What Does Authenticity Mean?

Dieste Attempts a Definition in New Diestepedia

By Dieste Published on .

[Editor's note: Diestepedia is a wiki of Hispanic phrases and culture created by Dieste. The agency is working its way through the alphabet, one entry at a time. "Authenticity" is the first entry.]

How many ways are there to define a word, a concept that basically means unique, one of a kind, original? Well, as many ways as there are people seeking to define it. Following are five interpretations for authenticity we have debated at the agency -- with clients and among ourselves.

1. Authenticity as the real
The "authentic" is the artisan product, the "real deal," anything that hasn't been decorated with inflated claims or corrupted by ulterior motives. Take this from the book Sensacional De Diseno Mexicano:

A street taco tastes better than one from a chain restaurant and that's the whole deal. The street taco is really better, tastes better and smells better. They are less perfect, less neat and don't have expensive advertising campaigns, but a quesadilla de flor de calabaza that you can get on any street with a cold beer or homemade agua de Jamaica is something that the perfection of a restaurant chain could never get close to.
Of course the restaurant could match the flavors. If we switched the street food with well-made chain-produced tacos without alerting eaters, no one would taste the difference. But that doesn't make the chain restaurant authentic; it only means that the authenticity of street food is in the street, not the food. The ambiance and other factors influencing how the taste experience is perceived can't be that easily altered. That is the real.

2. Authenticity as unique
We all crave authentic experiences, which is why authenticity is such a good hook for marketers. But authenticity is essentially anti-commercial: at the moment you chain-produce something and advertise it massively, the authenticity disappears. This happens because being authentic means being one of a kind. For marketers, user-generated content and social media still are strongly perceived as authentic by consumers, which is why the stakes are high when consumers feel a lack of "realness" in other communications.

3. Authenticity as the origin
Most Hispanic advertisers looking for authenticity go for cultural resonance and country of origin. The brand will be real and true if it's foreign born, if the label and taste attaches people to their roots, traditions and memories. That sounds good, but can you sell just cultural authenticity to people who already feel culturally authentic? I know this is difficult to believe when you see Mexicans paying 25% more for a bottle of "Mexican Coca-Cola." However, there are limits to the appeal of cultural authenticity.

Worse, cultural authenticity can be a trap. When marketers obsess on Hispanic consumers as only wanting products exactly like the ones back home, they miss opportunities. If we're talking about food, they lose the chance to sell processed, canned and convenient products, foods that definitely aren't authentic but are relevant for Hispanics living in the U.S. and willing to adopt new tastes and traditions. How do we know it's a missing opportunity: Because the best seller in the frozen category among Hispanics is...traditional Latino food.

As Hispanic marketers we should reconsider our standard belief about the power of authenticity defined as "From Latin America." Perhaps we're using this authenticity defensively and as a strategy to avoid change and dealing with an evolving consumer, one open to buying "differently authentic" options.

Differently authentic? Think of Bush's Beans and its campaign "Gringos, pero muy Buenos" (Gringos, but very good). In the Hispanic media, Bush's overcomes its lack of traditional, south-of-the-border-centered authenticity with lots of authenticity in the attitude of the brand. (We're Gringos: true. We know beans: also true.) No doubt authenticity works, you've just got to know where to find it.

4. Authenticity as unspeakable
The moment you declare something as authentic it stops being so. In part, authenticity has to do with innocence. It can't know itself just like it's impossible to follow the command: "Be spontaneous." Still, the fact that you can't intentionally be spontaneous doesn't mean there's no spontaneity. The same goes for authenticity. You can't just do it. That is why Hispanic advertising based on "fútbol, family and piñatas" usually doesn't go anywhere. And when it does go, it's backward and can detract value from brands, making them feel fake and insincere. But real authenticity can still be achieved.

5. TMA
Can there be too much authenticity? We got close to finding out when Frito-Lay produced a campaign for Flaming Hot Cheetos based on Macheetos (macho+cheetos) that dared Latino guys to demonstrate their manliness against a snack so hot it was painful. Based on uniquely Mexican toques, games where men challenge each other to resist the pain of severe electrical shocks, the Cheetos insight was definitely authentic, but did it go too far? It's like the pain-resistance game: There are lines you shouldn't cross. Instead of being provoking or provocative your idea may become embarrassing and damaging. So, was the line crossed? No, the insight was deeply authentic for a product that's not so authentic, and it worked: Cheetos went with it, consumers bought it.

While writing this entry we discovered a sixth element of authenticity. Today's most important source of authenticity is the consumer -- whether it be media content, product or movements. One example, the authenticity that comes from an outsider's participation and contributions in a wiki like Diestepedia.

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