Is Authenticity Real?

May 9, 2014

Part 3 of the TED Radio Hour episode Brand Over Brain.

About Joseph Pine's TEDTalk

Customers want to feel what they buy is authentic, but consultant Joseph Pine says creating "real" authenticity is a challenge.

About Joseph Pine

Joseph Pine is a writer and consultant to entrepreneurs and executives. He's co-author of the books Authenticity, and The Experience Economy, which argues that consumers seek out memorable "experiences" when they buy goods and services.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

So part of the reason why, say, a Mac airbook might make you feel creative or why drinking wine from an expensive bottle makes it taste better may have to do with something very deliberate, something that isn't really about the product, but about the experience.

JOSEPH PINE: You know, the best way to generate demand for any offering today is with an experience so engaging the customers can't help but spend their time with you, and then spend their money as a result by buying your offerings. That's what brands need to do, is create these marketing experiences.

RAZ: This is Joseph Pine, and he studies consumer experiences, specifically authentic experiences - or should I say what we perceive to be authentic - because the way to get you to buy something is to make sure it becomes part of your life like an indispensable part of what you like to do. And Joseph calls it the experience economy.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

PINE: Over the last several years, I spent a lot of time in Europe and particularly in the Netherlands. And whenever I talk about the experience economy there, I'm always greeted with one particular question. The question isn't really so much a question as an accusation. And the Dutch, when they usually put it - it always starts with the same two words - you Americans.

(LAUGHTER)

PINE: They say you Americans. You like your fantasy environments, your fake, your Disneyland experiences. They say, we Dutch, we like real, natural, authentic experiences. So much so has that happened is - that I developed a fairly practiced response. I point out that, first of all, you have to understand that there is no such thing as an inauthentic experience. Why? 'Cause the experience happens inside of us. It's our reaction to the events that are staged in front of us.

So as long as we are, in any sense, authentic human beings, then every experience we have is authentic. And then I always finish off by talking about the thing that amazes me the most about this question, particularly coming from the Dutch, is that the Netherlands is every bit as manufactured as Disneyland.

(LAUGHTER)

PINE: There isn't a square meter of ground in the entire country that hasn't been reclaimed from the sea or otherwise moved, modified and manicured to look as if it had always been there. So any place you ever go for a walk in the woods, and all the trees are lined up in rows.

(LAUGHTER)

RAZ: That's a pretty provocative thing to say to a Dutchman, that his country is as manufactured as Disneyland.

PINE: Yep. They always grudgingly admit it. You know, they don't like it, but they grudgingly admit it.

RAZ: Well, you think about, like, the cheese town and, like, the tulip fields and the windmills - so, yeah, you know.

PINE: Right. Yeah. One of the things I discovered since that TED Talk is they actually have this phrase that God created the world, but the Dutch created the Netherlands. You know, so they know it.

RAZ: I mean, in your talk, you don't imply that Disneyland is bad because it's fake. In fact, you...

PINE: No.

RAZ: ...You believe that Disneyland is very authentic, like, a really - a true place, right...

PINE: Yes.

RAZ: ...Because it is fake.

PINE: Yes. Well, because it's a certain type of fake.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

PINE: Disney World is a fake-real or a fake reality, right. It's not what it says it is. It's not really the Magic Kingdom.

(LAUGHTER)

PINE: But it is - oh, I'm sorry - I didn't mean to - sorry. But Disney World is wonderfully true to itself, right, just wonderfully true to itself. When you are there, you are just immersed in this wonderful environment.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ZIP-A-DEE-DOO-DAH")

JAMES BASKETT: (Singing) Everything is satisfaction. Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, zip-a-dee-a.

PINE: They have managed everything to give you a particular set of impressions, which are the impressions that we desire when we go there.

RAZ: Yeah.

PINE: You know, it's like going back in time to our own youth. We can forget about everything else that is going on in the world. And they do a wonderful job of creating it. And again, the sense in which they are authentic is that they are true to self. I mean, you go in there knowing that this is Disney, that this is manufactured, that it's made for you, that it's controlled in fact. But that is what Disney is about.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ZIP-A-DEE-DOO-DAH")

BASKETT: (Singing) Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, zip-a-dee-a. Wonderful feeling...

RAZ: When people go there, are they thinking about this stuff at all, even unconsciously?

PINE: They're - well, most people are not thinking about it consciously, certainly, but they perceive it at a subliminal level. It's - I always like to describe it as authenticity is a sympathetic vibration that when you have this vibration that goes back between an offering and you, and it matches your identity, right? That the offering says, yeah, that's who I am. That's what I'm about and, therefore, I view it as authentic. So you don't often have to think about that, you just feel it.

RAZ: That's Joseph Pine. And when we come back, he'll explain the best and the worst thing that can happen to a brand. Our show today - the power of brand over brain. I'm Guy Raz. And you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And our show today - ideas around branding and the things we tell ourselves about what's cool and what's not.

So we were just hearing from Joseph Pine, who's a business consultant. He says that when you go out into the world to spend money, what matters almost more than anything else is how that experience feels.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

PINE: What happens when you customize a service? What happens when you design a service that is so appropriate for a particular person that's exactly what they need at this moment in time? Then you can't help but make them go wow. You can't help but turn it into a memorable event. You can't help but turn it into an experience.

Now, most places that I talk to when I talk about experience, I talk about theme restaurants and experiential retail and boutique hotels in Las Vegas - the experience capital of the world. And now with the experience economy, it's about rendering authenticity 'cause you have to get your consumers - as business people - to perceive your offering as authentic.

When it comes to being what you say you are, the easiest mistake that companies make is that they advertise things that they are not. Think about any hotel, any airline, any hospital, right. If you could check into the ads, you'd have a great experience.

(LAUGHTER)

PINE: But unfortunately, you have to experience the actual hotel, airline and hospital. And then you have that disconnect. Then you have that perception that you are phony. That's why you have companies like Starbucks. They said you want to know who we are, you have to come experience us. And think about the economic value they have provided by that experience.

RAZ: So earlier we heard from Paul Bloom about this very same thing, right, about the stories that marketers tell when they sell us a cup of coffee, right. And Starbucks tells a good story.

PINE: Yeah. I mean, they do everything to come off as authentic. Where you go in there and you can smell the beans. You can actually often hold beans in your hand and feel this - you know, this is real coffee.

They work on the colors, you know, and the textures of the place to all evoke the Earth, right, so all browns and greens and so forth. Even the fonts that they use are ones that they want to come off as authentic.

They talk to you about where they got the beans, where they're located in the Earth. And that is one of the most authentic things that we think of is things that are in and of the Earth itself, right. That's that natural authenticity.

RAZ: But even though they do all these things, like, the Starbucks brand is so ubiquitous. It's everywhere. It's on airplanes and it's in cafeterias and in the shops. Like, you can't escape it. Even with all that stuff, even with that ubiquity, it's still authentic.

PINE: Yep. Well, in fact, that's exactly the right word for it because that is their biggest problem because ubiquity is the death knell of authenticity. If I can encounter it everywhere, then it really has lost its place. And place is a key thing with authenticity.

That we view things that have a particular place in the world as being authentic. They're rooted. They're grounded. But if they're ubiquitous, then they lose that rootedness about what they are and, in fact, who they are.

RAZ: I'm thinking about, like, a brand - I don't know - like Nike. Could you argue that it was more authentic in its early years, like in the early '80s, you know, before it became the brand of basketball stars...

PINE: Sure.

RAZ: ...And baseball stars and huge Nike stores all over the country?

PINE: I mean, absolutely. And that points to another reason why ubiquity tends to kill authenticity because you think about when Nike was young, only a few people knew about it. It was the cognoscenti, if you will, that knew about this brand, knew that they created great shoes. And then as it grows, it becomes known. Everywhere in the world knows about it so it is always like, you know, the cool kids once everybody discovers whatever the cool kids like, then they have to move onto something else.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

PINE: Let me summarize it for the business people in the audience with three basic rules. One, don't say you're authentic unless you really are authentic. Two, it's easier to be authentic if you don't say you're authentic. And three, if you say you're authentic, you better be authentic. And then for the consumers, for everyone else in the audience, let me simply summarize it by saying, increasingly, what will make us happy is spending our time and our money satisfying the desire for authenticity. Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

RAZ: Joseph Pine's book on this is called "Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want." You can watch his entire TED Talk at ted.npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.