Forget fris. Do you want authenticity with that burger?

It seems the answer to the above question is “yes”. Mike Schallehn, Christoph Burmann and Nicola Riley just had an article published in the Journal of Product and Brand Management on Brand authenticity: Model development and empirical testing. Their study is fascinating because it attempts to do something that some in the authenticity world say can’t be done: measure authenticity, or at least its effects, empirically.

Empirical research is a way of testing a claim directly and objectively. Often this method uses numbers, or ways of measuring phenomena. The numbers are then analyzed to see if there are relationships, such as one thing causing another. The issue with authenticity in an empirical context is that authenticity, like lots of people-oriented things, is tough to measure. The authors of this paper turn to psychology, a discipline that does lots of human behaviour measurement, to give then a framework they can use to test out the relationship between brand authenticity and brand trust–particularly amongst the 600 Germans who participated in a survey about beer and fast food.

The Take Aways
This study is exploratory. There is no established method of testing authenticity, and the survey population, as well as the survey subject, is limited. However, the authors do find a relationships between brand trust (and more established empirical concept) and brand authenticity. They find that higher perceptions of one (authenticity) leads to another (trust). OK, that’s not surprising. But how did these researchers interpret authenticity? They looked at three constructs: consistency, continuity and uniqueness. Their summary of the results are as below:

The findings suggest that authenticity is perceived when a brand is consistent, continuous and individual in its behavior. Nevertheless, the empirical results indicate that the factor individuality has the lowest influence on perceived brand authenticity. This is an interesting finding, as being “unique” is commonly regarded as an important success factor in branding. Although the study´s findings confirm its relevancy, they relativize its importance: Being consistent, meaning that a brand fulfills its brand promise at every brand-touch point and being continuous, meaning that the brand promise reflects the essential core of the brand, are of major importance.

So making your brand unique is not as important as making it consistent and continuous if you are seeking to develop trust in the brand and therefore, as a consequence, a stronger customer attachment to the brand.

So what does that mean for the Unique Selling Proposition (USP)? A mainstay of marketing? This study seems to suggest that it is more important to, from a branding perspective, know who you are and be that thing than stand out from the crowd.

Food for thought.

 

 

 

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Sorry Salman Khan: celebrity contagions are not as valuable in India as they are in the USA

Objective authenticity relates to authenticity derived from the claims about an object being verifiable, for example, a pink Kimberley diamond from Western Australia or the red sequinned shoes worn by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz. Objective authenticity is the most straightforward of authenticity claims; but is it the most reliable cross culturally? An interesting recent article in PLOS ONE by Nathanial Gjersoe, George Newman, Vladimi Chituc and Bruce Hood asks this question, exploring the dimensions of objective authenticity across two cultures. In so doing, they draw an interesting boundary between objective authenticity and constructive authenticity.

Their article “Individualism and the Extended Self: Cross-Cultural Differences in the Valuation of Authentic Objects”, studies the valuation of authenticity across cultures. Specifically whether the effect of value attached to unique person (like a celebrity) has the same value in India as it does in the United States.

The Take Aways
This study demonstrates that the perceived value of an authentic object differs across cultures. The researchers investigated the perceived value of objects that were authentic because if their age (such as a dinosaur bone)  as opposed to objects that were authentic because of a contagion effect (such as an work by a famous artist or an article of clothing worn by a celebrity).

Their hypothesis is that individualistic cultures will value objects associated with unique persons more than non-individualistic cultures will. However both cultures will equally value authenticity not related to persons.

Their hypothesis is borne out in the study, where respondents from India and the USA were asked about the value tof objects that were authentic due to their intrinsic attributes (such as rarity and age) against objects that are authentic due to their extrinsic value (such as the people they may be associated with).

What they found was that intrinsic authenticity appealed to both cultures equally. However, authenticity associated with unique persons was more meaningful amongst the Americans than amongst the Indians. The authors claim that this is because of the cultural difference between India and the USA: the USA is a culture that values the individual more than India does. Although this may indeed be the reason, I have a sense that there may be many reasons why the results of this study turned out the way they did. However, this post is not about what the researchers claim they found; it is about something they did not address at all that their findings demonstrated.

Objective (and Constructive) Authenticity
Although this article is interesting in its own right, its by-product demonstrates something very important about the difference between objective and constructive authenticity: namely the boundary between an intrinsic authentic characteristic and an extrinsic one.

Objective authenticity is something that belongs to an object. It can be confirmed or refuted by an external body. Constructive authenticity is about the authenticity, and value, placed on an object from outside the object itself (as it is constructed by the individual). The value of a celebrity connection with a product experience is such a great way to test this. As it turns out, which celebrity connection one makes–along with the concept of a celebrity connection altogether–can vary depending on one’s individual values. It also varies based on the communal values and beliefs in of a particular culture. The Indian respondents simply did not value celebrity connection to an object, even when the celebrity was someone who is held in high esteem in their culture.

Literature on authenticity in marketing and leadership focuses primarily on the generator: the marketer, the leader, the firm trying to communicate authentically. Few studies have focused on the receivers’ participation in what the producer is trying to convey. Authenticity, and the value that arises from it, is not just about what the producer is doing. It is about what the consumer is prepared to receive.

One of the best movie scenes that illustrates this  from the Australian movie Priscilla Queen of the Desert, about three drag  queens trekking to a gig in Alice Springs. In the scene, Felicia (played by Guy Pearce) shows Bernadette (Terrance Stamp) her most prized possession in the world, an authentic souvenir from her idol: Agnetha of Abba fame. An explanation of what it is, and how its authenticity was verified by Felicia, both mystifies and horrifies Bernadette.

When marketers are expending resources crafting authentic experiences, one question they can sometimes fail to ask themselves is whether this kind of authenticity has value and if so how much? Like brand equity or price elasticity, the value placed on authenticity is not absolute and should be tested.

Buckle your seat belts. Is Authenticity an emotional vehicle with a bumpy ride?

The most recent issue of the Journal of Service Management features an article by Ruth Bolton, Anders Gustafsson, Janet McColl-Kennedy,  Nancy Sirianni and David  Tse proposing that businesses  look at the specific customer experience as a differentiation strategy. As they point out in “Small Details That Make Big Differences: A Radical Approach to Consumption Experience as a Firm’s Differentiating Strategy”, many businesses compete in the same space: similar products, prices, locations, experiences. When looking at process improvement, they often look at efficiency and effectiveness across the board.  Rather than doing that, Bolton et al suggest that they look at small differences that have an outsized effect on the customer experience.

Bolton uses an aged care home facility as an example. They installed an espresso machine in their wards in order to have each resident greeted in their room each morning with a high quality coffee of their choice. This small act has an outsized effect on customer perceptions of their experience; and therefore is an efficient and effective way of increasing customer satisfaction. Moreover these small differences can carve out a specific place in the market for a firm, and are tangible evidence of a greater value proposition (in this case about the care they take with their residents).

Is authenticity a differentiating strategy?
Bolton et al discuss authenticity specifically in terms of emotional engagement. They posit that a service can be efficient and effective; but without an emotional connection, customers will not develop an affinity to the brand. And that won’t happen without an authentically delivered emotional component, emotionally engaged and passionate staff, a “human touch”. Authenticity as a differentiator is not a new idea. The literature on authenticity, specifically from a service perspective is growing (and is, in fact, one of the reasons for this blog). From an evidentiary perspective, it is hard to quibble with Bolton et al.

There are  issues that arise out of authenticity’s role in what is otherwise an interesting and relevant article. First, authenticity is not a “small differentiator”. Unlike the other examples they cite in the article (the coffee), is a massive thing, which is difficult to implement. It may have an overall effect but that may be hard to measure.

Regardless of that, lets say that authenticity is achievable as a point of difference in the market. Let us assume that there are a growing number of firms putting authenticity, emotional engagement and delight on the customer agenda. Imagine customers are moving through their lives, gravitating their consumption experiences toward the emotionally engaging, favouring vendors who have energetic, passionate, caring,  staff. Ideally, this emotional labour  is factored into the cost of the service. Let us assume that firms can therefore link amount of “emotional taxation” in their service to revenue growth or market share.

A world such as this creates expectations. We know that people, whether at work, at home or on social media, are rewarded socially more for being happy than being human. This “positive bias” referred to in earlier blogs is the authenticity firms are looking for. After all, customer service agents, are not encouraged to be authentically grumpy are they? And yet, positive bias is antithetical to  authenticity. Authenticity is not the smooth run of a joyful customer journey. It is the bumpy ride of the different people in the process and their different personalities.

The challenge for workers to be authentic, but perfect and pleasant, is the elephant in the “authenticity room”. Although Bolton’s paper is not one about the broader assumptions and impacts of authentic emotional engagement in the transactional world, it does pose the question: Do we want a smooth manufactured one or a bumpy authentic one?

Ads in the Digital Age: Does more entertaining = more authentic?

Zhihong Gao , Hongxia Zhang & Sherry F. Li address some fascinating questions in their 2014 article “Consumer Attitudes Toward Advertising in the Digital Age: A China–United States Comparative Study” in the Journal of Current Issues & Research in Advertising. As they point out, advertising in the digital age is not just more pervasive than ever before; part of the digital advertising experience is not just about exposing your to messages, but is also about capturing your behaviour in order to more effectively sell to you in future.

Gao’s study asks some interesting questions. For example, in heavily regulated advertising environments, like China, do consumers feel advertising should be more heavily regulated? (They do.) In a society that has been consumerist for longer, like the USA, do they feel more strongly that advertising promotes materialism? (They do.)

Gao’s study also draws a connection between the entertainment value of advertising and the halo effect this has on the consumer’s view of the institution sas well as advertising in general:

“This study also found that positive beliefs toward advertising correlated with each other. Thus, a consumer entertained by advertisements may be more likely to see the institution as playing a positive role in other areas, which in turn helps generate a favorable attitude toward advertising in general. On the flip side, the same can be said about negative beliefs, which also correlated with each other in this study. Thus, a consumer who considers advertising as corrupting social values is also likely to find it false and intrusive.”

The study demonstrated that when advertising reaches saturation point it begins to have a negative effect on the consumer’s perception of advertising, and often associated institutions. The authors point to the dissatisfaction rating with Facebook, tied to its increased advertising presence and more pervasive data collection of its users.

The Take Aways
Why would entertaining advertising be somehow more acceptable than informational advertising? And why would the halo effect of making advertising content entertainment not only affect the institution but also affect advertising in general?

One of the reasons this is an important question is because advertising in the digital age goes beyond traditional broadcast content (like TV), search engine sponsorship (like Adwords) or banner ads.  Institutions, commercial and non-commercial alike are competing with each other for eyeballs across the internet by developing content they hope will go viral amongst their audience. an old standby  in traditional advertising is to make your ad so entertaining that people will watch it again and again; in the digital world that usually results in a viral ad: the gold standard of content creators everywhere.

Do viral ads lead to more sales? It worked for Blendtec, a blender company that, with their Will It Blend channel uses their product as a kind of postmodern form of entertainment. Although their blender sales did not increase at te same rate as their page views, they reported exponential sales in their product since the campaign commenced. But then it might not work for everyone, as there is no evidence that the cute and cuddly Budweiser Superbowl ads lead to more Bud consumption.

The ads that go viral for the right reasons (their entertainment value) do demonstrate their ability to resonate with us on an authentic level, cutting through the noise and jabber of ubiquitous advertising to speak to something in us. And they do this through understanding cultural cues that trigger genuine emotion. When we watch the puppy and horse in the Bud ad engage in an anthropomorphised relationship, we know that the connection is unlikely. We know that the horse is a Clydesdale, a totem of the Budweiser company.  But it pushes buttons in us that makes us want to see the puppy united with that horse over and over again.

Constructive Authenticity
Constructive authenticity is about using cultural codes to engender authentic communication of key messages. For Blendtec, who recently used their product to blend an iPhone 5 (destroying consumer electronics is a mainstay of their videos), the key message they are sending is that their blender is powerful. The way in which they send it is through a television mainstay tropes of game shows and mad scientist laboratories. They also gleefully destroy things, which has also been a broadcast television mainstay, often on late night TV. By combining these cultural tropes, they create a sense of entertainment, as well as nostalgia and authentic connections.

Millennials want (and don’t want) authenticity on Social Media

In the northern spring of this year, Linnaeus University Masters students Guia Tina Bertoncini and Maria Teresa Schmaltz published their study on the millennial generation and their perceptions on social media through various lenses.

The Take Aways
Called “What’s on your mind?”, the study included a survey  sample size of 264 people who claimed to be between the age of 18-31 in 2013, putting them solidly in the millennial generation. Ninety-nine percent of respondents indicated they had a prsence on Facebook. Respondents came from 85 universities in 37 countries. Although there were a variety of questions in this, here are the graphs relating to my favourites:

social-media-authenticity

A majority of the respondents indicated they felt that social media increases the chance to represent a distorted self-image to others. At the same time a majority of respondents indicate they represent “nothing but my authentic self” on social media.

A majority of respondents also indicated that they put both positive and negative aspects of of the “real me” forward to others (generally); which is interesting, as research has shown–especially on social media–that people tend to display more positive versions of themselves on social media, as this “positive bias” is what generates the most positive response from an online audience.

Although the survey sample and analysis is limited, it is interesting how the individuals in this survey perceive social media presences to be likely to be distorting for others, but not themselves.

The conclusion the authors come to is that “…it is questionable…whether millennials are aware that social media revolution is not only altering our minds by influencing our brains and behaviors but directly the way in which we young individuals develop our sense of self-esteem and identity (p.87).”

This is an issue not exclusive to the millennial generation; the experiences we have, and the expectations of others, do distort the way we see ourselves and others.

Existential and Constructive Authenticity
Whether the perception that we are more authentic than others can be attributed to the Actor-Observer effect or the Hawthorne Effect (or both); the fact is we change our behaviour when we are being watched. 

Constructive Authenticity is a dimension of authenticity that looks at authenticity in reference to the cultural context. On Facebook, there are expectations around appropriate behaviour. Acting in accordance with those rules is not inauthentic; in fact to act against those norms may be considered inauthentic (as though you were doing something to intentionally upset someone else). However, the argument that Bertoncini and Schmaltz seem to be making is that millennials are confusing their online personas with offline ones. Perhaps partly because people may be pressured to be as happy and gorgeous offline as they portray themselves to be in social media?

Existential Authenticity is a dimension of authenticity discussed in several posts on this blog. One aspect of existentialist philosophy is addressing the pressure we feel from others to be a certain way. Cultural programming is strong, and can create anxiety when our inner selves do not align with the outer selves we portray–and a main cause of that anxiety is the expectation of others. Certainly social media has become the root of much more anxiety than we have had in the past. Growing up with it, millennials have an almost inevitable draw to use social media, no matter how it makes them feel. 

This question around identity will inevitably spill out into what millennials perceive as authentic as well. Although marketers view every generation as a segment with their own specific attributes based on a variety of factors, perhaps it is time for marketers to attempt to quantify and analyse this type of “distortion” in regards to authenticity and the affect it has on the millennials’ perception of it.

Why does catfishing make some people feel good?

A recent (2014) paper by Leonard Reinecke and Sabine Trapte in the journal Computers in Human Behaviour indicates that authentic, positive social network interaction can enhance well-being offline. Their article “Authenticity and well-being on social network sites: A two-wave longitudinal study on the effects of online authenticity and the positivity bias in SNS communication” has a few key findings on authenticity and social media engagement that are hard to ignore.

The Take Aways
First, this paper consolidates previous studies about individual contributions to social networks. The research indicates that positive messages in social media generate more engagement than neutral or negative messages. This positive bias encourages people to post positive messages (rather than negative) on these networks.

Second, when authentically positive messages are posted and social engagement occurs (usually positive in response), it has the effective of increasing the wellbeing of the person who posts the comment. So this means someone who is already feeling positive, then posts something positive, gets lots of engagement from their online friends, and then (offline) feeling more positive.

Third, people who did not have high levels of well being, regardless of how much engagement their post generates and how (inauthentically positive) it may be, do not get an increase in well-being form their social media interaction.

So basically, authentic online positive social media interactions increase well-being.

How this relates to catfishing
A catfish is someone who uses a false identity on the internet, usually in a romantic context. If the TV show Catfish is anything to go by, then most catfishers are people who are not happy in their own lives.

Many of the catchers claim that the only part of the relationship that was inauthentic was their identity (Objective and Commercial Authenticity). They claim the core of their interaction (Cultural and Existential Authenticity) was authentic. Applying this study, we can infer that when the catfisher is engaging the catifshee in discussions about their (positive) feelings that the interaction generates offline well-being for the catfisher.

So, even though they are pretending to be someone else, catfishers are gaining genuine greater well being from positive interactions as their assumed identity.

So are catfishing relationships authentic? If they generate authentic feelings on both sides, isn’t there something real going on?

The answer to that question is yes and no. If you use the 360 Degree Authenticity analysis, the catfishers will likely have some authenticity (Constructive, Existential) but not other kinds (Objective, Commercial). As the 360 degree model treats authenticity as a holistic measure, without having all the kinds of authenticity in place, one is not authentic from every angle.

And before getting all judgy about online catfishers, I have personally been witness to many an offline relationship where Objective authenticity was in play, but Existential authenticity was absent. Just because you say who you really are, doesn’t men both people are authentically invested in the relationship whether you are online or offline. If you want evidence of that, just watch one of my other favourite (MTV) reality shows: Teen Mom 3.

Authenticity does not matter to everyone (for everything)

This blog started with a post titled “Authenticity Matters“. I would love to tell you that authenticity matters to everyone all the time. About everything. But that cannot possibly be the case, and a 2009 study by Shuling Liao and Yu-Yi Ma entitled “Conceptualising Consumer Need for Product Authenticity” in the International Journal of Business and Information does a great job of demonstrating this.

Take Aways
First, this paper demonstrates that authenticity matters to some people about some products in some situations. But it does not matter to everyone all the time.

Second, if authenticity matters to you about something (for example, eating authentic Japanese food), you will go out of your way and invest time in finding an authentic product experience. You will then be more likely to repeat purchase the product and you will also be more likely to recommend the product. You are more invested in the experience and, in extreme circumstances, you can start to identify so strongly with the product experience that it becomes part of your identity. For example, you might start to look down on people who eat what you consider inauthentic Japanese food. Or you may begin to feel a connection to other people who patronise that restaurant.

If you are not invested in the authenticity of your Japanese food, you’ll eat it anywhere and may not be particularly attached to any one place. You are also more likely to have your consumption habits driven by price rather than quality.

This is important for marketers as it is another way we can segment, and appeal to, customers: authenticity-driven vs not authenticity-driven. Moreover it explains why some people are so into something and some people aren’t–and their subsequent behaviour.

Third, this study was completed in Asia, likely in Taiwan. Although the Taiwanese can be western in their approach to consumption in some circumstances, that is not always the case. The Western attitude toward authenticity is said to have emerged from particular cultural events shaping the Western world view. Although Eastern cultures may have had different events, their take on authenticity appears to be very similar to the Western view.

360da
In addition to the above, the study looks at 6 different properties of authenticity, with each property having several dimensions. Some of the properties, and their dimensions, fit in the 360da framework as follows. The italicised concepts are from the article; the bold is form the 360da framework.

Originality (original, from a place known for the product, pioneer/innovator, cannot be imitated, made from natural materials) [360da: Objective Authenticity]

Quality. Commitment and Credibility (quality guarantee, robust quality, honesty, meets expectations) [360da: Commercial Authenticity]

Heritage and Style (consistent features, embodies tradition) [360da: Constructive Authenticity]

Sacredness (high levels of personal identification, high levels of personal involvement, nostalgic quality) [360da: Existential Authenticity]

Some of the properties apply to some products and not others and are therefore not general enough to fit into 360da:

Scarceness (hard to find, scarce)

Purity (not mixed with other materials, focused on one thing)

This article is available free on the internet, and although it only one article and a small sample size, it is demonstrating something really interesting and important to those of us in the authenticity business. If you have a chance to read it, I recommend it.

“Luving” Authenticity and Southwest Airlines

I flew two Southwest flights recently, so this article hit close to home: Positioning Southwest Airlines through Employee Branding, by Sandra J. Miles and W.Glynn Mangold. The article was published in Business Horizons in 2005.

This article is about employee branding, using Southwest airlines as a case study. What struck me about this article is that it was, in a large part, about authenticity without the word ever being mentioned.

Article Summary
Southwest has an enviable reputation, with very specific missions and values. If you want to read more about them and how they are embedded in their employees in more detail, please see the article. However, two of the methods are highlighted as key by the authors:

(1) Consistency in messaging: every message (to staff, advertising, customers, etc) is vetted to ensure it embodies and is consistent with Southwest values;

(2) The psychological contract is a perceptual “deal” the employee makes with the organisation about what is acceptable and not acceptable at work and what they are going to get in exchange for what they give. Staff at Southwest are very specific about their contract, and expectations and spelled out through a strong corporate culture.

If the organisation is consistent in their culture; and they develop and behave consistently from the top down, they will attract and retain employees who behave in that way.

This sounds like a no-brainer, but anyone who has worked in a large organisation can tell you it is not an easy thing to do.

The upshot of this, of course, is that Southwest becomes perceived as an authentic organisation because they are one. Let’s take this article through some observations.

360da
Objective: Southwest is what it says it is, with every message vetted to ensure this is the case. Even broken promises with customers (like the delays I experienced at SFO recently on my flight) are explained in a forthright way. However this is not unusual for an airline.

Constructive: Most of the article is devoted to Southwest’s culture. For a company with a love heart in their logo and the word “luv” everywhere, the desire on behalf of the company to project a specific culture is strong.  They manage it top-down AND bottom-up. Southwest culture circles focus on maintaining and expanding the culture. Southwest shapes their culture deliberately, through careful selection, reinforcement, measurement and active participation. But that deliberateness may come across as natural because it becomes second nature to most of the people surrounded by it. And remember, employees are selected on their basis of whether they are a fit for the Southwest culture.

Commercial: Southwest attempts to be true to itself through its self-constructed messages and culture, which, ideally has been internalised by its staff and then is externalised through their customer service.

Existential: The key to Southwest’s success in this area is to move away from scripted behaviour, while consistently engaging with the cultural norms emphasised by the organisation. A good example illustrating this are the  Southwest employees singing their safety scripts before takeoff. The consistency of the Southwest brand is present and within that strict, deliberately constructed world, people are still free to “be themselves” and execute their own agency (when that agency aligns with Southwest mission and values).

Takeaways
This article discusses “employee branding”; but it is really about orchestrating an organisational culture so thoroughly that the culture imbues everything. From suppliers, to customers, to shareholders, employees and other stakeholders, the Southwest brand culture comes across as authentic, because it is. The challenge? To make it happen.