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From Tesco to hipsters: what’s authentic anyway?

 

I recently found myself at a county fayre. Amidst the bleating lambs (cute) and eager marketeers (scary), pleading with me to sign up to Tractor Weekly (misjudged), I soon realised that I was a little out of place.

Sure I love the countryside, the skipping through fields, the horses in fields, the drinking wine in fields. But lo and behold, this was the real countryside, where heavy machinery and ruddy cheeks ruled the day. And it made me feel like a country faker.

This was a no holds barred, sanitised version of the countryside.

Until I stepped into Tesco’s stand. Here I found wooden panelled walls, with photos of hearty, hands dirty farmers peering down on me; little cups of organic yoghurt passed around by smiling, apron-clad Tesco tribesmen and women; children’s drawings of farm animals grazing in picketed fields, and the scent of 28-day aged pan-fried steak wafting in the air. This was a no holds barred, sanitised version of the countryside, that had taken all of the best elements and distilled them into a customer experience that was almost better than the real thing. And against every ounce of my moral judgement, I liked it.

The fact I liked it made me feel slightly uncomfortable. Among the thousands of genuine cottage industry stalls, family businesses and one-man bands promoting their wares, I’d stumbled into a business giant’s attempt to be authentic. And quite frankly, they’d nailed it.

This got me thinking about one of the fundamental questions of contemporary human experience: What is authenticity?

Now that every Tom, Dick and Pizza Hut are serving drinks in jam jars, and the term ‘artisanal’ pops up everywhere from Burger King to Starbucks, how do you make sure your brand resonates in a ‘real’ way?

For this, we have to go over the pond to Disneyland, and listen to the noble words of the high priest of post-modernism, Jean Baudrillard. The famous cultural theorist once boldly claimed, (and it’s one of the main things I remember from university), that Disneyland was more real than reality.

 

With its human-sized mice walking around wearing trousers, and human-sized ducks wearing, well, no trousers, (if you’re going to humanise them, at least be consistent), you could be excused for thinking he’d had one too many espressos. Boiled to its bones, Baudrillard wanted us to consider what he dubbed as ‘hyper-reality’.

This hyper-reality is constructed by distilling an experience to its essence, so that it becomes bolder and more real than the original experience.

 

Disneyland is a perfect example of this ‘hyper-real’ world. An environment where everyone walking through its gates knows it’s a representation of an unreal world, and accepts it as such. A place where everything is constructed for pleasure. Like the Tesco stand I found myself in. I knew perfectly well that none of it was real, (I mean they had astro turf, c’mon), but through its careful representation of the more appealing parts of the countryside, they’d created an experience that felt close to the reality of rambling through cow pats.

This hyper-reality is constructed by distilling an experience to its essence, so that it becomes bolder and more real than the original experience. It’s often said of Baudrillard’s theory, that his is a tool that brings our own imaginations and fiction to what we call reality, “concealing the fact that the real is no longer real”. Heavy stuff.

So if authenticity is just a mere concoction of nostalgia and representation, with brands donning rose-tinted glasses to re-view (and review) the truth of experience, can anything ever be authentic? Like hipsters whose faux vintage style conjures a strange version of the past that never really existed.

But standing in those wooden-clad aisles, torn by my desire to stay and sample the ‘farm-fresh produce’, and knowing I should really be heading to the Mom ‘n’ Pop stand selling broccoli next door, I realised something. No matter how big or clever your brand or business is, no matter how much money you can pump into your activity and events, and regardless of how much organic yoghurt you throw at the public, being true to who you are is the only way people will really connect with you.

Authenticity is about every ounce of the customer experience.

That’s why some attempts at authenticity just don’t work. That’s why people call brands out when they do something that stands at odds with their projected values – because they haven’t thought about the small things, like where their produce is from, or how their automated robots call you on the phone when they claim to be small.

Authenticity is about every ounce of the customer experience. From the first touch point, down to the very last tweet. Whether you’re a multi-million-pound business, or a one-man band, layering the customer experience with a genuine sense of your brand’s personality is the key to making those connections that count.

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