The Real Deal

Why authenticity matters and how to avoid looking like a fake

by Kate Pavao, February 2008

In their book Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want, B. Joseph Pine II and coauthor James H. Gilmore talk about people's growing desire for real experiences. Pine discusses Authenticity'and authenticity'with Profit.

PROFIT: Where did the idea for this book come from?

PINE: Authenticity is an outgrowth of our previous work, The Experience Economy. In that book, we show that people today want experiences—memorable events that engage them in a personal way. Through our research and work with clients [at Strategic Horizons LLP, the firm Pine cofounded with Gilmore], we realized that as life becomes a paid-for experience, people increasingly question what is real. People no longer accept the fake from the phony. They want the real from the genuine.

PROFIT: What does being "true to your own self" mean?

PINE: You have to know your identity. You have to be sure that the decisions you make flow from who you are. This includes new offerings, new markets, and ways that you position yourself in the market. Companies need to pay particular attention to their heritage, because the easiest way to be perceived as being untrue to self is to do things that are antithetical to your heritage.

Look at Disney's California Adventure. It has not worked effectively, mostly because it's inauthentic Disney. Disney is about creating wonderful fantasy environments based on fairy tales in particular, or on the fertile mind of Walt Disney and his followers. California Adventure takes on a real place—it's not a magic kingdom, it's a Hollywood kingdom. So what is Disney doing now? They are saying, let's view California not as this state on the West Coast but through the eyes of Walt Disney himself, who moved there from Kansas City to ply his trade. This is where Mickey Mouse became a success, where Disney built this experience empire. And now you have authentic Disney.

PROFIT: Can you define "being who you say you are to others"?

PINE: This is not about your identity but how you represent that identity. If you represent yourself falsely, if you say things in the marketplace—whether through your advertising, your naming conventions, your packaging, or your public statements—that do not match the reality people encounter with you, then that's the easiest way to be perceived as phony.

PROFIT: What are companies trying to achieve when they use words like real and authentic on their packaging?

PINE: This shows that companies recognize this need for authenticity—or recognize that consumers have this need. But that's not the way to go about it. You don't want to proclaim yourself as authentic. You want to be perceived as authentic.

Getting Real

How can companies become more authentic? Start by understanding who you really are and how you represent yourself, says B. Joseph Pine II, coauthor of Authenticity. Then examine the five genres of authenticity:

Natural authenticity. "Things that are in or of the earth . . . that aren't artificial or synthetic." Think: organic food.

Original authenticity. "Anything that possesses originality in design." Think: Apple's iPods and iPhones.

Exceptional authenticity. "Anything that's executed—particularly individually—for you by someone demonstrating human care that is not disingenuously performed." Think: Nordstrom's legendary service.

Referential authenticity. "Something that refers to something else that is authentic." Think: World War II video games like Call of Duty 2.

Influential authenticity. "Anything that exerts influence on other entities, calling us to a higher goal or providing a foretaste of a better way." Think: phrases that seem to promise a better world, such as "conflict-free diamond" or "free-range chicken."

Kate Pavao is a freelance writer based in California.
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