioural patterns. This change marked the birth of lifestyle marketing, which neglected individual and collective value systems and by doing so, according to Carbonaro, ultimately failed to create stable customer segments, but only "moments in time in the landscape of consumer wishes". Consequently, the "already saturated market was flooded with regular waves of hyperdifferentiated products". Finding themselves at a loss, out of their depth and disappointed, customers walked away.

The homecoming of Ulysses
Even marketing experts had noticed that this "culture of excess" was not working, and therefore invented "experiential marketing" – brand experiences providing sensual and emotional added benefits for customers. According to Carbonaro, however, this approach is quickly exhausted and only serves to increase the distance from the customers. Carbonaro therefore advocates a paradigm shift. Providers must focus once more on customers' needs; specifically, their latent, not expressly formulated needs. But these needs can be identified only by those who actively study customers' interests and world-views – the forces and themes that characterise the spirit of the times.

According to Carbonaro, the last act in the odyssey of consumption has begun: the return of Ulysses to Ithaca. Just like Ulysses after his endless wanderings, today's consumers have a profound longing for authenticity, which, after many deceptions, disappointments and fleeting seductions, means "home" to them. This longing, Carbonaro claims, is not a short-term trend, but an expression of socio-cultural change.

Everything's staged
So staging has had its day – or so one would think. But James Gilmore takes a different view of this. The way our entire world looks today has been created by man and so authenticity is always "synthetic", man-made. Gilmore can now see the emergence of a fourth sector of the economy: the primary (agriculture), secondary (industry) and tertiary sectors (services) are being joined by a new sector in the "experience economy" that is concerned with the production of memorable events, i.e. it is creating authenticity. "What's not already authentic needs to be made authentic." But "never describe yourself as authentic", Gilmore warns, "or you'll lose your credibility immediately."

The Austrian dramaturge and advisor, Christian Mikunda, went a step further at the GDI conference. The world is an optical illusion, he claimed, and our attitude towards nature, for instance, has been largely shaped by 19th century painting. They way we perceive things is fragmented and the way we interpret them is always based on the 250,000 or so "scripts" of typical actions that are stored in our brains. Content is often deduced from external attributes – the packaging; we call this "inferential beliefs". Thus, spectacle-wearers were generally regarded as intelligent. The task of marketing, according to Mikunda, is thematisation, i.e. telling the right stories.

Storytelling continues to be successful, Mikunda went on, and rather than disappear it will become even more effective. As evidence, the expert cited various examples such as the New York flagship store of the clothing chain Abercrombie & Fitch, which is fitted out like a club. Or the jungle-like branches of outdoor clothing and equipment provider Globetrotter, where customers really do sometimes meet for a picnic. Then there is the store of the Austrian furnisher Blaha, where the realistic staging of chairs and desks enable visitors to play at being bosses.

A balancing act
Mikunda uses "mood management" to ensure that such stagings work. For instance, he used a large, heated stone as a shop counter in a bakery to make the rolls look even fresher. Other examples are the growing number of banks and insurers that are designing their lobbies to look like chill-out zones where customers can relax and feel at ease. Mikunda believes that this approach creates new "third places" – public spaces outside the home and workplace – where we can spend time and meet other people. Business are increasingly providing these "third places", which are comparable with the village square of earlier times or libraries. The coffee-shop chain Starbucks even goes so far as to claim that it is "the third place". Public attractions such as museums or trade fairs are also good examples of "third places", as are the lobbies and flagship stores already referred to.

For providers, the new nostalgia for authenticity means additional pressures. According to James Gilmore, the more the world is staged, the more consumers will base their decisions on perceptions of the real. It became obvious at the conference that today's marketing swindle is not exaggerations or lies, but the promise of something genuine. Providers are left with the paradox of authentic stagings – a balancing act between the customer's desire for the real and the compulsion to stage the genuine in an attractive way, especially since doing without staging is, in the final analysis, just another form of staging.

Who'll be the winners?
What offerings have the best chances under these more challenging conditions? Despite what we might think, it is not just the rare and the expensive. According to Simonetta Carbonaro, as informed market players, customers look on the one hand for the best standard products at the lowest prices. On the other, they are receptive to the inner values of products and brands if these correspond to their own attitude to life. They therefore favour the discount segment ("cheap chic") and that of the "excellent normal" since both, "with disarming authenticity", offer obviously good value for money. This authenticity, Carbonaro went on, gives them added value in the form of direction, reliability, meaning and assurance. On the other hand, consumers are increasingly avoiding the medium and premium segments.

Carbonaro is in no doubt: anything that does not offer added value, that cannot be associated with the need for transparency, integrity and purity, is perceived as artificial. As the sociologist Max Weber observed, consumption is a process of interpretation. Today, we are moving from a consumer culture of "having" to one of "being". We therefore buy things that correspond to our perception of ourselves.

Rustic – original - innovative
The Italian expert distinguishes between three categories of authentic products – or, perhaps more precisely, of "authentically staged products". The first is the rustic product such as pork from the German district of Schwäbisch-Hall or an Italian farmhouse ham.

Carbonaro's second category of authentic product comprises originals that take past traditions and re-interpret them in a contemporary way, without degenerating into backward-looking folklore. An example of this segment was provided on the GDI platform by Switzerland Tourism director Jürg Schmid, who feels that the Swiss are authentic on account of their combination of a rough edge and friendliness. Schmid is convinced that "we're liked on this account".

Simonetta Carbonaro's third category of authentic products is the innovative product that stands out for its originality. One such product is the successful German soft drink Bionade. Managing director Peter Kowalsky described his beverage at the conference as a "terribly honest" product. What counts, according to Kowalsky, is staying true to yourself.

There were two obvious conclusions to be drawn at the Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute's 5th European Marketing and Sales Conference. First, the consumers' nostalgia for authenticity is too strong for anyone to ignore. Second, authenticity is, in the final analysis, a fiction, a story. But it is a story that has to be properly told.

Additional information
Alain Egli
Manager PR & Communications
Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute
Phone: +41 44 724 61 11
Phone: +41 44 724 62 78 (direct)
Fax: +41 44 724 62 62
E-mail: alain.egli(at)gdi.ch