Everywhere you turn these days, you hear about authenticity.
They say you’ve got to be real in order to connect with today’s social media savvy audiences and consumers.
But it’s not necessarily true.
Go out and be “real” when you’re having a bad day, and people will quickly call you out for not reacting in the “right” way.
Or, cross a line with your audience that disturbs their expectations of you, and you’ll quickly find that people didn’t want that much of the “real you” after all.
And yet, it’s unavoidable — the world of marketing in general, and specifically online marketing, has heavily gravitated to a greater emphasis on an authentic human voice over canned messages and corporate speak.
So what’s going on with this authenticity stuff?
Glad you asked. Let me give you a bit of an offbeat example involving “authentic” t-shirts on the way to answering you.
The case of the vintage t-shirt
I’m a t-shirt guy.
I’m especially fond of cool t-shirts that I’ve owned forever — sometimes for decades — and they show it.
I’m proud of my SXSW Interactive shirt from 2000 even though it’s seen better days. And I was mortified when I had to replace my Joy Division, Unknown Pleasures t-shirt after it was “liberated” during a party I threw in law school, but what are you gonna do?
Let’s look at the larger trend in “vintage” t-shirts:
- Group 1: People who have cool t-shirts that they bought way back when and now proudly wear as raggedy badges of hipster honor.
- Group 2: People who shop in vintage clothing stores looking for old, ironic t-shirts, perhaps hoping to be viewed as members of Group 1, or at least … ironic.
- Group 3: People who buy new reprints of older, popular t-shirts, and then buy other products to begin a rigorous process of making the t-shirt look old so they appear to be in Groups 1 or 2.
- Group 4: People who go to Target to buy the same t-shirts as Group 3, except these shirts are pre-aged by the manufacturer, effectively commodifying Groups 1, 2, and 3.
Would you agree with me that Group 1 is the only “authentic” example, with each subsequent group diverting a step further away from authenticity?
And yet, people are spending good money for things that aren’t “real.” In fact, Groups 3 and 4 often spend more money to appear authentic than the people who actually qualify.
Is it really true that people want “real,” or could it be they want … something else?
Who’s your favorite person?
The problem with authenticity in marketing is age-old. And the emergence of social media has allowed people to forget Marketing 101, and go right back to egocentrism.
In other words, you’re focusing on your favorite person — yourself — instead of focusing on them, the people you’re trying to reach and influence.
Seth Godin famously said that authenticity in marketing is telling a story people want to hear, and then making the story a reality. He caught some flack for that, but that doesn’t make it any less valid.
And yet, even that’s confusing, because you start to think it’s your story that matters as you build a personal brand.
Your story absolutely matters, but only to the extent that it helps people tell the story they want to tell about themselves.
Why people buy things
Very few of the things we buy are truly necessary.
Everything else we buy is used as a way of telling the story of who we are, what we believe, and what we aspire to be.
So, in the t-shirt example, people will go to great lengths to engage in “inauthentic” commerce, because it helps them say something about themselves that’s desirable. It’s real to them, and that’s all that matters.
Am I telling you to be fake?
No, I’m telling you to get your head in the right place.
Focus on them.
Match them with aspects of yourself, your products, and your services. But never forget that you’re helping them tell their own stories as you create your own.
Create content, products, and services that assist in the narrative of life we all tell.
Help people tell the story of who they are, what they believe, and what they aspire to be.
That’s about as real as it gets.
Reader Comments (129)
Great post – really enjoyed reading this!
Gregory C. says
Agreed, really addresses one of the most important aspects of selling.
Kent Mauresmo says
Exactly. This is why Apple is so popular and everybody has an iPhone. There are several phones that I can think of that dominates that iphone, but people buy it because they think it makes them look cool or hip. Hah.
Same goes to MAC computers too. Its all about facade and Apple knows this, that’s why they come out with a newer version every 6 months and just rake in the cash.
People buy stuff they do not need all the time and any true marketer will capitalize on this.
“The emergence of social media has allowed people to forget Marketing 101, and go right back to egocentrism.”
Pedro Cardoso says
Or as the truly articulate would have put it:
“Yo I’ll say you what I want, what I really really want
So tell me what you want, what you really really want
I’ll tell you what I want, what I really really want
So tell me what you want, what you really really want
I wanna huh, I wanna huh, I wanna huh, I wanna huh, I wanna really
really really wanna zig a zig ah”
Sarah Russell says
It’s funny to me that you put this up today, since I just did one of those “27 Things You Don’t Know About Me” posts where I reveal “the real me”… 🙂
But even those types of posts are structured. Sure, they have some revealing details, but the leave out the part about how I takes my frustrations out on my husband, how I’ve been known to let the bathroom go a month or two without a good cleaning, or how I cry inappropriately when confronted with frustrating situations.
You’re right – it’s all part of the story we create 🙂 Thanks for sharing this perspective.
Dewane Mutunga says
This is an amazing post. Very true though. Storytelling is one of the best ways to connect with someone and to teach them. Stories are often loaded with many different themes and lessons. In most cases, the best storytellers are the one’s who are successful. By telling a story that people can relate to and gain insight from, people feel a deep connection with you and you become “real” to them, even as if they know you personally.
This question is interesting, because focusing on the other person always takes a tiny slice out of work you do. I’ve not found the compromise to be worth it. Rather, I prefer to create an authentic piece and let folks take from it what they will. If I’ve reached down into myself far enough, my feelings and conclusions should be similar to those of my readers. When a writer achieves that level of introspection, thinking about the audience is not necessary. Thanks for your thoughts! I enjoyed reading the article.
Brian Clark says
Doug, the great thing about the Internet is you can basically be yourself and still find an audience. But that just means you’re accidentally telling them a story they want to hear, as opposed to doing it purposefully.
The other issue related to that is all too common — the people you attracted with the “real” you are incompatible with your business goals. In other words, they like what you say, but don’t want what you’re selling. At that point you’ll need to adapt to your existing audience or start over with a new story and a different group of people.
Steve Lanning says
What you just said right here, Brian, “…the people you attracted with the real you are incompatible with your business goals” is spot on. I’m a 63 year young Boomer who has been in sales and marketing for the last 40 years, and both you and Seth are correct. A goal is a story where you have to fill in the details later. But you have GOT to watch whom you attract with the ‘real you’.
Do they have the capacity to become compatible with my goals? How? Who changes most?
What do I need to change to attract the folks I need to accomplish my business goals?
Jason Stuart says
Very good post, Brian, and it raises some interesting points about authenticity. Once your carefully-cultivated tastes (cultivated to establish yourself as an outsider or ahead of the curve or whatever) do become commodified, it’s difficult to maintain that level of authenticity without adopting a new set of tastes that once again position you outside of the masses.
That being said, I can think of at least a couple of examples of marketers who really do present an authentic face through their internet personas: Rae Hoffman-Dolan (aka Sugarrae) and Lisa Barone of Outspoken Media. And they are both very successful. Granted, their approach won’t work for everyone, but it definitely works for them.
So I think there are really two distinct points about authenticity. First, cultivated authenticity is actually inauthentic, and as marketers we need to be aware of the storytelling aspect behind what people buy, and play to it. Second, really being yourself as a marketer/blogger/internet personality/whatever can be a very effective strategy.
Maybe it’s not so much that people don’t necessarily want the real you as that they don’t necessarily want the real them.
Brian Clark says
Interesting that you mention Lisa Barone, because she’s the first to tell you that her online persona is an amplified version of one aspect of her total self. Meeting her in person is a quite different experience (although I like her in person maybe a bit more).
Rae is Rae, no doubt about that. But Rae’s main business model doesn’t depend on people liking her personally, so she truly just says and does whatever she wants. So while not everyone likes her, me and a bunch of other people like her a whole lot. 😉
Jason Stuart says
I suppose that raises a third point about authenticity: an online persona that SEEMS 100% authentic is, effectively, authentic. Even if it’s not really authentic.
Brian Clark says
Yes. They determine what’s authentic, not you.
Chris Rock had an interview with a reporter, where the reporter said “Chris you’re much different in person.”
And Chris Rock said “people don’t want me. They want the bigger version of me. They want 3X me.”
I’m butchering the quotes here, but you get the point :-).
Oh, and, Rae is Rae… but she’s a sweetheart when you know her (she’ll kill me for saying that).
Sonia Simone says
I can think of lots of internet personalities known for their “authenticity” who have a very different face in real life. Not because they’re lying or faking, but because real personalities are more complicated than public personas.
In general, the ones who are known for being cranky are in fact much gentler than they seem, and the ones who have a saintly and kind public persona are more cranky and salty in person.
They are “really being themselves,” but what they share in their online personas isn’t a complete picture of who they are — as Brian says about Lisa, it’s one aspect.
Jeff Korhan says
Recently I tried to sort this in a different way – that your authenticity comes from either your head (ego) or your heart (beliefs). Either way, it’s who you think you are, and indeed much of that is based upon societal conditioning.
So, I like your idea of forgetting about all of that and using it to accomplish a useful purpose – helping others to reinforce something in themselves that they can get excited about.
Whew! It looks like we’re back to helping our community again. Thankfully that’s clear to most of us. 🙂
Michael Martine, Blog Alchemist says
Yeah, what happens when you act like yourself and everybody roasts you alive?
Sonia Simone says
Gather enough attention and someone will roast you no matter what persona you have. 🙂
Erika Napoletano says
Yes – what Sonia said. Person vs. Persona – the age old debate. People still find it amazing that I can complete a sentence without an f-bomb when they’re more the everyday exception than the rule. But alas, we build our houses, live in them and invite people inside. Then they get pissed not because you welcomed them inside, but you have a Georgia O’Keefe painting hanging when they THINK you’re more a Warhol gal.
So you say eff it and move on to what’s REALLY important.
Jennifer Minar-Jaynes says
” Very few of the things we buy are truly necessary. Everything else we buy is used as a way of telling the story of who we are, what we believe, and what we aspire to be.”
That’s heavy. I’m going to have to FB that.
E. Foley says
I just got home from GenCon Indy, where I ran speed dating events and did several talks about being more successful in online dating. While there, I met a guy who was like, “I want to put ALL of me on my dating profile. All of it. The good parts. The bad parts. The strong parts. The weak parts. I want to be sure the woman I attract wants me for all of me.”
What I explain to my clients is exactly what you said above. Potential dates – complete strangers! – don’t want to see all of you in your dating profile. They want to see the You that fits into Their life story. Deep down, they understand that all people have imperfections, quirks, and bad days. But they don’t want to think about that before they’ve met you. You need to sell them on the Best You and then as you date, the Real You comes out in tiny, manageable chunks.
Which reminds me, I should totally write a blog post about this. Thanks for being inspiring, Brian. 🙂
I totally agree with your analogy between the two “audiences”
Whilst “honesty” and the “ability to communicate well” are high on many women’s list of traits of the ideal man as you said you cant be/do either in meeting a woman.
Its that same as customers that say / think they want “authentic” – but only as long as its what they want to hear, a story that makes them feel good about themselves.
The “truth” can only come out in small manageable chunks.
Esther van der Wal says
I disagree with you. Maybe “authentic marketing” (as in the URL of this post) doesn’t exist, but authenticity is key to business. And yes, this might lead to a smaller audience, so if reaching the masses is your goal then maybe you’re better off playing around. Focusing on your readers/buyers instead of yourself is fine, but you need to keep it real and not put a brand together that people should believe in. We all have our bad days, it shows that we’re human!
Everyone is full of stories that matter. My site is built around personal stories, our own identity and being authentic. I am the same person online and offline. Maybe that won’t make me a millionaire, but I wouldn’t want it any other way.
Brian Clark says
Esther, if you look at what I wrote, and what you wrote, I don’t think we disagree at all. If you are connecting with your audience, it’s because they find you authentic, not because you think you are. It’s very cool when both sides of the equation come together, but it’s still the audience who makes the call on how they perceive you.
Let’s try a thought experiment. Let’s say you’re a total sociopath (bear with me) who made up all those personal stories you told. Maybe you’re not even a woman.
Would that change one thing about how your audience perceives who they think “you” are? Not one bit — unless they found out the truth. The stories “you” tell connect with them because it meshes with their own stories.
Again, the Internet makes finding the people you naturally connect with easier than ever, and potentially profitable. But there are some people thinking they have to be truly “real” and wondering why no likes them. 😉
Esther van der Wal says
Hi Brian, I hear what you say. True, you can’t influence how you come across to the other party. But I think you have to be an extremely professional liar to make up all kinds of stories that seem real, not well-written fiction, and still integrate them into a believable persona.
It’s always a good thing to be wary on the internet and know that who you’re talking to might not be who they actually are, or not 100% anyway. However, the truth will emerge soon enough once your audience members’ intuition kicks in and finds the discrepancies, or when they recognize it’s all rainbows and no flaws what the author/liar is telling them.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being completely real, and acknowledging that you won’t please everyone that way. That said, I do think there’s a privacy line somewhere that you shouldn’t cross – I mean, we don’t want to know every ugly detail. But showing both the positive and negative sides does paint a rounder picture.
And I definitely love to help other people tell their story, as you said in the article, if what I say resonates with them.
Rachel Lawley says
I wasn’t sure how to let this sink in with me as I was reading it, but I really enjoyed the t-shirt analogy you have. I started thinking why I would buy an authentic looking t-shirt (which I love spending time looking through at Targets, etc.). I enjoy reading them because they make me smile and make me nostalgic of when I was a kid and had shirts like that (or wanted them and the conservative mother wouldn’t let me have them). As I started buying my own clothes, I did get shirts like that – but after so many attempts to “clean up” and organize my life through the years, most of them were donated.
Those shirts – whether saved or recently purchased, are being kept more as a photos in an album – to look at, keep tidy and make me smile. So you have me asking myself, “Is this who my ‘real’ self is?” I know what makes me happy – yes, more than just t-shirts, but do I feel I have to keep them hidden in a drawer as my own little secret? Is it fear of that MOM voice telling me it’s giving the wrong impression of who I am (blah blah – I may know it’s wrong, but I still haven’t slayed that MOM voice – an entirely other issue). Is it, as you noted, the knowledge that people will jump to conclusions about me and, to me, it’s just not worth it? Is it because I know I bought it at a Target or the like and know I’m being a poser in category 4, even though I may have owned that same shirt back in the day?
Thanks for making me think about this in such a clear analogy so I can get closer to identify my “real” self, and therefore my real voice. Great piece! I look forward to more.
Kay Walten says
Brian great article. It rings true on so many levels. I have saved a copy of it to refer to it when I need to be reminded as to how to engage and inspire people.
So true. . . and so sad, the commodification. Back in the day, I remember painstakingly unstitching the seams on a pair of blue jeans and re-making them into a long jean skirt. A couple of years later, clothing companies started manufacturing denim skirts but they were NOT the same. How about tie dying? In my hippie days, we could tie dye a garment and know that it would be abso-positively unique. Then manufacturers started selling stuff that looked tie-dyed.
Or how about the well worn, well broken in jeans. . . now you can buy them with fake wear spots and holes.
Personally I feel sorry for all these wannabe authentic types who are so out of touch with themselves they don’t know and/or can’t express who they are.
Which makes me ask myself — is that who I want to be marketing to? Or is it such a majority that I have no choice????
Sonia Simone says
I don’t think it’s about having to be fake … it’s more about making sure that what you put out there is relevant to your customers.
It’s a bad idea to do anything that makes you cringe. Your customers will pick it up and will steer clear.
But you also don’t need to expect your audience of potential customers to be your shrink. They don’t need to be kept informed of every bodily function, every dull moment, every insecurity. You don’t need to share absolutely every aspect of your life with them (and it’s not really a great idea in terms of your personal safety, either).
Most businesses put a great deal of time developing and polishing a public face that is designed to do two things – build “trust” and maximize profits.
At least in the 90’s we flaunted “greed was good” nowadays we just lie and make up shit – IMO we where far more “authentic” then.
If you ever think that any company or online persona is truly “authentic” think about the customer service department.
The way we ask them to smile and apologies when its the customers %*^* up, how we apologies to people that ring up mad at tech support yelling at people when the issue its entirely their fault or being “diplomatic” when some idiot writes stupid comments on your youtube channel or facebook wall.
When the customer service department can be “authentic” ie tell it like it is, take responsibility for what is responsible and tell the customer when when its their fault, and still do business without push back from the market, then and only then will the “audience” really want “authentic”.
People don’t want “real” or “authentic” in business or in life in general they just want to be right.
Paul Flyer says
There is so much to say here that I almost don’t know where to start. Four points:
Authenticity is a concept that has been twisted into a late 20th century/early 21st century psychological mumbo jumbo catchphrase. Not sure it holds meaning anymore. We are forced to define it upfront before we begin using it.
The online world is a world of consumption. We consume information. Yes, it is nice to know that there is a real person that is writing the blog post I am reading. Yes, knowing they are a real person adds to the authority behind what they say. I read THIS blog or THAT blog because it provides value to me AND because I feel I can trust the person who writes it because I see their track record over time. In the end do I really care if they are authentic or just someone who happens to have proven they know what they are talking about?
How does authenticity fit in with value? I follow people (rss/+/twitter) to learn/grow/expand. When people spend too much time talking about their lunch, complaints, problems and snarkiness, I unfollow and unsubscribe. Too much “authentic” noise.
In the end, isn’t it about customer service? When you walk into a store do you really want the store personnel to be authentic? No. You want them to provide you value. Meaning, you want them to 1) help you with whatever you need 2) do it in a warm way (not snarky, but friendly) 3) if they do their job correctly, they instill gratitude in your heart. Is a website any different? If you have a website (of any kind) you are in the customer service business. For bloggers that means you write with a smile and if you are doing your job right, your readers will express thankfulness. I don’t think in the end they care if you are “authentic” or not.
Bonus Point: triple kudos for even mentioning Joy Division in a post!
Krista Stryker says
Interesting insights, Brian.
I can see how this would be true for the internet since you can basically weave any story you want about yourself online. Obviously this is also the case in other more traditional mediums – I’ve met radio talk show hosts who are close to nutty over the air and come off as incredibly shy in person. And I’m sure the same is true for many actors, comedians, etc.
I’ve even done this subconsciously while beginning to build my own brand online – I’m much less outgoing in person than I am on the Internet. But, since part of schpeel is living true to yourself, I still stick to my values even when I’m exaggerating my personality and my experiences.
Kenn Blanchard says
I have learned the hard way that being real has a limit. I totally agree with this post. While you can’t live up to their expectations, you shouldn’t shoot yourself in the foot by being too self-deprecating.
Patrizio R. Dell'Anna says
I knew you on Google+ and follow your contents from a few weeks.
I found them deeply interesting and nicely ironic, so I decided in a minute to attend yours and Sonia’s SmartPeople course.
And I was asking if it was worth of, being a skeptick-born 🙂
Now after reading your post about autenticity and the narrative face of marketing I feel a little less skeptick, really.
I think here you succeded in telling a part of a story that is about me, in some way.
Leah McClellan says
Thanks for another angle on authenticity. I’ve been rolling that concept around for at least a year or so as I’ve seen how often it gets used in different ways and overused along with “transparent” and the like.
“Match them with aspects of yourself”…I’ve been playing around for awhile with what aspects of myself I want to share as a writer and who the “them” is and so on, and it’s been interesting, to say the least, to see how people respond. It’s also been interesting for me to see how I react as I follow certain people and then I learn something about them that’s somewhat surprising…sounds real, certainly, and maybe it’s not an aspect of myself that I want to see in that person because I’m trying to, say, improve skills or drop bad habits or something. And maybe it’s just not something I can relate to nor would I want to. Or maybe it is, and I get it, and it inspires me….
Sometimes telling the really grungy sides of things–man, I am having a really sucky day, or whatever–is ok if the writer somehow shows the value in that and isn’t just griping. I’m thinking of someone I follow who gets a lot of flack for self-exposure and overdoing what some see as confessionals, but he’s got an enormous following (hardcorezen.blogspot.com).
I think it all depends on the goal, the niche, the audience, and so on. And while it can be tough to define authenticity, it’s usually pretty easy to spot the BS. Thanks for the food for thought.
Shane Arthur says
People want the highlight-reel you. Ex. People watch reality television, but they wouldn’t watch the same show with the cast sleeping for two hours.
People want the “you-that-I-need-you-to-be” you. Ex. Readers love authors, but they don’t love them if the authors are”real” with their ideas and end a series in a way readers didn’t like.
Whatever “you” you present, make sure it’s less boring than the lives of your audience.
Sonia Simone says
Reality TV is a really good example. It’s so heavily edited that at times it completely distorts what actually happened, but it feels real and that feeling is very satisfying to viewers.
Which isn’t to say people’s marketing should completely distort the truth. 🙂 I think Brian’s point is more that a little editing can help the feeling of authenticity quite a bit — and that if it isn’t relevant & interesting to the audience, it doesn’t belong in your communication.
This is a tricky topic, which is probably why Godin’s All Marketers are Liars (which I think is one of his best) freaked people out.
Shane Arthur says
Indeed. I agree.
All of that makes sense to me. I’m not primarily a marketer; I’m primarily a personal/memoir blogger, and even though that means that my product is me, my online persona is still a character based on me. As audiences grow for personal bloggers and other writers of memoir-based nonfiction, that becomes more and more true, as readers develop expectations based on what has come before.
Honestly, it sucks some of the life out of personal blogging and it’s a phenomenon I’m always struggling against, but it is what it is. In any case, I prefer the term integrity to authenticity. I can’t show you everything that I am using nothing but words on a computer screen, but at least I can make sure that I am showing you a legitimate piece of myself.
Tom Ewer says
Authenticity is an enigma really. We all have different groups of friends, and we tend to act differently to each group. You wouldn’t likely behave in the presence of your grandparents as you would with your old college buddies. So who is the “real” you? Well they all are – you’re just presenting yourself differently.
I think the point more is to not compromise your character to an extent whereby the true you is unrecognisable. This is of course a massive grey area, but I think it’s pretty easy to know when you have become “fake”.
Keep it real people!
Brian Clark says
Tom, that’s right. You need to find the right aspect of you to match up with your intended audience. Is it the professional you, the irreverent you, or the kind and generous you? To a certain extent, all sides will usually make an appearance from time to time, but it’s the core persona you choose that will create ongoing expectations with the audience.
Jon Morrow says
This is an old idea, but it’s probably the best expression of it I’ve seen. The old T-shirt metaphor is brilliant.
Here’s another example:
When I used to be in sales, my closing ratio over the phone was about triple what it was in person, and I couldn’t figure out why. I was making the same pitch, the same way, to the same type of people. I also noticed that existing customers preferred to talk with me over the phone.
Eventually, I asked a few top salespeople about it, and they told me it was about body language. Since I can’t move from the neck down, my words and voice were saying one thing, and my body was saying precisely nothing, and so it was confusing. Take the body language out of the equation though, and they didn’t think about it at all, and so I came across as more authentic.
Am I actually less authentic in person? No. I’m just perceived that way, and in marketing, the perception is all that matters.
Sonia Simone says
That is an amazing example, thanks J
Shane Arthur says
@Jon: Turn this comment into a post. I’d love to hear more detail on this.
Jason Konopinski says
Great post, Brian. I’ve always appreciated your forthright and no-nonsense approach to being successful in today’s socially motivated business environment. Your example about what makes something authentic reminds me of a reading from my graduate school days in cultural studies courses. One of my favorite theorists, Jacques Derrida once did an extended analysis of how we try to personalize the general – and he used the example of a signature on a check. When we sign our name or put our mark on a check, it represents or signifies our authority, but cannot substitute for what we truly are. We want to be unique and create something entirely ‘new’ – because the “possibility of the forgery always defines the very structure of the event called signature.”
Vaclav Gregor says
The T-shirt metaphor is amazing. It’s a pity that you don’t have so much time as you used to, your articles are much more profound than from any other blogger I have ever read.
We all have a lot to learn from you.
Brian Clark says
Thank you Vaclav, that’s very kind of you to say.
Brooke Farmer says
My blog is most often referred to by the people who email me through it as “raw.” I take that as a great compliment. But then, my audience is relatively small and the blog is not out there for professional reasons. I started it as a way to rebuild daily writing habits that I had long since left in the past.
But I do think that real and authentic emotions are what reach people. They can relate to it. Even the bad emotions. This is why there is so much talk in fiction writing about emotional truths vs. factual truths. Even if the setting, characters, and events are all fictitious, the emotions need to be real- you have to draw on your own real life experiences when you are creating fiction. Otherwise no one will relate to the story you are telling.
Peter Paluska says
A sweet story of authenticity marketing told with considerable flair and clarity, aka “flairity”. 😉
Another great one, Brian! Thanks for summing it up as you did.
Brian Clark says
Thank you Peter!
Daniel Edlen says
Sounds like Toltec wisdom. 🙂
Lincoln Adams says
How could people not want the real me? I’m awesome.
Hashim Warren says
Authenticity is a way to build “liking”, which builds “trust”.
And trust is powerful.
But authenticity is not the only way to get to trust.
I have little idea who Brian is. Yet I trust him deeply, because when I buy his products, he delivers.
I enjoy teaching from Gary Vaynerchuk and Penelope Trunk, but goodness gracious – I often have to wade through their personal stories to get to the part where I can learn something to take action on. They could build the same rapport with me by dropping the authenticity, and keeping the awesome insights.
I agree completely!
My blog is mainly about personal development & dating. Once I build a decent following, I decided to publish an old story about myself where I was a ragging drunk, partying, hitting on girls and doing outrageous shit. At the end of the article I described the lessons I learned from it. I felt failures in life are more valuable lessons than constant success stories.
A few days later, I see a hater post about me and my story, from a community I’ve been very active in. Basically all of the haters was saying:
” Look at this guy! He gets drunk and stuff. He is not the awesome personal development guy I thought he was!!”
I was shocked of people’s reaction. I’ve always tried to be authentic and honest with my readers. But it really is about saying the right things that people want to hear.
Tina Rubab says
this post shows ‘Brian’ we all know – different style of thinking and writing. I see Google+ on top of twitter, facebook etc. What do you think it will sweep them out sooner or later?
Geoff Livingston says
LOL, I am not sure if it is authenticity or simply common sense you are talking about. Bad days and flames are not good marketing. I think that’s common sense. Doesn’t mean I’m not me when you ask. That being said, not talking about myself incessantly is again common sense for a marketer, and I agree with you when you say people have completely lost their scruples and common sense.
Brian Clark says
You may be reading too much into my opening Geoff. That’s not the point. Even if you’re “you” and avoid crossing lines and having bad days, no one way want to hear what you’re saying anyway, because you’re not saying anything that assists them with the story of themselves.
Not you, personally, obviously. Generic you. 😉
On the other hand, deliver what people want, and they’ll forgive your bad days and line crossing. Trust me on that one.
interesting thoughts ^^
i guess between the agressive commercial campaigns, and the full authenticity of an individual, there is space for a balanced authenticity
Dawn Novotny says
I am new to your blog (new to blogging in any sense) and so enjoy what you have to say.
Today’s post is of great interest to me because my entire blog series is about the various aspects of being a human being. It could be augured that every “face” that we present to the world is authentic in some way.
The only way I know how to be “real” in my posts is to use a personal example (talking about me) in order to get people to talk about themselves.
I am aware of the fine line that I am walking and it remains to be seen if I walk straight into a ditch.
The one thing that keeps me heading forward is my love of this topic and finding ways to give away all that I know about the subject.
Thanks for your generosity,
Peter Damon says
Great article, Brian! Never read you before, you have a fan. Another angle, that all 4 t-shirt groups face, is how you want others to perceive you. Sort fo the inverse of Socrates, Endeavor to be what you desire to appear.
Thank you so much for writing this article.
I was just wondering about the strange behavior of my fans when I tried to reveal some facts from my real life. (I thought I am obliged to be authentic. So I did tell them something about my real life from time to time)
For example, one of my followers was totally shocked when I said I am married.
Another was so much irritated when I told her I have children. She left such a negative comment on Facebook that I had to remove it.
The third one was terrified when I mentioned I live in a house (she though I live in the apartment).
I the end I realized that my real life has absolutely nothing to do with my business persona. I decided I will never ever reveal anything about my real life to them.
You are right. It’s not about me. It’s about them, absolutely.
They do not want to hear your story. They want you to give them solutions to their problems.
So you listen to what they say. And when you speak, speak about their problems, not about yourself.
Unfortunately, no one cares about “real you”.
This sounds very much like what I read from a charisma coach today.
His point was that when talking to someone else, try and resonate with their emotions – that’s what helps them to feel connected with you, to enjoy the conversation, and to want to talk to you again. Your end of the conversation is basically there so that he’ll have a chance to say everything he wants to say.
Even though you’re saying a lot, you’re really just responding to what he’s saying.
This is kind of the same thing. You’re not lying, but “resonating” with your readers, telling your story in a way that just reflects what their feelings, thoughts, and struggles are.
And in reality, if you’ve ever read a good post or article, it’s always because what the other person said resonated with how you felt at the moment.
Yeah – Brian and Sonia are back- # # # sound of excited clapping .
This post is a timely reminder – that while I might be the authentic T shirt persona and never shop at Target. Potential customers do not care! It makes great sense to have product/service options for those who are the new reprint variety. Otherwise there’ll be a Target version of you out there really soon and the winner there is the customer.
Thanks for high lighting a point that was on my ‘to do’ list.
Johnny B. Truant says
I’m so incredibly not shocked that you like Joy Division.
Ryan Haack says
“Your story absolutely matters, but only to the extent that it helps people tell the story they want to tell about themselves.”
“Help people tell the story of who they are, what they believe, and what they aspire to be.”
SO good, Brian. I started reading Writing With Style by Trimble this week and he was hitting on the same idea, talking about “schooling yourself to be other-oriented.” He says the “natural tendency as a writer is to think primarily of himself and thus to write primarily for himself.” We must overcome this tendency and truly have a conversation with the reader. Engage them and, as you said, help them tell their story.
Mark McGuinness says
“Who can I be now?” – David Bowie
“Why can’t I be you?” – Cure fan, to Robert Smith
Sunil from The Extra Money Blog says
excellent distinction between merely building a following vs building a following that wants to purchase your products and services. now that’s what resonates with me as purposeful marketing. excellent post.
Anuj | BloggersJuice says
Interesting, I hadn’t thought about it this way. I am a big believer in being authentic to your audience. People can generally tell if you’re trying to sound like a perfect person in order to get them to buy something vs. truly expressing your feelings. However, the t-shirt examples are definitely ones that make you wonder about the various levels of authenticity. I would say that buying a physical knock-off like a t-shirt is something that people may be alright with, but in terms of taking personal advice from another human being, authenticity is still important.
Interesting. This is pretty close to what I asked for in answer to your question on G+, Brian, so I should have read this, first.
I will point out one thing about your T-shirt analogy though, is that although maybe even 90% of the market is varying levels of fakery, without the 10% ‘real’ the whole market collapses. So you kind of need those 10% real. In Apple terms, Steve Jobs is Apple and he’s all marketing and design, but none of it would have existed without Steve Wozniak. And in later years, Bill Atkinson (who did HyperCard). And other people at Apple who did that 10% core of ‘real’ things (i.e. things nobody asked them to do and nobody even knew they wanted until they were done).
In the end it’s not actually about what’s real and what’s not real. It’s about what’s new and innovative. To get to an innovative you just have to ignore the crowd. And in your dreams, years down the road, if you plan your sh*t right, maybe you will engender a market of 90% various degrees of ‘fake’. I guess that’s just the way the world has to be and it ain’t that terrible, but those years down the road in darkness kinda suck and I often wish there were another way, like maybe if I just blurted out everything I am doing, with zero care for what people actually want to hear, somehow everybody would automatically care because they’d just recognise the worth of it, but that’s pretty naive and that’s not the way it seems to work.
Glenn Thayer says
Just the pure and simple fact that you have a picture of the 10th release from Factory Records as your “blog graphic” says a ton about you. Sharing simple details such as a favorite band (through a graphic or a t-shirt) can create a connection between people that have never met before (or for the first time).
The big question is… Does that picture of “Unknown Pleasures” depict a real piece of vinyl from your personal collection?
Brian Clark says
No vinyl, but I do have the t-shirt. 😉
Amanda Johnson says
Amen and Hallelujah! When you’re marketing a product, it is about the consumer. When you’re marketing a service, it IS about the consumer. When you’re marketing a school, it is about the student. When you’re marketing a blog, it is about the reader. Doh. Thank you.
John Murphy says
Love this article. Authenticity is in the mind of the beholder to a very large extent – I will decide if I believe you are authentic, not you! Authenticity is not about telling me about you – warts and all, because in many cases I am not interested in your warts! I will decide if you are authentic if you consistently deliver upon your promises, you are consistent with your views and if your advice stacks up – in other words, what your promote does what it says! Authenticity is like reputation – difficult to build, but easy to destroy!
Brent Barnhart says
Nice poice. Bonus points for being a JD fan. Cheers!
Brent Barnhart says
Jay Schwartz says
Thanks for this thought provoking, Brian. I appreciate your sentiment concerning helping others as you help yourself. Nevertheless, the truth is that ‘people’ begin blogging for different reasons. Some do so, as an expression of their ego or alter ego, because they seek a stage, as well as an audience, to send a message from, be it benevolent or malevolent. Others do so as a form of catharsis, longing to find their inner voice and coax it out in the hopes of developing the confidence they feel is lacking in their real lives. Others, still, simply have something to sell and were told the Internet was a good corner to park and bark. And, there are those that simply like to defy convention … and just ‘write’ as a means of their creative expression. 🙂 The point is that for many not everything is about ‘promoting product’ … which also invariably explains why there are so many struggling artists! 😛
I think that encouraging ‘authenticity’ as a component of a marketing campaign has virtue. Yet, in terms of art, and unlike me, not everyone has ‘their own story’ to tell or even the desire to ‘drop their drawers’ in the faces of the masses. And, in the rush to win the social networking game, fostering authenticity can easily be confused with ‘selling one’s soul’, which is a completely different thing than building self-worth through the art of expression. A greater message is, as Dr. Seuss suggested, “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”
Anyone who can quote Dr Seuss has their head on straight!
Jay Schwartz says
Thanks! Flattery will get you everywhere! 🙂
Sometimes being “real you” can ruin your business reputation. I have seen that.
Instead, you reveal only that part of “real you” which is related to your business. And only if it adds to your credibility and helps to establish trust.
Doug Rice says
Interesting post, Brian. I think people often confuse authenticity with honesty. Nobody wants to do business with someone who will lie to them. But you only have to express what is relevant to your business, not everything about you personally. Customers don’t care what you watched on TV last night, about what you had for dinner, about your kid’s soccer game, about your high school buddy you reconnected with on Facebook, etc. unless of course you are selling ads to networks, you are in the culinary field, you are in the athletics industry, or you are in social media marketing. Maybe then these things will be relevant. But you don’t have to be “you” unless “you” fits what “they” need.
I guess you’re saying I can wear my 1996 Atlanta Olympics t-shirt. Cool!
Katie @ women magazine says
Liked this part very much
“Go out and be “real” when you’re having a bad day, and people will quickly call you out for not reacting in the “right” way.”
Amber James says
I absolutely agree with you and previous posters about the importance of sharing your unique story so long as it speaks to the unique stories and experiences of everyone else you’re connecting with/trying to sell to.
When you were listing the different groups of vintage t-shirt wearers, I couldn’t help but notice the exclusion of the very important Group 5: People who have inherited/found the vintage t-shirts from their Group 1 parents who are different from the intentionally-seeking members of Group 2 because the shirts actually have meaning to them beyond what’s printed on them.
You mentioned in the beginning of your post that you loved your t-shirts until they were zombie-worthy rags and that that in itself was part of the fact and feeling of authenticity.
As an owner of my parents authentic t-shirt discards, I wear them with pride because of whom they once belonged to–their history–not because I necessarily care about the original Zantigo restaurant (where my dad used to be a manager), but because I like the way it looks and it’s an ode to my pops.
Translating this Group 5 into marketing/advertising-speak: this group of people fully understands and accepts the fact that they “weren’t there when it happened,” but they respect those who were and, taking their tried and true teachings (read: t-shirts), are applying them as they specifically pertain to their audience and industry.
Thanks for this post, Brian. You’ve helped me clarify my stance.
Hey I really like this Group 5- that’d be me too, and although I find the whole t-shirt highly entertaining, if its who we are…its who we are! Thanks for adding this!!!
Lewis LaLanne aka Nerd #2 says
I have never come across a resource that dives deeper into this principle of “The ‘You’ That People Want” than Dan Kennedy’s “Influential Writing” seminar.
There’s 31 principles he covered that speak directly to this topic over 2 days. The manuals that come with the recorded version of this seminar are detailed and drip with awesome sauce. It was recorded live and Kennedy from the front of the room kicks ass.
In this seminar Dan reveals his secrets to why people like me have clung to the same lessons he teaches over and over again for five, seven, even ten years plus (I’m in this 10+ club). So if staying relevant to your audience is important to you and your bank account, you gotta go stalk the interwebz to find this invaluable resource.
Brian Clark says
Sonia may have this one, but if not, I’ll hunt it down. Thanks for the tip, Lewis.
You talk about the story of “you” and “authenticity”, and got it spot on. Applause for this post. I do have to add one thing though. People are emotional beings. We connect to them through stories, and showing bits of our lives makes them feel like “Hey, they’re no different than me.”
When people feel that way toward you, they suddenly start to know like and trust you and that’s the real battle. So no, we shouldn’t tell them everything. As you said be real when you have a bad day and it comes back to bite you, but learn to control what you let them see, show them you’re more interested in them than you are in you, tell them bits of your life they can relate to, and you gain a friend. Even if you never learn their name.
Brian Clark says
Rachel, I agree. Knowing which stories to tell is an art unto itself. The idea behind this post was to help people with that process a bit.
Lewis LaLanne aka Nerd #2 says
There’s a big ass section in “Influential Writing” on this exact topic. He points out how Jim Rohn was a MASTER at this. And yeah, I think Dan sold this from the front of the room at the seminar Sonia spoke at so if she has it, maybe that’s where she picked it up. 🙂
pj Maddox says
Well – some of us are only in group I, because we are old.
I hate ta tell ya – old really aint “cool.”
Authenticity….once you can fake that, you’ve got it made. (quote misappropriated from someone.)
Perhaps in business we just need to hear enough about you to know that you’re a real person, then get back to my favourite topic – me, solving my problems and what you can do for me……
Nothing personal of course. (insert heavy irony here)
Ha! Is this ever ‘spot on’! Not just for Marketing, but for helping people, listening to them, and interacting with others in any and every way. Everyone wants to tell their story and be listened to themselves. They’ll only listen to you in as far as it will aid their own progress. And the Vintage t-shirt illustration is pure genius because its too darn true for comfort!
I don’t often comment on your posts, for which I apologise, but I do so enjoy them, and you have a gift for knocking the proverbial nail on the head! Irony, snigger, or reality with a saccharine coating of irony????
LK Watts says
This is a great post and it’s very true.
Chris Hughes says
It can be such a fine line from being authentic and trying to be fake. Great example with the t-shirt example here. It’s pretty ironic how that works out and often ends up biting the person who is trying to be authentic in the rear.
Why does it have to be so difficult to be real while doing marketing online? I personally have been struggling with it for a while. It might be because I’m young at this point and realize how everything I do will be online 10-20-30 years from now and want to appear better but I’m not really sure.
I guess all I can do is focus on being as authentic as possible.
Tea Silvestre says
You’re right! When we put our whole selves out there for the world to see (without any polish or make-up) we’re definitely not going to be creating the best business relationships. Our customers and prospects want to see us the way they want to see us: As role models for fill-in-the-blank-with-your-thing-here.
But knowing where to find the balance is hard work. I just rebranded my small business because after 6 years as “The Social Good” consultant, I was just tired of always having to be GOOD. (Plus, Mashable’s Social Good campaign totally usurped my spotlight.)
But that doesn’t mean that the old branding wasn’t authentic. It was just that once I said I was the expert of doing business in a socially sustainable way, people wouldn’t allow me to be anything else. I could never use the eff word, for example. And that just wasn’t…well, authentic. (LOL)
It was traumatic because I felt like I was reliving my childhood as the preacher’s daughter. My parents used to constantly harp on us kids that we had to behave because everyone in the community would be watching and judging us on a higher standard. And I really HATED that.
Thanks for this post. It’s made me think hard about some choices I still need to make about my branding.
marquita herald says
Love this article Brian … I’m a storyteller by nature, in fact I spent 20+ years in the travel industry telling stories about Hawaii and the people who live here, followed by 10 years coaching and telling stories about the entrepreneural lifestyle … which means I also understand that there is an art to the “tell” of every story. Still, I think ultimately what you’re doing, the story you’re telling has to resonate with your core values on some level because otherwise where’s the fun in life?!
Susan French says
Well put, you Emperor’s- New-Clothes-Little-Boy, you.
Nice job Brian….as always.
Is it possible to be yourself to much? I find that some people claim to try and be authentic by adding tattoos, nose rings, crazy hair, etc. They say they are just trying to be authentic, but it comes across as ore of a “Hey, Look at me!”
Food for thought.
Lynn Henriksen says
Don’t we all love an old T-shirt and old friends who do know our authentic selves and love us anyway.
Thanks, Brian for another great post – always enjoy what you’ve got to say — is that the real you?
Niall Harbison says
It’s a good point. In every day life I have a hard time hiding the fact that I am in a bad mood and everybody will more or less know about it (same if I am in a good mood). Online though I always try and put my best foot forward and if I am not feeling the best I probably won’t be posting. I certainly won’t be online giving out about people and snapping at them. We are probably a lot more positive in the online world than we are offline would be my guess
Alex Moscow says
Great post thank you Brian. It seems to me that, like most things in life, our level of authenticity is very context specific. Don’t give enough and people don’t connect. Give too much and you push them away. We have to be very careful. As you say, people buy into an ideal that means something personal them and we have to ensure that this perception of us stays intact. It must be very hard for Hollywood stars.
Marian Schembari says
There’s a difference between being real to “connect” and people not liking the way you handle things. I agree with both these statements because they’re not mutually exclusive. People respond passionately because they don’t like the way you responded yourself BECAUSE you’re being real and they’re connecting with you. They wouldn’t react that way if they didn’t care (not necessarily about you, but about the issue).
It depends what you blog about, I suppose. It might not pay to be real here on Copyblogger or HuffPo, but there are a handful of “popular” blogs I read that talk about real experiences that, yes, help me (and all readers) relate to the blogger. The 20-something who had a kid and went through PPD and wrote about it hilariously. The cyclist who raised a ton of money for an event through her readers and backed out last minute. Both these women dealt with a shitstorm, but that saying “all publicity is good publicity” applies here. Yes, people aren’t going to like every decision you make when you’re “real” but you can’t deny that connection is what helps bloggers get popular in the first place.
Nichole L. Reber says
Like your commentary about varying levels of authenticity. This is far more accurate of real life. I’m especially curious about how some blogs, loaded with the blogger’s narcissism and devoid of depth, are becoming Internet sensations.
Otherwise I had hoped this post would be about real writing. Alas, it’s not even about writing at all. Just was looking to commiserate about my rusty literary pen’s efforts last night whilst composing a blog post about dating. I loathe writing about romantic notions, but had to steer clear of schmultz and self-pity or self-aggrandizement. Keep it focused, make it funny, avoid vapidity. Keep your reader in mind. You’re not writing for your friends; you’re writing for those who read like you do.
I’ve actually learned this the hard way about 8 years ago.
I allowed my ego to get in the way and I unleashed a very aggressive and holier than thou attitude against my customers which lead to a mass exodus of one of our communities.
It took several years to win them back. Those years equalled to lost revenue.
SMS Products says
Pamela Wilson just posted that you should personify your company and give your workers a face. Your statement is to relate to the client or customer and appease their interests and goals. Some sales folk may take that too far just to make a sale present themselves as something they are not. Where is the line that goes from relating to just telling people what they want to hear?
Evan VanDerwerker says
Hey, Brian Clark.
While I find the conclusions to be relatively worthwhile, I must say that I disagree with the premise of your post. I may have misunderstood a bit of it, but I don’t believe that appearing authentic is that wrong; however, I will agree that it is not ideal.
For example, whether or not Group 1 is technically, on-paper the most authentic, in regards to sales and the effectiveness of the strategy, Groups 1, 2, 3, AND 4 are seemingly equal. In other words, if “authenticity” is to be used as a marketing tool, who cares if the “authenticity” is, well, authentic?
I wrote a rebuttal on my blog (http://www.evanvanderwerker.com/brian-clark-might-be-wrong-why-people-do-want-the-real-you/), that may be of interest to some of you.
Keep up the great work,
Daniël W. Crompton says
It’s funny you mentioned the T-shirts as I belong to Group 1, I have one set which are “raggedy badges of hipster honor” and another set which are at least 10 years old and are still in the plastic until they become ironic or vintage enough to take out of the plastic and wear.
A little like the vinyl collectors who have the original first press unplayed collectable vinyl records, and then destroy their value by playing them.
I get a bit fuzzy about the differences in “realness” between the 3 t-shirts. Don’t they all express the wearer’s finding the logo’d entity attractive in some way? Don’t they all advertise the wearer’s identity or some aspect of it? T-shirts have a cache’ but if we were talking about chairs we’d say one was original and the other a reproduction or knock-off. Just how much does one expect a t-shirt to say?
Anyway, I write to add to your theorem; it seems that, in a consumer- based economy, the poor are unconsciously stigmatized for obviously not pulling their weight as a citizen by purchasing new stuff.
I saw an art gallery exhibit in LA long time ago; the paintings were all the same size, white, with a black $ and numeral on them and that happened also to be their price. hahaha
I’m imagining y’all in your faded, loose old shirt from Lady Gaga’s first auditorium concert before she was Lady Gaga. I guess it speaks for itself? Do you add some copy as to its derivation? Do you want to be noticed for some quality of yours that sets you above and apart?
OK, I don’t want to get personal, really. I’ve never really understood the t-shirt thing or the appropriateness of worn clothing at events or at “a certain age.” It shows consuming, historically or not, which may be the main thing.
Gordon Rowland says
I wear what I like and don’t give a toss about whether I’m in one group or another. My Mickey Mouse t-shirt is a favourite, keeps me smiling.
Other favourites include ‘I found Jesus . . . he was hiding behind the sofa.’
Another favourite portrays what appears to be vertical Japanese hieroglyphics. On closer inspection it reads: ‘Please . . . fuck off’
Jay Baer says
We have created – and now try to live by – a massive double-standard online. The code of conduct is “authenticity” perhaps because our truncated communication and robo-assisted musings can so easily be crafted to represent certain aspects of our whole selves. But why are we expecting people to act differently on a keyboard than they do in three dimensions?
We are rarely our authentic, true selves – online or off. The people that really and truly know us and get to see how we really feel or behave are our families and a small group of very close friends. For everyone else, we’re putting on a show of some sort. Sometimes it’s a major distortion, usually just a minor one. My own Joy Division shirt is from Group 2 in the post, for example. (although i founded the college radio station at university of arizona, so i figure i have enough indie cred to claim group 1 membership).
The point is that we are ALL FAKING IT. And that’s okay, as it’s a pact we enter into with mutual intent, and collective benefit.
Grant Tregellas says
I’m starting to develop this way of thinking that we really live in 2 worlds: The real world and this “cyber-internet-based” world. And these 2 worlds don’t necessarily have to match up. What I mean is, that a lot of interactions that happen online never really translate into a “real-world” interaction. Many of us have a massive percentage of fans and “friends” online that we will never meet in real life. And for many, this is exactly as we/they wish it to be. They are our friends “online” not in the real world. And we are happy with that arrangement.
So the argument is: what is the authentic “online” version of you verses the “authentic” real world version? And do they have to be the same? I don’t think so. I think people choose to follow people online that match an idea of a person they resonate with. If the online version of you remains consistent and authentic to the story you are telling, and if those that follow you online only are happy with that, then if there anything really wrong with the fact that the 2 worlds don’t exactly match up?
There are many people who I am aware of online, and maybe I am fans of them. But I imagine I will never actually meet those people and have coffee with them. So, am I really interested in knowing what they are really like in “real” life? Why would it matter to me?
I don’t know if this makes sense. What do you think?
Jay Schwartz says
I think we get too caught up in deciding either who we are or who we want to be … and in worse cases, letting others decide for ourselves. This whole fascination with pigeonholing everything to death is morose at best. Regardless of who you are or want to be, online or off, what’s most important is to ‘live and let live’ and to strive for living happily with yourself and the others in your life on a day to day basis … without beating yourself esteem against the wall over and over again.
Akos Fintor says
Great share! I like the line :”authenticity in marketing is telling a story people want to hear”
Being Authentic is critical.
Being Discerning is priceless.
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