Illustration by Edward Monaghan

Ahh, “authentic,” everyone’s favorite new buzz word. But before more ill-informed marketing spoils it for us all, let’s take a look back at the roots of its real (dare we say, authentic) definition, and figure out what that means for brands, and for the designers who work with them them.

A forged painting could be said to be the authentic work of the forger, but also an inauthentic version of the work which it copies. Baroque music played on electronic instruments is contextually inauthentic—no such instruments were available to Vivaldi or Bach—but the notes, played according to the original sheet music, are the authentic arrangements of a specific composer. “‘Authentic,’” says Denis Dutton, in his essay Authenticity in Art, “like its near-relations, ‘real,’ ‘genuine,’ and ‘true,’ is what J.L. Austin called a ‘dimension word,’ a term whose meaning remains uncertain until we know what dimension of its referent is being talked about.”

“Whenever the term ‘authentic’ is used in aesthetics,” says Dutton, “a good first question to ask is, ‘authentic’ as opposed to what? Despite the widely different contexts in which the authentic/inauthentic is applied in aesthetics, the distinction nevertheless tends to form around two broad categories of sense.” The first is an idea of ‘nominal authenticity,’ by which an object’s origin and authorship can be guaranteed. But the term ‘authenticity’ conveys more than just authorship, says Dutton; “an object’s character as a true expression of an individual’s or a society’s values and beliefs.”

Authenticity in the context of branding, then, is the communication of values and beliefs that are core to that brand—the essence of what makes it distinct and unique.

But the bigger the brand, the larger the empire, the less likely it is that its beliefs are relatable to the individual. The more the word ‘authentic’ becomes a buzzword for brands, the less it has a substantial meaning upon which to hang real values.

“Trust is at a premium in our Dislocated World,” reads the introduction to Beyond Authenticity, a recent report by Monotype and The Future Laboratory. “Skeptical consumers are rejecting traditional media and advertising communications in favor of transparency and truthfulness. People want to opt in and be part of a brand’s story, rather than feel they are simply being sold to. Against this backdrop, the whole concept of brand authenticity is being called into question.”

No argument there. The false narratives spun by over a century of advertising have sharpened consumer noses to be sensitive to bullshit, making them keenly aware of when they’re being sold a lie. Take Shell’s recent #makethefuture campaign. It has all the makings of a classic piece of authentic, collaborative content. At its core is a product called GravityLight, which provides infinite light to users via a counterweight-powered generator. Its goal is to provide light to people who currently live off-grid and are charged exorbitant rates for units of electricity—or worse still, have no electricity at all. Without electricity, kerosene is the best fuel to illuminate a home, but the resulting toxic fumes can cause long-term health damage. GravityLight hopes to combat all this, and initial tests in sub-Saharan Africa have shown promise.

The goal of GravityLight is undoubtedly noble, and most probably authentic—its designer Jim Reeves has spent an enormous amount of time developing the product. But what does Shell gain from the partnership? Shell is an oil company, whose very reason to exist depends on the extraction of fossil fuels to be sold for profit—fossil fuels like the kerosene GravityLight seeks to replace.

In Kenya, where GravityLight has been piloted, Shell’s investment is contributing to the improvement of daily (and nightly) life for a number of people. On the other side of Africa, in Nigeria, Shell is being investigated for its role in plundering the country’s natural resources in collaboration with a selection of multinational companies and Nigeria’s former petroleum minister Dan Etete. At its worst #makethefuture is a PR exercise to drown out the noise made by Shell’s wrongdoing around the world, at best it’s a woefully inauthentic brand partnership that does nothing to amplify or promote Shell’s core values, nor does it fit the criteria for ‘nominal authenticity’—someone else made GravityLight.

Of course oil companies are not the only ones to confuse and mislead when it comes to authenticity in their public persona. 2016 was a terrible year for trust for both the mainstream media and political parties, and 2017 isn’t shaping up to be too different. Back to that Monotype report: “A recent Media Research Center and YouGov poll shows that 69% of U.S. voters do not believe the news media are honest and truthful. The past 12 months have signified the largest ever drop in public trust of business, media and NGOs, according to Edelman’s Trust Barometer 2017. Public trust in government has fallen to 41%.

“‘The implications of the global trust crisis are deep and wide-ranging,’ says Richard Edelman, president and CEO of Edelman.

“‘Business is the last retaining wall for trust,’ adds Kathryn Beiser, global chair of Edelman’s Corporate Practice. ‘Its leaders must step up on the issues that matter for society.’”

While it’s a stretch of the imagination to suggest that business is “the last retaining wall for trust,” it’s certainly true that businesses and brands need to take wider issues seriously. But how exactly does a brand go about tackling social issues in a way that looks and feels—and ideally is—authentic to their consumers? Dove, one of Unilever’s most prominent global brands, has defended its market share aggressively with campaigns celebrated for offering an enlightened take on body positivity, encouraging customers to think differently about what constitutes beauty. Their ‘Campaign For Real Beauty’ was enormously successful, achieving viral superstardom over several years and picking up a veritable shedload of awards in the process. It has variously been referred to as “a game changer,” and “a breath of fresh air” for its consistent use of “real models” instead of airbrushed women.

The campaign was also a response to a genuine problem: a 2004 global report revealed that only 2% of women around the world thought of themselves as beautiful. “One of the greatest achievements of the Dove campaign, is that it initiated a global conversation to widen the definition of beauty,” said Angela Celebre and Ashley Waggoner Denton, in a 2014 article for The Inquisitive Mind. “The main issue being targeted was the repetitive use of unrealistic, unattainable images, which consequently pose restrictions on the definition of beauty. Dove sought to change the culture of advertising by challenging beauty stereotypes; they selected real women whose appearances are outside the stereotypical norms of beauty (e.g., older women with wrinkles, overweight women).”

Setting aside the fact that Dove is exploiting these cultural phenomena to sell a product, its campaigns satisfy the criteria for authenticity in the nominal sense (they’ve been created by the brand) but also in the wider sense, as a clear reflection of Dove’s values. The problem arises when you zoom out and look at Dove’s impact in the real world. Outside of the advertising and marketing sphere, Dove—a subsidiary brand of Unilever—operates with a very different set of ethical standards, most recently failing to compensate former workers suffering ill-health after mercury leaked from a now-defunct Unilever factory. Is this really business operating as “the last retaining wall for trust?” For all the rhetoric supporting body positivity, when it comes to the impaired health of former employees, the brand has been uninterested in repairing the real physical damage it has caused.

One area in which authenticity is easier to establish is through social media—a constant, responsive channel through which a brand is able to engage with its consumer base, unfiltered. “Digitally native brands such as Tesla, Google, and Uber have a constant conversation with their consumers about how and why new products are developed and used,” says Bruce Duckworth, co-founder of branding agency Turner Duckworth, in Monotype’s report. “As a consequence, people have a much closer and more genuine relationship with them than they have with brands that broadcast to them through traditional media…

“People who love Uber don’t just advocate it any longer, they insist you love it too, and help you download the app on the spot.” This level of authenticity is the best a brand can hope for—one they don’t have to engineer themselves, because the consumer has become an advocate, or as Duckworth calls them, “the New Evangelicals.”

While these “New Evangelicals” can be fiercely loyal brand supporters, they can also turn into enemies when brands fail to uphold the values they espouse. When Tesla CEO Elon Musk, and Uber CEO Travis Kalanick joined President Trump’s advisory committee in December 2016, there was widespread concern among supporters of both brands that their positions within the administration were untenable. There were, they believed, too many conflicting values. Musk managed to defend his position on the grounds he could influence the new President. “In the meetings I’ve had thus far, I’ve argued in favor of immigration and in favor of climate change [policy]. That wasn’t on the agenda before,” he said. “Maybe nothing will happen, but at least the words were said.”

Kalanick took a similar line—“We partner around the world optimistically in the belief that by speaking up and engaging we can make a difference”—but during the President’s travel ban the clash of values between the administration and Uber had immediate consequences. Uber failed to support a work stoppage organised by the New York Taxi Worker’s Alliance intended to grind JFK to a halt. For failing to do so a viral campaign circulated to #DeleteUber that saw over 200,000 users delete their accounts with the ride sharing app. This misjudgment cost Uber its reputation as an integral part of Silicon Valley’s progressive start-up community, and gave its competitors ample opportunity to grow and learn from its mistakes.

So what’s the lesson here for designers and agencies working in branding? Monotype concludes that its wide range of custom fonts are the answer—which feels transparent at the end of a document that spends so much time acknowledging consumer savvy. Updating Uber’s brand fonts won’t win them back nearly a quarter of a million clients, just as redrawing the Dove logo won’t pay factory worker’s healthcare bills. Instead it suggests that branding has become so entwined with storytelling that reality can often be lost along the way. And when storytelling and fiction become intertwined brand authenticity becomes little more than a fiction itself.