When the folk band Mumford & Sons recently announced it would go on indefinite hiatus, I couldn't help but think about the marketing buzzword I love to hate: authenticity.
Few bands see the kind of meteoric rise that Mumford & Sons saw in the early part of this decade. Formed in late 2007, the pop-folk band sold put out two studio records--one in 2009, one in 2012--and sold more than 6 million of them between the U.S. and the U.K. They won two major Grammy Awards earlier this year for the more recent effort. And they did it despite an omnipresent criticism--namely, that their music wasn't authentic.
What did this mean, exactly? Critics' lists basically read like this:
- Mumford is a British band playing Americana.
- None of the bandmates were actually sons of lead singer Marcus Mumford.
- The music seemed written to capitalize on a trend--namely, the resurgence of folk music in the 21st century.
The Authenticity Police
The band's hiatus came as a surprise to many, given the band's massive success.
For its critics, the break hardly came as a surprise. It was vindication. It confirmed, for them, that Mumford was in it for the money.
But Mumford & Sons never claimed authenticity. In fact, here's what Mumford told The Guardian when asked directly about this criticism:
"The authenticity thing has never been an issue for me. Not since I came to the realisation that Dylan, who's probably my favourite artist ever, the richest artist for me, didn't give a shit about authenticity. He changed his name. And modelled himself on Woody Guthrie. And lied to everyone about who he was."
For me, someone who could take or leave the music, Mumford's breakup, as well as their pish-poshing the concept of authenticity, comes as a breath of fresh air. That's because, in the business world, the word has become so overused and so edificed that it's high time it just get put to bed.
The Rise of a Buzzword
"Authenticity" has taken on massive weight in business. Marketers seem to hold it as something of a holy grail. Except it's unclear what it actually means.
This gets at the heart of the problem with the term. Authenticity and marketing are inherently at odds. When we're talking about authentic--meaning real, genuine, of verifiable origin--marketing pretty much means creating a message that helps you sell stuff (hopefully cool or useful stuff) to the right people. And you know that using that truth as your message probably isn't going to work.
Still, businesses--including some very successful ones--have taken the term to heart. Huge businesses like Starbucks and Anthropologie were among the first to be attributed the term. Warby Parker places "authenticity" at the heart of its brand. This is coming from a company that puts a monocle in its showroom even though it knows it will never sell.
Most recently, I saw a report on how to market to Latino consumers. The report went so far as to identify the overuse of the term authenticity in justifying its use of it.
Authenticity may be one of the most over-used words in the marketing lexicon, but one cannot explore Hispanic marketing trends without addressing it head on. It goes without saying that creating a meaningful connection with the Latino audience requires an authentic voice.
The report did offer useful tips for reaching Latinos, which is exactly what marketing is meant to do. But at no point in the report was the term "authenticity" defined. The company that sent the report--a PR firm--declined to comment for this article about how it defines the term.
This is a common problem in marketing circles. Hot new buzzwords tend to be beaten down and used so much by marketers that they eventually lose their meaning altogether. This wouldn't be such a problem, except marketers market pretty well. That means they're writing pieces (because it's good inbound marketing) that use these words however they see fit, then sending them around to other marketers. Marketers love content about marketing, just like people of all professions love content about theirs, so they excitedly share each other's content, which is filled with these flattened terms. Suddenly, anything that's selling is authentic.
So, authenticity? Shenanigans! Here's the rule of thumb: If you need to try to seem authentic, you aren't. You might be clever, you might send a powerful message, but you aren't authentic. That's just not what the word means.
Then again, maybe this is all much ado about nothing. Definitions of "authenticity" in the marketing realm are hard to come by, as I mentioned above. But those that are out there hardly differentiate themselves from any traditional marketing literature. Here's how content marketing thought leader Newt Barrett defined authenticity in an interview on Forbes.com:
- Define an ideal set of customers.
- Determine exactly what is most important for them to know.
- Deliver that information in a relevant and compelling way.
- Engender a level of trust that makes it easy for them to buy from you.
What a concept.