February 1, 2008
Authenticity, Grant McCracken, and Donuts

I've gotten a few e-mails regarding the piece I wrote a few days ago about Linda's Donuts and the search for authenticity. One of them came from friend and Consortium Consulting Researcher Grant McCracken, who turns out had written some on the subject of authenticity only a couple of days prior, in response to criticisms of the Dove and Axe Unilever campaigns, which many have had problems with because of what they identify as an inconsistency between the messages of each, with Dove stressing one's comfort with their own body in their advertising, while Axe emphasizes a more narrow form of feminine beauty in encouraging teenage boys to use the body spray to attract a certain kind of woman.

Grant wrote me wondering whether we might disagree, and I didn't answer him for a couple of days, as I wasn't sure if we were or not. And I'm still not.

I read his post before I ever wrote the Linda's piece, but it hadn't dawned on me that my points about authenticity might be in conflict with his, even though we both referred to Joe Pine and James Gilmore's new book Authenticity. Of course, in academia, one has a right---perhaps an obligation--to not always agree, and Grant and I have discovered in the past that perfect agreement at the expense of others can sometimes be downright unhelpful. I'm referring here to Grant's September piece on the nature and problem of scorn.

So, are our positions on "authenticity" such that we should evoke the University of Chicago style that Grant has referred to in the past, that one should not be "rude, but neither should we be unduly amiable or agreeable" in hashing out ideas? Perhaps. But I also considered the wording of Grant's message, which didn't say he disagreed but rather "I think I disagree with you." So I thought I might compare the two posts to get at the heart of what might be a disconnect.

Grant writes:

This is precisely what is wrong with the authenticity argument now being promoted by Gilmore and Pine. In fact, brands have no native voice. They may have a brand heritage. Some brand meanings may come more easily than others. But there is nothing a brand must say, and nothing, within limits, it mustn't say. Brands are designed to be exemplars of responsiveness. This means we may not insist on what they "really" mean, or what they "must" say. The very point of the exercise, as this is carried forward by branding, marketing, capitalism, and a dynamic society, hangs in the balance.

For some reason, we feel free to let fly when talking to a brand. We say things we would never dream of saying to a movie maker or a novelist. (And this is interesting.) But I thought the thing we liked about capitalism is that it is responsive. In some sense it does not care what received convention says. It is quite prepared to trumpet new body types if there is an audience for this argument. It is this aspect of capitalism that so serves the cause of liberty. It is this aspect of capitalism that has helped it produce the plenitude, the blooming diversity of our contemporary world. The brand must be multiple because increasingly that's what the world is.

I think it's important to point out that I haven't read Authenticity but am basing my comments on an interesting conversation with the C3 team and Joe Pine involving the concept. Our conclusion in that conversation was an acknowledgment that authenticity is some sort of ideal, a construction rather than a reality, but it nevertheless matters to consumers. Grant points out that brands are responsive by their nature, and--to me--shops that appeal to people's desire for "authenticity" are doing just that.

Let's return to that donut and sandwich I bought at Linda's the other day. I wrote, "On the walk home, I realized that I was already determined to like this food. And it's all about authenticity. What I'd just had was an 'authentic' experience, no doubt. But what does that mean? And what was it about that moment at Linda's Donuts that had me convinced, that had me somehow "rooting" for the quality of the food? Why did they get me on their side? And then it dawned on me. It's really about passion."

On further reflection, I agree with Grant that "brands have no native voice." Linda's doesn't have the singular agreement that Grant refers to in his use of the term "authenticity." For some, it's the local institution their grandmother worked in, the place they've hung out for years, and a part of Belmont history. Others might not know that history, but see it as a mom and pop shop defined against the chains in town. For one reviewer, it was the place with great donuts and muffins but which never makes enough for "late risers," so that the choice is always limited by late morning.

For me, as an outsider here in Belmont, it's a quaint bit of local culture--fodder for a blog post--and maybe a place I'll stop into a few more times during what I imagine as a short-term life in that town. And many people may have not even had that brand experience with Linda's, if they hadn't had the son waiting on them when they came through, or if he hadn't felt like being chatty. In reality, even a brand as local and specific as Linda's maintains myriad meanings. In fact, there are perhaps as many brand messages and meanings as their are customers, and for some it may not be a brand at all.

Linda's is not "authentic," then, in terms of maintaining a singular message to its customers. In fact, I would concur with Grant that no brand is. But that doesn't stop shops like Linda's from appealing to folks' quest for an "authentic" experience, myth though it may be.

As I referred to in the previous post, my use of the term "authenticity" actually refers to the idea of giving the brand some meaning, aside from a logo, that exists as an extension of the product itself. It's what separates a generic purchasing site or commodity from a branded store or item, and--for me--passion and knowledge are the necessary ingredients, giving some face and philosophy to the product.

Dunkin' Donuts feels less like a meaningful brand once it becomes a place that doles out coffee to all those standing in line, with employees who have no knowledge or opinion of the products they offer.

In opposition, Linda's Donuts took on more meaning than a donut for me the second I perceived some sort of culture built around the place, that the name of the store and its very presence had meaning in people's lives greater than a place where food items can be purchased. And my consumption of that commodity then became a consumption of that narrative I constructed about the store as well. There may very well be a variety of narratives for eachconsumer, but there's information being generated in addition to the mere product itself.

For me, authenticity in this form is what keeps brands out of that commodity basement that Grant has written about in the past.

Dave Feldman and I exchanged stories in response to this post regarding chains that have created that same air of "authenticity," as we both had experiences of a local McDonalds in which there was a particular culture, a sense of community and pride among the employees, local owners who had a face, etc. In that case, the McDonalds in those areas took on a meaning greater than the commodity the company's menu items often become in Interstate rest areas.

But is what I'm describing here not aptly titled as authenticity? Perhaps, as Grant points out with brands themselves, we're using this term to take on a variety of meanings. I'd posit that perhaps "authenticity" as a term is not the "authentic" or pure whole we'd like it to be...

If you have thoughts, drop me an e-mail at samford@mit.edu, while comments remain down.