Book Review: Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want
By: James H. Gilmore and B. Joseph Pine II, Boston : Harvard Business School Publishing , 2007 . 300+iii pages. Review by: Reardon Smith
“The secret to success is sincerity. Once you can fake that you've got it made.” When Jean Giraudoux said that early in the last century, he could have been anticipating how important it would become in later years to be seen to be “authentic” in business. For certainly it has become de rigueur especially in the last couple of decades to declare that your product or service is “real” in some way that the competition is not. “In a world increasingly filled with deliberately and sensationally staged experiences—an increasingly unreal world—consumers choose to buy or not buy based on how real they perceive an offering to be. Business today, therefore, is all about being real. Original. Genuine. Sincere. Authentic” (p. 1, italics in original). The authors of Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want thus introduce the topic and its relevance to today's business environment. “People no longer accept fake offerings from slickly marketed phonies; they want real offerings from genuinely transparent sources” (p. 5). But that raises some significant issues. How real is real; how fake is fake? How do I know where my company stands in these regards? So much of this is about perception—how my customers experience my products and services. The authors spend most of the first half of this book examining these questions. The second half of the book deals with the way you might change your customers' perceptions, now that you know what they are and what you would like them to be.
This is not a black and white topic, and many readers may be frustrated by the nuances (and occasional red herrings) that James Gilmore and Joseph Pine include in the book. But that is the way life is. Take, for example, the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas. Clearly this is not “authentic” compared with the real Venice. Or is it? “For a Venice that's in the wrong continent, in the middle of a dust bowl and was built last year, the Venetian is surprisingly authentic. The Campanile, for instance, is fake, but so's the one in really real Venice. The original Campanile, completed in 1173, collapsed in a heap in 1902, and a replica was constructed in its place” (p. 84). To the thousands of satisfied guests who visit the Venetian, the experience is quite authentic despite it clearly being a fake—because it is a fake presented in a quite authentic way. In fact, as the authors point out, it becomes almost impossible to find something truly real in our world—certainly not the Venice in Italy! They devote a large part of chapter 3 to proposing that “It's all fake, fake, fake” (p. 87). From a philosophical point of view that is probably true, but we all enjoy hundreds of quite real experiences every day, and in practice the world is not quite such a fake place. We can, and should, orchestrate our companies, products, and services into providing quite authentic experiences to our customers. This book helps us to do that. Or at least it helps us appreciate what needs to be done.
The authors provide five Axioms of Authenticity:
“1. If you are authentic, then you don't have to say you're authentic; 2. If you say you're authentic, then you betterbe authentic; 3. It is easier to be authentic, if you don't say you're authentic; 4. It is easier to render offerings authentic, if you acknowledge they're inauthentic; 5. You don't have to say your offerings are inauthentic, if yourender them authentic” (p. 90, italics in original).
These translate to: “You can't claim that either it [your company] or its offerings are authentic through marketing or any other means. You must earn the privilege of being deemed authentic only through the act of rendering” (p. 90). From here we arrive at two standards of authenticity: (1) whether an offering is what it says it is; and (2) whether it is true to itself. Thus, we have four combinations of authenticity for our business: (1) real-real; (2) real-fake; (3) fake-real; and (4) fake-fake. The authors examine examples from all four quadrants and point out the opportunities and dangers of operating in each of them. Some of the conclusions are not particularly intuitive. Chapter 7 deconstructs authenticity in a way that would enable most companies to figure out which is their ideal predominant quadrant—and in which quadrant they currently reside.
Chapter 8 addresses the “being what you say you are” axis of the matrix and chapter 9 the “being true to self” axis. The former is mostly an examination of the connections between your marketing strategies and your customers' perception of your products. The latter, more interestingly, addresses just exactly who “self” is in this context and what it means to be “true” to it. The authors include a discussion on Minkowski Space, a space-time representation that will delight engineers and physicists but quite possibly confuse everyone else. In a nutshell they are telling us that where we can go from where we are today depends very much on where we are and on the directions we took to get here (!). Fortunately, Gilmore and Pine illustrate this chapter with some good case studies, and most chief executive officers (CEOs) will find it useful in getting a better grasp of their company's opportunities.
The final chapter discusses “Finding Authenticity.” Five polarities are used to demonstrate how a company may fine-tune its place in the authenticity matrix and how to position its products. For example, one set of polarities are “Un-” and “Re-.” Do your products tend toward Un- (e.g., un-cola, unaltered, untreated, unadulterated—all examples of “real” products) or toward Re- (e.g., refurbished, refinished, restored, recycled—all examples of “fake”)? Neither one is in itself bad nor good, just different. The other polarities considered are “repro-retro,”“premium-personal,”“quasi-pseudo,” and “other-self.” This is a different way of looking at your product offerings and how they are perceived by your customers, and it may give some readers powerful insights into their company's real mission in life and how well its products align with that mission. Or it might not. For the strength of this book is also its weakness—this is not standard M.B.A. stuff, and many CEOs will consider it to be without substance and just another consulting fad. But not being standard M.B.A. stuff is also its strength. For executives who are willing to open their minds and look at their business in a new dimension, this book provides an intriguing new look.
Released: October 4, 2013, 9:11 am
| Updated: October 30, 2013, 12:41 pm