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The authenticity of brands and self

Jane Priest, Teaching Fellow

Faculty Blog

Half a year has passed since I properly began work on my  PhD at  Edinburgh Business School so this seemed like a good time to reflect on progress and share some insights. I have written a substantial part of my literature review and so far I’ve focussed on exploring ideas about identity and self-concept within consumer culture theory, specifically in the context of new mothers.

Numerous theories on identity and the self exist and consumer researchers have been particularly influenced by the thinking of both sociologists and psychologists. A big task then, for me, was navigating this literature and knowing where to draw boundaries. Interesting concepts kept surfacing and it was tempting to get drawn into related, but separate debates. For example, the concept of authenticity interests me but so far I have only treated it lightly.

Why did this concept capture my attention? Probably because it is so widely referred to in marketing these days. Authenticity has been a marketing buzzword for quite a few years now (see, for example,  www.trendwatching.com) and brands are even ranked by their authenticity (see, for example,  http://authentic100.com/).

But what does authenticity mean in marketing? Is it only about communications, for example, the common practice of using ‘real’ people in ads, or on the flip side, being sincere about a firm’s purpose: to sell things? Or is authenticity more about strategic decisions to do with segmentation, targeting and positioning, or even business strategy, corporate values and identity?

What particularly interests me, is what authenticity means for consumers and their sense of identity. Considerable debate exists around the authenticity of self (for a discussion from a sociological perspective, see for example, Vannini and Franzese (2008). An interesting debate  highlighted by Vannini and Franzese explores if authenticity is about acting ‘true to yourself’ and what your ‘true self’ is. Is it your ‘actual self’, or is it what you strive for, how you wish to be, or in other words, your ‘ideal self’?

Understanding how target customers think about themselves and what it means to be authentic could help position brands. For instance, do you need to be making ‘realistic’ or ‘aspirational’ appeals to be most relevant to your customers?

What do you think? Can brands really be authentic, and how? What does authenticity mean for you?