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Keeping It Real, The Quest for Authenticity

One major spin-off of my minor involvement in the rag trade was combining Sunday morning buying trips to Brick Lane wholesalers with visits to The Lahore Kebab House in Commercial Street. In those days this internationally recognised centre for Asian cuisine sold a choice of two curries, one meat and one veg, and for drinks there was an ancient stone sink with a tap. But the flavours (and aromas) that this gastronomic powerhouse produced were like doorways to a totally different dimension of culinary accomplishment…

The eighty-year-old twin brothers whose farmhouse, ‘built like broken box-crates,’ was squeezed between the monastery-capped mountains and the Aegean (they had to march their goats across the beach to pasture every morning) made their own cream cheese and retsina and served them up at night, with their fat, juicy, home-grown kalamata olives, beneath a hundred million stars…

Until 2006, Youngs Brewery used Dray-Horses and carts to deliver beer to pubs within a certain radius (5 miles?) of their Wandsworth Brewery, which had been established in 1831. And for many years one of the Young’s Draymen, the liveried charioteers who drove the cart on their delivery rounds, had a seat on the Youngs Board, not just the running-board…

Most of our ideas about authenticity were probably shaped by the ancestors of the ‘Taverna Twins’ mentioned above, those infinitely curious people who scratched their laurel-wreathed heads in the Classical equivalent of Silicon Valley, Ancient Greece. But once again it fell to the West Midlands Chapter of The Business of Pleasure to express it best:

“This above all: to thine own self be true” (Hamlet, Act 1 Scene, III Polonius)

More recently, ideas on authenticity were given a little Gallic ‘je ne sais quoi’ by the Existentialists. According to Jean Paul Sartre: ‘existence predates essence’ and we continually redefine ourselves (i.e. become more authentic) through our lifetimes.’

Here are some thoughts of Jean Paul’s compatriots in ‘L’Affaire du Plaisir’

Coco Chanel (one-time warm-up cabaret singer):

“Hard times arouse an instinctive desire for authenticity”

Eric Cantona (one-time football icon):

“Children go where they find sincerity and authenticity”

Albert Camus (one-time Algerian Universities goal-keeper):

“Any authentic creation is a gift to the future”

‘Authenticity’ occupies a special place in The Business of Pleasure on both sides of the Channel, or Chanel. It both elevates and somehow ennobles both the experiences it contributes to and the organisations that produce and promote them; as if by maintaining their authenticity (i.e. their integrity) and staying ‘real,’ they have heroically fought off the forces compromise, dilution and adulteration. We almost want to pin a bravery medal on them.

What’s more, by some mystical (and somewhat cannibalistic) process, authenticity also makes our audiences actually feel more authentic for consuming it. Takes them a little bit closer to their ‘real’ inner selves that Sartre was referring to, a bit further down the spectrum to that ‘special place’ that ‘contains the constellation of feelings, needs, desires, capacities, aptitudes, disposition and creative abilities that make them a unique individual.’

Perhaps our authentic curry houses, goatherds and breweries should include a charge in the ticket-price for re-setting their patrons’ authenticity in this way? Maybe call it a Restoration Levy..?

But seriously…

A recent study of the literature of authenticity (Lehman, 2019) identified three types of authenticity, ‘The Three Cs’

CONSISTENCY: ‘the relationship between something (or someone’s) external characteristics and their internal values …‘it does what it says on the tin’

CONFORMITY: e.g. something (or someone) conforms with our general idea what this type of thing (or person) typically appears/behaves like

CONNECTION: ‘…with a person, place or time, etc., as claimed’ e.g. the actual jacket Jimi Hendrix wore at Woodstock, a genuine Picasso rather than a fake, Polish Vodka distilled in Krakow not Cobham

And, more recently, a fourth ‘C’ has been suggested…

CONTINUITY: ‘which allows for changes in authenticity over time, and places greater emphasis on becoming authentic rather than being authentic

Whilst authenticity is a highly desirable quality, it is also notoriously difficult to create for practitioners of The Business of Pleasure; from banks ‘repurposed’ as pubs by the insertion of old prints and horse-brasses, to prefabricated pop groups miming (badly) to pre-recorded backing tracks. Indeed, the very act of marketing something to a broader spectrum of segments may inevitably mean ‘watering down’ the very characteristics that make it special.

There is also the problem of subjectivity. My perception of authentic meat pie and chips (as a Londoner) might be very different from those of Dubliners and Glaswegians.

And what if the fare on offer is more complex than offal, pastry and potatoes? Like a play or a musical? How do we discriminate between an actor’s ‘authentic’ performance, drawn from his personal experiences and response to the material, with the writer of that material’s own authentic story-telling (perhaps as written 2,500 years ago) and the director who is trying to realize his own ‘authentic’ vision of the piece? The short answer …we just sense it, feel it, as a kind of ‘truth’ that seems to be present in every second of the production, as in Robert Icke’s take on Aeschylus’ ‘Oresteia’ and Stephen Daldry’s ‘Billy Elliot The Musical.’

But there is one area of The Business of Pleasure where authenticity is more easily definable, if not quite so easily deliverable…

Brand Authenticity

For most organisations living (or dying) under the glare of 24/7 global social media, there has never been a worse time to try and straddle a massive chasm between the stated aims of an organisation and how that brand is experienced by patrons and partners on the ground. It’s a frankly terrifying image, a company metaphorically ‘doing the splits’ as the gulf between ‘the intention and the deed’ continually widens…. A more useful image might be one of a surfer; one who’s desperately trying to maintain their footing atop the swell of changing audience priorities and perceptions. And who also has to adjust the board (and Board) to contend with successive waves of innovation (and competitor predation) disrupting the stormy seas of a volatile trading environment. That sea never stops moving. Staying on top, and keeping the organisation authentic, requires continuous adjustment and eternal vigilance, actively seeking out feedback from social listening, online-testing, search-research and user-generated content, etc., and using the data these listening posts yield up as a kind of radar to spot any rocks and reefs up ahead, and help steer improvements, upgrades and innovations.

Most importantly, it means continuously eliciting honest feedback from customer-facing personnel who actually deliver the brand, and ensure its authenticity, day-in, day-out. Of course, so many organisations within The Business of Pleasure are blessed with teams who are ‘living the dream,’ and so need little or no or encouragement to maintain engagement, or coaching on embodying the brand values. But for everyone else will probably be a case of regularly sharing the organisation’s objectives (and their successes and failures) with all the teams, and agreeing with those teams the yardsticks by which progress will be made towards those objectives.

For most of us, most of the time, maintaining authenticity is never easy, be it in a Pasanda, a pint, or a public company. Especially in the heat of battle, or when faced with pressures from partners, stake-holders, or the P & L. So if at any time it seems like I’m being anything less than authentic in these posts and podcasts, please, please drop me a line and say “Hey DT, keep it real!”

Copyright David Thomas 2021

All Rights Reserved

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