Authenticity is not what you think it is!


Authenticity, that has something to do with spelt bread, organic food and vintage furniture. Has it not? In a recent piece in the New Statesman Steven Poole asks: Why are we so obsessed with the pursuit of authenticity? At Stagis we find such questions exhilarating since we advice organization on how to adapt and thrive in a society driven by the pursuit of authenticity. But I believe recent debates on authenticity have been quite myopic, and in particular Mr. Poole has a narrow understanding of the concept of authenticity.

Often enough, debates by Steven Poole, Andrew Potter and others, on authenticity are about why and how modern consumers suddenly prefer organic foods to conventional ones. Or why people are suddenly flocking to buy responsible and environmentally friendly Starbucks coffee. Sure enough, Mr. Poole also tends to believe that authenticity has to do with certain shallow forms of consumer trends:

”Modern mass-media gluttony, or foodism, has its own cluster of presumed “authentic” virtues. The idea of “real” food is sometimes parsed, adorably, as food with no chemicals, though all food is made of chemicals.”

Now, ‘authentic’ consumer trends are all fine and interesting phenomena in their own right, but what I am arguing is that these consumers’ trends are only symptoms of an underlying movement into the ‘meaning-society’. Or what Charles Taylor has called ‘a culture of authenticity’:

“I mean the understanding of life [whereby] each one of us has his or her own way of realizing our humanity, and that it is important to find and live out one’s own, as against surrendering to conformity with a model imposed on us from the outside, by society, or the previous generation, or religious or political authority.”

At Stagis we are exactly helping businesses navigate in the culture of authenticity, a meaning-society, which demands of companies that they develop authentic identities, or as Polonius says in Hamlet: “To thine own self be true”! Authenticity is thus about how persons and organizations finds their own inner strengths and turns them into a competitive advantage, in order not to surrender to market conformity or blind competition over price.

In our perspective authenticity is not simply about storytelling and biodynamic goods, but about creating coherence between three distinct dimensions of identity: Heritage, Vision and Expression.

All persons and organizations have a history (heritage), beliefs and goals concerning the organization (vision) and the surroundings have an image of the organization (the expression), which together constitutes the identity. And only by developing all three dimensions can companies create a lasting authentic identity that consumers find meaningful.

Interestingly, there are many signs of authenticity one could point to, covered in great detail by Charles Taylors, but one surprising indirect clue is Googles Ngram viewer: As Steven Poole also notes, Google Ngram shows how the use of ’authenticity’ increases in English literature from 1920, which is also the year where the usage if ‘authenticity’ reaches its all time lowest.

Poole believes it “parallels the rise to ubiquity of digital creative technologies”, whereas I personally see the rising pursuit of authenticity from 1920 onwards as a response to the meaningless carnage of WWI. Likewise, in the marketplace blind price competition creates alienated customers who seek towards more meaningful companies with a coherent authentic identity and products, such as Noma or Lego. Thus, authenticity in a business perspective is about turning the organizations inner strengths into the future growth strategy of the company.

So authenticity might after all not be what you think it is….