Monday, January 21, 2008

Keep it real

I've been thinking a lot lately about authenticity: What makes something or someone authentic, and why is it important (and why do I care)?

First, authenticity is not binary; it's not as simple as being (or not being) authentic. There are degrees. The authenticity of something or someone ebbs and flows with experiences.

To be authentic is to be genuine, credible, real. Probably most importantly, authenticity teeters based on the degree and validity of trust that's created.

Consider your acclimation to a new product or new acquaintance. You begin with a collection of perceptions that morph, through interaction, into impressions. These impressions are altered -- positively or negatively -- through experiences with the thing or person, fostering a variable degree of trust. The more positive, credible, genuine, and real the experiences, the higher level of trust (and thus authenticity). In short, perceptions >> interaction >> impressions >> experiences >> trust >> authenticity. In short (II): You can't fake authenticity.

Three examples to chomp on:

1. Politicians: I attended President Clinton's talk at UCD last week. He's good, and I side with most of his politics (but not his wife's). It was my second in-person experience -- my perceptions have solidified into impressions through somewhat real interactions. A pol's credibility and authenticity are magnified through such personal interactions. However, Clinton's authenticity was diminished through my interaction; he was less genuine, more contrived, a caricature. I guess I trust him less. Barack Obama, conversely, is authentic to me. I have not met him nor seen him in person. But, I trust him ... he's credible, genuine, human. Obama is real.

2. Products: A company's brand is, simply, the collection of perceptions it creates in the minds of constituents. Perceptions are staged and altered through the delivery of (positive and negative) experiences. People call this a "brand promise"; to me, it's the backbone of a company: the efficacy of the trust and rapport it builds with customers. When Apple unveiled the iPhone, it came loaded with a bevy of promises and potential. Early adopters trusted Apple -- probably due more to historically favorable experiences with the company's products (we perceived it was going to be cool and useful and functional) than the fulfillment of an unmet need -- and took a leap. To me the iPhone is authentic; through positive experiences, it has fulfilled my expectations.

3. People: We all have coaches, colleagues, teachers and friends who we trust. They're authentic, and their authenticity (our trust and belief) is earned through a combination of being candid and genuine, perhaps humble and non-defensive, relational and warm. Flip the coin and think of non-genuine, unauthentic counterparts. Initially through instincts and eventually through experience-born judgment, your trust wanes. We associate with and migrate to people we trust.

When you're voting for a candidate, keep it real. When you create a company or launch a product, focus on building trust and rapport (and thus authenticity) with constituents; by fulfilling a promise, loyalty will come. And when you're building a team, trust your judgment.

Post-script (24 Jan 08): From today's WSJ Opinion page ("The Authenticity Thing"):

Political authenticity isn't easy to define. Some would say the words are mutually exclusive. Others say that authenticity is a matter of whether a politician operates out of something real inside or is making his politics up as he goeas along. Perhaps the easiest test for authenticity in an electorate of more than one million voters is the one Supreme Court Justice Potter Swewart applied to hard-core pornography: "I know it when I see it." ...

If we want a better understanding of the style of authenticity that people who vote are looking for, consider the real meaning of Barack Obama's controversial praise for Ronald Reagan. Sen. Obama was correct that Reagan caught the nation's need for a new direction, which is now the senator's claim. But Reagan's published letters and papers make clear that he believed in his political ideas for a long time. By 1980, they were deep and clear. They were authentic.

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