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Caught in the authenticity paradox
on August 7, 2008
In their 1999 best seller `The Experience Economy' the authors, Joseph Pine and James Gilmore, described the shift in the economy from mining raw materials to the production of goods, to delivering services, to setting the scene for leisure experiences. Despite all the praise given to this book, there was nagging feeling: the American examples presented by the authors, such as Disney and Las Vegas, really did not work as authentic experiences for Europeans. This resulted in negatively equating The Experience Economy with facile, superficial and passive amusement in a fun-oriented society resembling a children's party. In their subsequent book, which recently appeared, `Authenticity - What consumers really want' it is clear that the authors have taken this criticism to heart. In their new book they claim that consumers have had enough of the common pre-set-scene products of the experience industry. Short-term stimuli and superficial must make way for experiences promising a long term and constant change. `Authenticity' is the new catchword. Anything we buy is increasingly adorned with adjectives like `real', `natural', `original' or `honest'. In fact, it is not only products that are measured to the degree to which they are authentic. `Authentic leadership' is nowadays also demanded of board members and managers. The recent American primary elections were not so much about content, but were more about perceptions of the candidates' authenticity. Hillary's tears - how real were they? And Obama's promises - will he realize them?
According to Gilmore and Pine this quest for authenticity did not appear from thin air, but came about as a result of three interwoven social developments. The first one has to do with the development of the experience economy itself. Now that the fascination for artificial events (Disney, Rainforest Cafe) has ebbed away, people ache for more authentic and meaningful experiences. In the second place the focus on authenticity has to do with the demographic influence exerted by `baby boomers' and `culturally creative persons' on society as a whole. Although these two groups are strongly divergent in age - the baby boomers are now in their third life phase, whereas most of culturally creative persons are in the prime of their life and career - they mutually connect in a common focus on questions of spiritual faith and belief systems relating to quality of life. As a third explanatory factor the authors mention the undermining of the reputation of important institutions. The public trust in political and economic institutions has been seriously hurt by lack of leadership, by fraud and self-enrichment. People long for a return to the basic reason (raison d'être) of institutions and organisations connected to these institutions. They demand not only that they really stand for something but that they also do what they say they stand for.
The challenge here is that it is often unclear what the term `authenticity' exactly means. In practice the concept is often associated with the following five aspects. Being natural (authenticity thus stands for the natural, raw and untamed), being original (authenticity thus stands for the original and innovative), being unique (authenticity thus stands for individual and exceptional achievements), being influential (authenticity thus stands for spiritual authority) and finally contextual matters (authenticity referring to well known persons, periods or events). In order to come to a simplified description, Pine and Gilmore went back to philosophers. These relate authenticity most of all with that which has developed naturally. This viewpoint was strongly advocated by the romantic thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He contrasted the natural ideal of the `noble savage' to modern civilisation, which has been corrupted through and through. It follows that authenticity refers to a mode of acting in which one rejects the rules of society in order to become one's true self. Thus anything made by machines and made for money cannot be accepted as authentic. Following this line of thinking, Pine and Gilmore cannot come to any other conclusion than to regard every economic offer as fake. For every economic offer is made by a firm acting according to the laws and rules of society. It makes use of technology and has making money as its aim. End of this little test, one would say. If anything a firm offers is fake by definition, why would you make the effort to offer `authenticity'? However, Pine and Gilmore are not in checkmate here. By entering perceptions of experience as a new element in the game, they come to the conclusion there is an `authenticity paradox': even though all firms, products and services are in fact fake, we experience a number of them as authentic. We call one product or brand fake and the other authentic. In terms of ontology, this distinction is nonsensical, but in our experience we can handle it well.
Authenticity is thus subject to the free game of subjective emotions. What is experienced by one person or target group as the apex of authenticity is perhaps taken by others as fake. Smartly, the two consultants point at the fact that Europeans are often inclined to mark American cultural events as fake. For Americans and peoples from Asia this works differently, say Pine and Gilmore. In their experiences the replica of Venice in Las Vegas is at least as authentic or perhaps even more authentic than that city itself. The experiences of what is experienced as authentic, is indeed different in varied persons and cultures. In the end the authenticity of experiences is based upon the self-image of a person or group: does one identify with the product, that service or that firm? Does it dovetail with your self-image? Does it touch you and do you feel you can relate to it? If and when firms wish to increase the authenticity of their offer, they will have to take into consideration the perception of their target groups in the market. A firm may thus make a product authentic for a specific target group. In this case, the authors use the word `rendering' in order to indicate that in fact something inherently non-authentic is perceived as authentic.
In order to move ahead of the only logical conclusion from the reasoning followed thus far, offering authenticity is nothing but an age old marketing trick in which something is created out of nothing - here the authors again change their line of reasoning in a remarkable shift. In order to be perceived as authentic, they write, it is really of the utmost importance to come across in a truthful and/or credible manner. The truthfulness of an offer has to do with the degree of correspondence with the identity of the firm. Credibility has to do with the question whether one actually does what one promises. Distinguishing the elements identity (yes/no) and whether one is involved, the criteria of `truthfulness' and `credibility' yield a matrix allowing managers to measure their products, services, stores or events in terms of the degree of authenticity. According to this matrix Disney is truthful (their identity is based on delivering family amusement), but not credible (fairy tales actually don't exist). As a reverse example the NBA Store in New York City is credible (it is indeed a store selling all kinds of basket ball articles), but it is not truthful as it forbids kids to `dunk' - which according to the authors is the core characteristic of basketball.
The contents summarized here, in short, indicate that we are dealing with a book that is really fascinating and in terms of theory very rich, but that is not readily applicable. As there are a great number of models, examples, strategies and theoretical referrals - including almost 30 pages of notes in small print (!) - this book resembles a seriously detailed work of academia rather than a lucid management book full of insights - there is often just too much stuff to tell. On the other hand this book is too sparsely grounded in the empirical sense to convince the reader. In their quest for the essence of authenticity, they lose track - and the reader as well - a number of times. On the one hand this is caused by the encyclopaedic zeal of the authors in trying to fit into one framework everything ever said or thought about authenticity. On the other hand this has to do with the limitations of the framework that strangely enough goes no further than a somewhat naïve marketing perspective. If they would have chosen a wider perspective, the authors would have been less rigid in stating that only clients decide whether a product, service or firm is authentic and they would have included in the analyses other stakeholders as well - such as employees, stock owners, pressure groups in society, and public opinion. A wider perspective would have also opened the authors' eyes to the fact that authenticity is grounded for the greater part in the relationship people feel with a certain offer or firm. Factors such as continuity, congruence and consistency play an important part: firms which have existed for a long time, that make a consistent offer and communicate the same story, time and time again, stand a much better chance of being perceived as authentic than those firms incapable of delivering those characteristics. It is at this very point that the comparison of the town of Venice and the replica in Las Vegas are completely at odds: whereas Venice has deep historic roots, delivers a continuous image and a consistent message, this is not true of Las Vegas - which is only a fleeting mix of styles and ambitions.
Finally: the fact that their last book is deficient in the areas of theoretical system and empirical depth, does not take away from the interest of the many examples, anecdotes and sweeping statements offered by the authors. Just consider the next axiom:
- If you are authentic, you don't have to say you're authentic
- If you say you're authentic, then you'd better be authentic.
- It's easier to be authentic, if you don't say you're authentic
The meaning is crystal clear. An authentic organisation is simply one where identity, image and actions are in concord with each other. Sometimes life just turns out to be so simple...
Hans van der Loo is active as an independent consultant and has a passion for creating authentic organisations.