Introducing - "Authenticity - ‘Being Yourself’ vs. Reality" (Part 1)
Updated: Mar 27
Authenticity has become a very popular term - even considered a buzzword, particularly in branding circles - in marketing, branding and content creation. As a creative - musician & designer - as well as a brand strategist and budding marketer, I’ve had ample opportunity over the years to examine and experience the word and its various implications from different perspectives.
Even after years of engaging with the topic I am ever reexamining its meaning as it morphs and changes with the culture and as such, the point of my writing these blog pieces is not to define or present facts and findings (see research linked at the bottom of the page), and much less to instruct creators or brands on ‘how to be authentic’, but rather to explore intricacies of how we experience the concept of ‘authenticity’ on a daily basis, both as consumers and content creators, and to hopefully give the reader pause to think about their own experiences and perceptions.
Determining some definitions
While I do not claim to have a clear definition for what authenticity is, it’ll be helpful to examine the general definitions that exist around the term. Additionally, I’d want to highlight the differences between brands/ companies and individuals, some of which will be obvious but can at times still get forgotten or muddled.
Original Authenticity Meaning
The term ‘authentic’ is used either in the strong sense of being “of undisputed origin or authorship”, or in a weaker sense of being “faithful to an original” or a “reliable, accurate representation”. To say that something is authentic is to say that it is what it professes to be, or what it is reputed to be, in origin or authorship.
I find that it’s good to remind myself of the word’s original meaning and what it stood for before it became as sparkly as it can feel sometimes these days. There’s something grounding about coming back to a very fixed definition, even if its meaning has evolved since.
This particular source also adds:
But the distinction between authentic and derivative is more complicated when discussing authenticity as a characteristic attributed to human beings. For in this case, the question arises: What is it to be oneself, at one with oneself, or truly representing one’s self?
Which touches on several of the intricacies around the topic of authenticity in the world of content, branding and marketing.
Authenticity - Personal Meaning or Being True to Oneself
I found this to be a rather apt summary of what authenticity means when referred to ‘living an authentic life on a personal level’.
It can seem that there are as many different definitions of authenticity as there are psychologists, philosophers, and scholars. However, a common definition is that being authentic is living your life according to your own values and goals, rather than those of other people. Put simply, authenticity means you're true to your own personality, values, and spirit, regardless of the pressure that you're under to act otherwise. You're honest with yourself and with others, and you take responsibility for your mistakes. Your values, ideals, and actions align. As a result, you come across as genuine, and you're willing to accept the consequences of being true to what you consider to be right.
A lot of the above logically also applies to branding when it comes to individuals (as opposed to a business) albeit less straightforward, especially as a content creator. After all, an actor does not need to feel that a character they’re playing is authentic to who they are as a person, and theoretically a content creator could choose a similar approach in what they do, to a degree, though it's not likely the norm because they are posting this content as themselves in public.
Nevertheless, as consumers it bears keeping in mind that content creators are still stepping into a role of some kind when they step in front of you on public platforms and, odds are, not all of it is real, or at least reflective of the full picture.
Leaning into extremes can be a beneficial strategy to attract more attention and generate more conversation around a piece of content and it's healthy to remember that when interacting with online pieces.
Obviously, there are content creators who take being authentic to their true selves extremely seriously, and in those cases you may assume that you can take them at total face value. Two excellent examples I can think of are Africa Brooke and Kyle Creek though there are definitely many more. (I’d actually be intrigued to know whether they identify as content creators or whether they simply feel they’re expressing themselves.)
Feel free to share other names in the comments!
Brand authenticity has been defined as ‘the extent to which consumers perceive a brand to be faithful and true toward itself and its consumers, and to support consumers being true to themselves’.
I’d like to think that a business that is customer and service-first oriented will naturally find it easy to maintain brand authenticity. I also know that this is much easier said than done because balancing brand and customer needs with business and financial needs can at times feel like an endless tug of war.
I do believe that businesses that nurture their brands with care - meaning their messaging, their relationship with their customers, their content, their services (less the visuals though, and I realize the irony as I got into branding because I was a graphic designer) - will build the most loyal fan and customer bases in the long run, if they’re able to navigate the ‘running a business’ part successfully as well.
Finally, at the risk of turning a little preachy for a moment, I am convinced that brand authenticity, as defined above, is achieved by practicing utmost integrity in one’s decision making for the business.
Comparing Personal Brands vs. Business Brands
On a most basic level, personal and business brands are largely the same. The layman’s definition of a brand - ‘the way people feel when they think about you or your business is your brand’ - can apply to people as well as businesses.
Obviously there are a gazillion nuances to dissect, but the starkest difference between the two is that
personal brands are eternally fluid, whereas business brands are rather fixed.
The latter may undergo a rebrand every couple of years (though hopefully less frequently), where key elements of the brand are adjusted, but beyond that they aim to stay true to their defined brand guidelines.
Personal brands, obviously, cannot be that rigid. Bluntly put, a personal brand is the public’s opinion of a human being (maybe a group of people in the case of bands, sports teams, etc. though some of those may qualify as businesses more than personal brands). The brand is as fluid as the human being themself. As a person changes and evolves, so does their brand. You cannot define ‘the things you stand for’ and then stick with them for the next 5+ years on principle. You might undergo a life-altering experience and change your opinion on everything overnight. And that would be alright (though your PR person might hate you and you probably don’t want to plan on doing this).
The reason I bring it up is partly because I still see a lot of brand strategists trying to fit artists and creators into a specific box when ‘crafting their brand’ (and I will freely admit that I was guilty of the same practice years ago). I’ve since come to appreciate that an artist or individual’s brand needs to be more complex than what we allow it to be when we box it. Particularly because anything else is not actually real, or authentic if you will.
Historically, it would have made more sense to do this when stars still kept their private lives separate from their public faces, and I should adjust the above to acknowledge that anybody who wishes to retain that level of privacy in today’s age should decide which aspects of their lives get to be public and which don’t and craft a brand around them. But the unfortunate flip side to this is that it’s harder to be noticed and stay current in the public eye if you’re not also participating in the practice of sharing your life. Which is not to say that this fact should arm-twist people into having to share parts of their lives they don’t wish to - which would undoubtedly lead to an inauthentic presentation - but it’s a conscious choice that needs to be made with understanding and acceptance of the potential consequences.
The other thing to note about Personal vs. Business brands is that Content Creators fall into another, slightly hybrid, category between the two
(assuming the content creator is trying to do this professionally in some way and not just for shits and giggles).
It’s a popularly spouted fact that Content Creators should find a niche on which to focus their content on, so as to provide their audience with a clearer idea of what they can expect when they decide to follow/ commit to/ engage with them. The practice of niching automatically brings you closer to setting your brand up more like a business than a personality (which is not a bad thing ftr) because you’re setting yourself guidelines for how you want to approach appearing online, at least on specific platforms. You may decide that some social media platforms are more reserved for personal expression, whereas others are treated more strictly. As long as there is consistency, anything goes.
Alright, with all of the basic definitions out of the way, we should all be on the same page enough to dive in and dissect what authenticity means (can mean?) in the world of content creation, marketing and for the consumer.