Eating Authentically

Much is discussed about authenticity and its importance in many walks of life – whether we are referring to politicians, music, food or even skin care lotion.  Authenticity is often considered to be an important virtue, one which must not be lost as if we do, then much of the equity of the individual, product or brand will be lost with it.

Whilst it is easy to use the word, do we really know what this term actually means?  This is important for marketers – we somehow sense that authenticity is important but can all too easily come out on the wrong side.  Take the debacle over the Kendall Jenner advert for Pepsi where she was positioned as a peacemaker carrying a can of Pepsi thereby stopping a riot.  The PR Council said of the advert “The disconnects here are centred around issues of authenticity, credibility, and co-opting something larger, more meaningful, and more serious.”

Perhaps there is little surprise that a perceived lack of authenticity in a beverage advert should create such an outcry as there is a huge focus on this in food and drink.  It is a term that is routinely added to food labels and included in advertising.  Consumers readily agree that it is important.  Despite our desire for authenticity, it is surprising hard term to nail down.   And as such, we end up with these differences of opinion of what authenticity looks like.

When we look to disentangle meaning it is useful to draw on philosophy to help us.  One of those which has something helpful for us is Ludwig Wittgenstein who devoted much of his to investigating how humans communicate using language.  His perspective was that language works by triggering pictures within us of how things are in the world.  Hence, if a friend says, ‘the palm tree by the shore’, then this summons up an image in my mind. Language is the process by which we are constantly swapping pictures between us.  This is particularly relevant to authenticity around food which is rich in imagery.

However, Wittgenstein argued that we are often not very good at creating the desired pictures in the minds of others.  We can think we are communicating one picture all the whilst the intended recipient has ‘the wrong picture’.  The key, according to Wittgenstein, is to understand the ‘game’ that is being played with the language being used.  So, for example, when a parent says to a child ‘don’t worry everything will be fine’ they cannot really know it will be, there is no rational prediction from available facts but that is not the game being played.  Instead, they are playing another game, one of comfort and security.

What, you may ask, has this got to do with authenticity?  Well, there is no independent ‘yardstick’ of what we mean by authenticity.  The word itself comes from ancient Greek – autos meaning “self” and hence implying “doer” or “being”.  So consider it as meaning the embodiment of a set of values that we hold – if we try to embody a set of values that we do not truly hold then we are seen as inauthentic. This helps us to understand why Donald Trump may be considered to be authentic.  We may disagree with his racist and misogynistic views but we have little doubt that he is embodying a set of values that he believes in.  So back to Pepsi.  The issue here is that it is a stretch to believe that any soft drink and indeed a reality TV star could embody values of peace and dispute resolution.

Using the perspective of Wittgenstein, we can see that the game being played has not worked.  The picture that the ad agency was trying to play was not the same picture that was received by the viewers – the ad agency had not done a good enough job at understanding the rules of the game.

But authenticity is a hugely subtle game that is easy to get wrong.  In the UK there has recently been an outcry over TV chef Jamie Oliver and his ‘Punchy jerk rice’ which was widely seen as ‘inauthentic’ due to the lack of ingredients relating to Jamaican cuisine.  But why is this seen negatively when there are many examples of other dishes that could be considered to bear even less relationship to their roots? More broadly, what should a food brand do if it wants their products to be seen as authentic?

In my mind it is really about a deep understanding of the following ‘games’:

  • What are the values that are important to consumers in relation to food?
  • To what extent can a brand justifiably embody these values?

This information is essential for brands to be able to expertly play the game in the right way.  So to take the first issue – one of the values that is most important for consumers in most Western markets is ‘naturalness’.   The embodiment of this is perhaps farmers markets and artisan bakeries as it is easy for actors in this space to embody the value of naturalness.  Of course, it is much harder for big brands as they necessarily have complex supply chains and processing to be able to produce food at scale.  As such, attempts by major food manufacturing brands to position their products as ‘natural’ is often seen as inauthentic.

But naturalness is not the only value that consumers are interested in.  For example, in China where there are widespread concerns about food quality, then naturalness is less important – hygiene and safety are values that are strongly held.  And if we take a historical perspective, then in the early period of packaged foods convenience was the dominant value.

Interestingly, we are seeing other values start to creep in.  Many food brands are borrowing the values of the digital to underpin their activity.  Look at brands such as Beyond Meat that is heavily promoting the science credential for the non-meat products or subscription food boxes such as Hello Fresh which promote the way in which their digital platform offers flexibility, choice and control.  And ‘Habit’ uses medical science values in the form of ‘your unique genetic blueprint’ to help build ‘personalised nutrition’.

In reality, there are multiple ‘games’ being played by consumers when it comes to authenticity and food.  The dominant games in many markets have been naturalness but this is hard for big brands to pull off.  The opportunity is to identify other values in the market that can be more congruently embodied and as such be seen as authentic.

To what extent do consumers buy into the different values espoused by brands.  Do we really believe that by understanding your ‘unique genetic blueprint’ you can build personalised nutrition?  If not then we may simply be seen as untrustworthy.  Harry Frankfurt talks about this in terms of differences between ‘bullshit’ and lies.  He argues that we all tacitly agree to accept a certain looseness between reality and the claims – we play the game where we are all willing participants in ‘bullshit’.  And of course, all industries, including food and beverages, will play with this, loosely making assertions about the taste, fun and lifestyle that accompanies their products.  So brands can and always have brought in different values to underpin their marketing activities.  It works as long as they understand the game that is being played.

Where it fails is if there is a lie – and this might be a lie by omission.  Frankfurt argues a liar cares about the truth where a bullshitter does not.  But most people consider that being motivated to tell untruths – lying – is much worse.  In this respect, the food industry has arguably not covered itself in glory as enthusiastic marketing messages tip into something more misleading.   This leads to consumers feeling deceived, their trust has been betrayed.  As such the brand and perhaps the entire industry is seen as inauthentic as the claims that are made can feel incongruent to what is actually on offer.

In summary

Authenticity is a slippery term but essentially refers to the embodiment of a set of values.  If a brand is not able to credibly embody these values then there is a danger it is seen as inauthentic.  The challenge many brands have had in food and beverages is their credibility when embodying naturalness.  The complexity of the supply chain, the degree of processing and packing makes this hard for large food and beverages brands to own.

The good news is that large brands can ‘own’ a range of other values that are present in food manufacturing – such as science, medical, digital and safety.  These seem much more congruent for a large food brand and as such it is more likely they will be seen as ‘authentic’.  In other words, authenticity is not necessarily synonymous with naturalness.  Indeed, failing to embody values that are credible will lead to a lack of trust by consumers who are increasingly unwilling to suspend their disbelief over marketing claims which have at times arguably tipped over from ‘bullshit’ to ‘lying by omission’.