Couchsurfing, AirBnB, User-Generated Brands and Authenticity

This article looks at UGBs (User-Generated Brands) and how those brand identities are created. UGBs are also known in the academic business as “co-production” business models: where customers produce the product along with or for the firm. With AirBnB and Couchsurfing (just like with YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and other such sites), customers create as well as consume the inventory. Their engagement is key to the business model, and therefore one can argue they are also co-creating the brand as well. This is the claim of our article for this post “User-Generated Brands and Social Media: Couchsurfing and AirBnb” by Natalia Yannopoulou, Mona Moufahim, Xuemei Bian in Contemporary Management Research.

Yannopoulou and her colleagues use discursive and thematic analysis to examine the brand identity of Couchsurfing and AirBnB. Specifically how their brand identity is co-produced by their customers. Discursive analysis examines the use of language (in this case visual and written language) to discover themes that comprise the brand identity of these two companies. Authenticity was found to be one of the themes in these brands, and likely in other UGBs.

360da
Objective: Although the potential for fraud is high on these web site, Couchsurfing and AirBnB take steps to mitigate that risk. Use of high quality photographs, user testimonials and ratings, and (in AirBnB’s case) an “insurance” plan, attempt to mitigate perceived risks in using the service. Admittedly, Yannopoulou doesn’t address objective authenticity that much in this paper, mainly because they are looking more at brand identity rather than product.

Constructive: The challenge of opening up your private space to a stranger (whether for exchange or profit) is met by fostering the consumer collective as one of reciprocity and friendship. This also constructs the brand as warm, friendly and welcoming. This is augmented by offline meetings when they occur. The more satisfying the offline encounters are, the more the brand identity is enhanced for creating them. The growing exchange and sharing economy is based on the idea that trust within a collective is possible. These sites use tokens to attempt to ensure that level of trust, such as peer reviews, photos and user ratings.

Commercial: There are two questions with commercial authenticity: are you what you say you are and are you true to yourself? When the content of a business is shaped by their customers, ensuring accurate customer representation is important. Both services do that to the extent possible in such a service. The communications on the web site are written in “talking” style, encouraging a feeling of intimacy and informality. The former addresses the first question; the latter attempts to address the second. Both seem to be challenges well met in the analysis.

Existential: In this we are striving for consistency, so customers know what to expect. At the same time, a sense of agency should not be interfered with; imperfections and quirky details create the impression of uniqueness and humanity within the consistent whole. Conventional travelers stay at hotels. The experience these UGBs offer are not only more cost effective. They have the potential to be considered premium experiences because they allow a traveler to embed themselves as locals in another location. The promise of this kind of existentially authentic experience is one of the brand positions of the UGBs. The variety of contributions from their users contribute to it in an authentic way, through their thousands of individuals stories, testimonials, offers, information and photos.

Take Away
Overall, this article makes a contribution to marketing and tourism more than management. Its place in this journal may mean it is overlooked by some in the marketing and tourism communities, which would be a shame. The analysis of how customers co-create brand identities through co-producing content and inventory for business is an enlightening one. There are more and more businesses competing for that space on the internet. The ability to draw premium content from customers enhances the ability to draw customers to consume that content. With UGBs, content is king.

The key authenticity issue for this type of UGB, however, always remains with ensuring objective authenticity. Are individuals offering the kind of accommodation they claim to be offering? Are the photos accurate? The element of risk with these web sites is perceived to be higher than the element of risk involved in traditional accommodation options. Sites like these are doing all they can to mitigate that risk in the exchange and sharing economies being developed by these web sites.

Advertisements

Authenticity in a Terrible Tweet

Generally these posts will be about articles on authenticity. However, an incident occurred on Twitter recently that is just crying out for authenticity analysis.

The Incident
Geoffrey Miller, a tenured professor in the USA, recently tweeted to prospective PhD students “Dear obese PhD applicants: If you don’t have the willpower to stop eating carbs, you won’t have the willpower to do a dissertation #truth“. Predictably, the internet world freaked out. Miller then did a few things:

First, he deleted the tweet.

Then he apologised.

Then, when the scrutiny did not abate, he claimed the tweet was part of a research project. However neither of the institutions he works for indicated he had applied for ethics for such a project. This meant that either he was conducting research not sanctioned by his institutions (unlikely) or he was making that up as an excuse (lying, in other words).

Then a completely unrelated study found that if you are obese, especially if you are a woman, you are less likely to be selected for postgraduate study, due to a bias on behalf of those performing candidate selection.

For those of us interested in authenticity, this is an interesting situation. I don’t know Miller, but I am guessing his tweet was authentic. I believe him when he indicated that opinion, and there is no evidence to the contrary. In fact, in his apology, he apologised for saying it–not for thinking it.

Moreover, the subsequent study demonstrated that not only is Miller authentic about his own opinion, he likely gave voice to opinions held by others (at least on some PhD admissions boards).

So was authenticity s good thing in this case?

The case analysed through 360da
Let’s run through this case quickly on a 360da grid:

Objective: Miller tweeted his own opinion under his own name, and represented himself accurately as far as we can see.

Constructive: Miller did not take into account the number of people who would see and then react to his tweet. If this isn’t the reaction he was looking for (and it doesn’t seem to be) then he made a serious misstep. However, the message was authentic, he was authentic when he was saying it and…the audience received it in an authentic way. So his authenticity on this note was 100%; the wrong note was his expectation that people agree with him.

Commercial: Miller was true to himself. Although his tweet didn’t do much for him from a public relations perspective; he knows who he is and potentially just attracted a whole bunch of carb-hating prospective grad students his way.

Existential: His inauthentic move was to apologise and delete the tweet; he would have seemed like a more authentic person if he admitted it was badly worded but it was his perspective as an evolutionary psychologist (and then provided research demonstrating his reasons for thinking it). Instead he was forced by social forces to retract his comment. Giving in to those forces is an inauthentic move.

The verdict
Miller said what he genuinely thought; then tried to backtrack which came across as grossly inauthentic. Then it was revealed that others share his view–they just don’t talk about it (they might not even be aware they share his view). Transparency is a big part of authenticity, so Miller gets points for that.

What is interesting about this case is that his authenticity is, to many, socially repulsive. It is not socially acceptable in a lot of cultures to declare that fat people are less worthy of something than thin people. So although his comments are authentic, this case doesn’t make many look on Miller more positively.

The institutions he represents attempt to maintain the perception of an intellectual meritocracy: where students earn their place through academic rigour. Not eating carbs is not considered academic rigour. And although Miller might have a large say in who ends up being his students, his institution does too. So his perspective as a staff member of a university was not authentic to his employer. And it angered them.

Moreover, rather than put forward the scientific evidence to support his view, he backtracked. This will have lost those (silent) people out there that agree with his point of view. It also made him come across as someone who uses his academic credentials to give his opinion, rather than take an evidence-based approach to his views.

The take away
First, and most obviously, understand the medium one uses to broadcast a message. There is a cautionary tale here for those of us who forget that the internet=the whole world. The whole world=people who don’t agree with you.

Secondly, be prepared to support your view authentically, especially if it is a controversial view.

Thirdly, if you represent an organisation when you say something, that organisation pays you and you wish to continue to be paid, it is important to take into consideration the way that organisation sees itself and wishes to have the public see it.

From a marketing perspective, it is OK to be controversial. It is one of the ways that we make our product/brand stand out. However, doing it strategically, authentically and unapologetically is an approach that Miller, and the rest of us, can learn from.

Authenticity Matters

I couldn’t find an article with a better title to kick off this first blog post.

Authenticity Matters” is an essay published in the Annals of Tourism Research in 2006*. It was written in response to another excellent article published in the same journal.

This article is a bit heavy on the scholarly theory. As the goal of this blog is to be accessible to everyone, I will not belabour or restate the many points of this article here. Rather, I will focus on the main take-away form this article from my perspective.

Take-Away
This article reinforces the position of previous articles: namely that the definition of authenticity (specifically objective authenticity) is in flux. Some researchers are saying that  this is problematic and therefore the term should stop being used. If there is not unanimous consensus on the definition of a word, if it continues to be used then someone is always using it wrong. Plus they argue (based on reasons stemming from philosophy) that it probably is not a valid concept anyway.

“Authenticity Matters” is an essay written in response to the above position. Hang on, it says, we cannot agree on a meaning; however that does not mean we should stop using the term objective authenticity. On the contrary, the discussions that arise while contemplating the term has value. Why shut those discussions down? Plus, people in industry (firms, customers, marketers) all use that word. So not discussing it will stifle our opportunity to shape what the word means beyond the scholarly realm**.

Applying the idea to 360da
So there is value in the term “objective authenticity”, and there is value in being part of the discourse shaping the meaning of the word. Authenticity, like most words in any living language, is subject to change based on how the majority of speakers use it. I acknowledge that it is problematic. I also acknowledge that I like discussing how problematic it is with other people. I like thinking that I might win them over to my definition and then my definition becomes the main one. Or maybe they will win me over and I will learn something. I acknowledge this does not seem like the best was to “do” science. But that is kind of how science is done.

Objective Authenticity is a cornerstone of 360da as per Wang’s killer 1999 article. We just have to use it carefully. That means when you are using it, explain what you mean.

An illustrative anecdote
I watch the TV show Catfish. I partly watch it because I like the hosts, Nev and Max and their interaction with each other. I love Max’s cynicism and Nev’s idealism. I also watch it because I have been with my husband since 1995, and therefore never internet dated, much less social-media dated. I watch with horror and delight.

On Catfish, people write in and request that Nev and Max bring them together with someone they have been dating (usually for years) who they have never met in person. All dates are over  Facebook, texting, the phone and other non-video technologies. The person writing in is thinking that the person they are dating is not what they seem (although they  hope they are what they seem).

Usually what happens is that the person who is evasive about meeting is not objectively authentic (although they may be authentic in other ways). Someone who is says they are playboy playmate online turns out not to be one. Boys turn out to be girls and so on. The climax of Catfish is the unmasking. Are you who you say you are? 

Not being the person you claim to be in your photos and bio is a deal breaker (romantically) on the show even if every other aspect of your relationship is authentic. For me, that is what objective authenticity is. On Catfish, as in marketing, lying about who you are is a dealbreaker.

(Objective) authenticity matters.

* Belhassen, Y., & Caton, K. (2006). Authenticity Matters. Annals of Tourism Research, 33(3), 853-856.

** I do not use the term “in the real world”. Why I don’t use that term will be explained in a blog post to come.