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Issue 30 - Authentics

Ever since we passed through that confusing fug called postmodernism, at the end of the last century, authenticity appears to have been something of a watchword.

The postmodern view – if I understood it, and there’s a good chance I didn’t – seemed to be that we live in a world of fakery; that there is nothing ‘real’ underlying it all. This gave rise to some fantastic cultural writing. I particularly enjoyed Umberto Eco’s Travels in Hyperreality. Eco’s main idea in this essay was that America could be summarised by two values: ‘more’ and ‘the real thing’, and he set off on a journey to discover cultural artefacts advertised as ‘better than the real thing’. One was a three-waxwork reconstruction of the famous Last Supper painting!

Generally, despite its universal cynicism, postmodernism was playful to the point of carnivalesque, inverting reality and looking at it from fresh angles. For example, Eco claimed that ‘Disneyland exists to make the rest of America look real’. Exponents of postmodernism had a uniquely brilliant line in puns: The Postmodernist Always Rings Twice, a book title, being representative of the genre. Overall, you could say that postmodernism was a way of looking at the world and finding it all to be a bit like living in a movie.

Not everyone got caught up in this pick-and-mix tomfoolery. Most of the rest of us normal folk seemed rather to wish that the world was real, grounded and had some traditional authority – in a word, that it was authentic. Hence in the 1990s, despite Eco’s and others’ efforts, we bought into the classic marketing proposition of The Real Thing (originally a slogan for Coca-Cola) with renewed vigour, buying into brands such as Levi’s, Becks, Timberland. Stuff that was ‘from somewhere’ – had a bit of heritage, hung together and knew itself.

The quest for authenticity continues. But in a kind of arms race of media literacy, most of us know all too well that brands that claim to be authentic – like Stella Artois with its Manon Des Sources-style adverts – are especially fake. Instead, we seem to find authenticity either in underlying values or in ethical commitments: ‘organic’, for example. Or in the currency and consensus ­– Apple strikes us as an authentic brand – of the way things are done these days. Or a haphazard, ‘you couldn’t make it up’ kind of opaqueness.

I said pretty much all of this in my first book The New Marketing Manifesto in 1999. And to some extent, the burning quest for authenticity (and its counterpart in postmodern confusion) has lessened, I suspect. What has changed most is the degree of transparency – we are judging things more on information, less on image. But while these themes aren’t new, there has been a subtle shift where you can now discern a number of types, from authenticity to authenticities.

I have been puzzling about this recently, listening to diverse speeches at the IBM Start conference, finding all of them authentic in their own way but with very contrasting styles of authenticity. This leaves the audience just as confused, but in a new way.

It’s far from fully worked out, but here’s a sketch of what I mean:

The Idealist: a person, vision or brand with an image of a better future; enthusing, evangelical, inspiring.

The Realist: one who sets most store on being au fait with how things will really play out, the facts behind all the hype.

The Traditionalist: a person, programme or brand with the clout of a long-standing tradition – or one that has been around a bit.

The Modernist: one with currency, up with the times.

The Expert: one who wields the authority of science, or empirical knowledge or similar.

The Everyman: one who speaks for the majority, has a following, is in every sense of the word ‘popular’.

In the environmental innovation space, my current interest is going beyond Idealism (we should all go green) or Realism (carrying on with business as usual) to a third position I call Readyism – preparing for the worst while working for better.

Meanwhile, the one thing I would say about all these, and many other sorts of authenticity, is that they seem to share a view that they are ‘the one and only’. So that at the conference I mentioned, the Idealist speaker contrasted his approach with a world of mediocrity, timidity and dullness; whereas the truth is that they more often encounter realists – the Treasury Official, the Finance Director or the Trade Buyer who simply doesn’t think that what’s proposed is realistic. Or the Expert, who claims that all before them and their school of thought were in error, vulnerable to the shifting consensus of what are ‘popular subjects’.

Ultimately we all have to find our own way to the Greek adage ‘to thine own self be true’, to our authenticity. Sublime is a magazine stuffed full of wonderfully contrasting authentic voices, concerned with everything from peak oil to platform shoes. But having gained a degree of authenticity in any which way (and few do), we are then confronted with the task of integrating the opposite view, and finding common ground.

And that has bedevilled the sustainability space over recent years; we all agree on the problems, but have such conflicting ideas and thought styles when it comes to solutions. Not that there has to be one answer, but somehow we do need to work together. Or is that just my Cooperative type speaking?

Come back, postmodernism – all is forgiven.

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