How to Win the Race for Authenticity

In Plato's Allegory of the Cave, the released prisoner was forced to see a whole new perspective of his world, vastly different from the one to which he had become accustomed. What once was assumed to be silhouettes of some real things turned out to be merely shadow puppets. The prisoner was left with this agonizing knowledge that the shadows, and his experience with them, just might be more real than reality. Plato postulated, of course, that the physical world was not true reality, but rather a simulation or a copy of the ideal. The ideal being the true reality.

The "Search for Authenticity," as many call it, has stoked a long-standing debate about what is real since Plato's time and, perhaps, earlier. Though generation after generation people have grappled with this as a joint and an individual struggle, Gen Z is noted for an increased personal connection to this hot button topic. More than almost any other characteristic, Gen Z consumers value authenticity. They want to see authenticity in their influencers, in their leaders, and in their brands. This includes both the brands that they buy from and the brands that they create for themselves.

During an in-classroom anthropology discussion about the link between authenticity and cultural authority, my classmates and I slowly found our way into full-on academic debate, or perhaps a societal critique, about what can be deemed as true, personal authenticity. As one might expect, the discussion made its way to the topic of social media and the general disdain for the ideology spread through over-polished, 'picture perfect' posts that betray all sense of reality.

As if to drive home this longing for authenticity, a new social media app, BeReal, has started gaining traction. The concept behind BeReal is that, around the same time, all of the app users are prompted to take a photo of their real, every-day life. A picture is captured from the back and front cameras, to show the true context of the moment. I have already heard many users lament that no one truly takes a picture during the prompted time; everyone is still seeking that perfect social media moment to post.

What does all of this have to do with consumers, branding, and my own experience?

The postmodernist critique of modernity's inability to create authenticity lies in the claim that everything is now a copy of a copy. There is no more originality. In the social media crazed search for authentic content, only the first few people to attain it are considered to be original. After that, all others become faceless participants in a new trend. What has happened is that we are all now racing to be unique, to be the first, to be original. We are in a race to be considered authentic. During a segment of The Agenda with Steve Paikin, titled The Search for Authenticity, it was pointed out that authenticity does not equal disclosure or complete transparency.

In my line of work, I have come to learn that a single bad image does not determine your entire identity, but neither does a single good image. There is no shame in sharing moments and pictures that you are proud of, and the world is not entitled to your lowest of lows. We, all of us, are a compilation of all our good images, our bad images, and our in-between images. When discovering your own brand, when building your own reputation, you have all the tools you need already. We seem to think that we all need to race to some undetermined finish line where we will be handed a prize and awarded some status as a unique, qualified individual. You are already there.

There is a reason why I used the phrase 'discovering your own brand'. Determining your brand is a process of exploration, not solely one of creation. You already have something that makes you unique, that sets you apart from all of your peers. You are not a copy, or a copy of a copy. In the race for authenticity, you have already won. It is time to start acting like it.

J. E. Forrest