Nickelback, Starbucks, and the power of in-authenticity

Everyone agrees, apparently, that it’s good for a brand to be “authentic”.

So much so that it’s become one of those overused words that people are increasingly embarrassed to use: like “engagement” or “purpose” or “millennials”.  We all know authenticity is good, there’s no need to go on about it.

But then again… is it?  Is it really desirable for a business to be highly authentic?

This lionisation of authenticity is, I think, quite a modern invention.  A good example can be found in the world of travel – where tourists have become obsessed with not behaving like tourists; going where the locals go, eating where the locals eat, staying where the locals live. We recognise that in every city there is the “authentic” part, and then there are the “tourist traps”, which generally take the form of a kind of pastiche of local culture – like Madam Tussauds in London, or Times Square in New York, or an industrial pizzeria on the tourist drag in Rome. Former generations of tourists would have unironically embraced these tacky pleasures – but now we’re too jaded, too cynical, and too self-aware.  Only the “authentic” will do.

Needless to say, such authenticity-seeking has trickled through to brands.  Great brands, we are assured, are those who are authentic: in other words “real”, and “pure”, and “uncompromised”.  This means different things in different categories, but examples of this might include:

  • Homespun backstories
  • Ingredients provenance
  • Elite-level performance standards
  • Impeccable health credentials
  • Cutting edge design and branding
  • Credibility within a purist cultural niche

My contention is that generally speaking, this kind of authenticity is not useful for brands.  In fact, it is often harmful.  The simple reason for this is obvious: being truly authentic generally means being small.  Appealing only to the “true believers”, and not being accessible to the masses.

Now at first glance, this might seem like I’m advocating for broad, generic, uninteresting, lowest common denominator commodity brands – the apparent opposite of authenticity.  But I’m not.  There is a third way:

Not authentic (too niche), not broad (too boring), but instead deliberately in-authentic.

In-authentic brands act as mass-market pastiches of authentic ones.  Simply put, they fake it.  They take the good bits from some sort of cultural or category niche, and they package them in a  way that has the broadest mass-market appeal whilst still maintaining a level of interest.

If you want a model to aspire to, think of Nickelback.  Nickelback represents an artistic expression of sublime business strategy.  They took something powerful, real, and pure, and created a sanitised version of it for the widest possible audience.  This made them objects of ridicule for the cognoscenti – true metal fans – but massively popular with a much larger audience elsewhere.

(For the record I have nothing against Nickelback – in fact they came on the radio the other day, and I rather enjoyed it – but then again I’m not a metal purist, so what do I know?)

This is precisely what the greatest brands do in their own cultural and commercial territories.

The reason this works so well, is because most consumers fall for the trick.  Most consumers believe that in-authentic brands are in fact authentic (hence why we’re always told how important authenticity is).  This is because very few people belong to the elite subculture that those brands are ripping off.  To you and I, the casual observer, brands like The Body Shop, Lululemon, Green & Black’s, Innocent, etc. might look like “authentic brands”, but in reality they are pastiches, and have far more authentic competitors that we’ve never heard of.

Just like your mum might think that Nickelback is “hard rock”, so too do you think that Brewdog is “craft beer”; and just like Nickelback such brands will have a small and dedicated group of haters who curse them for their in-authenticity.

One of the greatest examples of growth through in-authenticity is Starbucks’ strategy.

Today most of us recognise Starbucks for the pastiche of true coffee culture that it is, but in its years of ascendancy that wasn’t the case.  Starbucks was, for a very long time, “the connoisseur’s choice”; a mark of status and taste, not mid-market conformity.  The way they did this was by taking various characteristics of authentic coffee (espresso-based drinks, Italian words, nods to bean provenance, etc.) and sanitising them; packaging them in a manner acceptable for mainstream tastes. Bear in mind that proper Italian cafes had been around for a long time in the USA at that point. If the authentic experience was what mattered, one of them would have blown up long before Starbucks. But authenticity isn’t what matters. Being interesting-but-also-easy-to-buy is. And the quickest way to achieve that is to borrow the juicy bits of something pure and ignore the bits that are hard to swallow.

Starbucks’ strategy was neither a broad commodity coffee chain, and nor was it a proper artisanal cafe. It was the perfect blend of both.  I cannot express my admiration highly enough for calling what is basically a milkshake a “frappuccino”. The cynicism is breathtaking, and thus so is the strategy. Because like it or not strategy is always a cynical act.  It is always an act of manipulation; of behind-the-curtain computation designed to elicit your desired outcome.

So, my appeal to all of you “authentic” brands out there, is to get off your high horse.  Walk into any groovy independent health foods shop, and you’ll find the shelves packed with genuinely authentic brands that neither you nor anyone else, has heard of.  If that’s your ambition, then fine – but don’t kid yourself into believing that you are doing the noble thing.  Because the truly noble thing is to create something people love and value, and to extend exciting ideas to the widest possible audience.

Nickelback knew this.  And in-authentic brands do too.

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