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Interview with Peter York: Is there any future in authenticity?

March 2, 2016 Interview with Peter York: Is there any future in authenticity?

Is your brand ‘authentic’? Does it have ‘heritage’? And do you bring this ‘authentic heritage’ to life via the magic of ‘storytelling’?

If the answer to any of these questions is, ‘yes’ – then the social commentator, style guru, part time marketing man and full time fop, Peter York, would like to have a word with you. Or rather, there’s a word he’d like you stop using: ‘authenticity’.

In his latest book, ‘Authenticity is a Con’ – he reveals why we can no sooner trust Nigel ‘man-of-the-people’ Farage than we can a bearded, coffee drinking Shoreditch hipster. And in this interview he explains to us why he believes ‘authenticity marketing’ isn’t very authentic at all and why we all need to stop, or at least come up with some better ideas.

How did all this come about?

“It’s crept up on me over the last 10 or more years. I’ve always disliked that sort of word. I’ve hated ‘spontaneous’ for God knows how long. It’s words which people use in a lame brain way. Lame brain words to confer a superior moral tone.”

These kinds of labels are quite prevalent in the marketing of health (ier) food?

“There’s a wide variety of things you can do to show you’re a good person and some of them are in your eating habits. If you’re ‘fairtrade’ and ‘organic’, it means you’re fantastic and that you support compassion in world farming. It shows that you’re very, very virtuous.”

Perhaps some of that food is tastier and healthier?

“It’s the signalling not the underlying cause that irritates me, the lame brainess and the assertiveness. The sort of baby sized ego involved. When you say ‘authentic’ you’re exchanging a moral assertion for a real evaluation. There’s no evidence. You’re just saying it’s authentic. You’re also bigging yourself up: only you know what Andalusian peasant stew actually tastes like when it’s made by Andalusian peasants and not in Soho.”

But don’t you do the same thing with clothes? For instance you like Northampton shoes…

“That’s a completely different evaluation. I don’t make a great declaration. I point out what I like about the things I like. I know what I like about Northampton versus the others but I don’t think that it makes me a nobler person, a more virtuous person that I cleave to leather that can take a polish. It’s aesthetics, it’s not a big windy moral argument.”

So your problem is with using consumerism as a way to express moral virtue?

“Yes, it’s using matters of consumerism to big yourself up morally and intellectually.”

Where do you think it comes from?

“I think it’s a way of packaging something which is a revolt against packaging. It’s ironic isn’t it? It’s an easy way of talking about people’s real grievances because lots of things in the world are very very inauthentic – or I would prefer to say untrue. And people do feel ‘won’t get fooled again’ but when anyone uses the word ‘authentic’ they will get fooled again because authenticity is such a big, windy, know all, blow hard way of talking about things that the distinction between what is true and untrue, real and not real, gets entirely lost.”

What should you do instead?

“One bit of advice would be to use shorter words. Because the moment you do you can be challenged. One of the problems with authentic is that it’s not susceptible to challenge or analysis. If you were to say, “This is not the stew that Mexican peasants made in 1456”, then you could be challenged and also anybody could say, “So what?”

Perhaps another problem with authenticity is that it doesn’t leave much room for imagination and fantasy?

“Just imagine if David Bowie had said to himself, “This is the real me.
Stop now! Don’t have another thought!”

And what about storytelling?

“One of the things about the authenticity scam is that it gives middle class people who like a backstory a reason to buy because they’re uncertain of their own tastes and responses. It’s what Julie Burchill calls “Educated beyond all instinct”, and because of that there’s a certain kind verbal middle class person who likes a backstory. I can completely understand it. Many of my friends are quite well educated. Somehow a backstory makes it easier for them to choose because they may not really know what they’re looking for. But if they’ve been told a story they can use the story to
defend their choice.”

What would your advice be to brands that talk a lot about their heritage and manufacturing?

“The heritage and authenticity argument is not enough. Does the stuff cut it? And there’s a lot of very cheap stuff that’s wonderful. It’s nice to buy fun stuff that you can throw away from Uniqlo who do not say, “Made in heather mills by middle aged british workers”. There are often very nice things in Uniqlo and all sorts of places like that and why should you not buy it?”

What we think

While we don’t agree entirely with the hardline stance he takes on the matter, Peter’s book on authenticity is a timely and important reminder for many of the brands we work with to stay in tune with current thinking and trends. Firstly, when a word has become overused to the point at which it has become cliched and devoid of meaning then it’s probably best to avoid. Seductive, persuasive language is a vital component of brand building. There’s a lot of meaningless verbiage in marketing, and ‘authenticity’ has arguably reached this nadir.

But what about the ideas that underpin authenticity? Again, we would argue that Peter is right when he says, “the heritage and authenticity argument is not enough. Does the stuff cut it?” And to that we would also add, “What is it about your brand that makes it relevant to today?”

A recent meeting with Jenny Stewart of Johnstons of Elgin revealed just how important it was to her that their new store on Bond Street had something fresh to say to customers.  And while he’s scathing of those who have been, ‘Educated beyond all reason’ – we like a bit of a story. Not everyone can be as sure of their taste as Peter! Compelling storytelling is at the heart of what we do – just make sure you have a good one to tell.

However, more and more of our clients – even the ones with a spectacularly grand history are asking us, ‘How can we remain true to our past while building a foundation for the next hundred or so years?’ The answer, as always, is in finding a unique point of view – in design, tone of voice, product development – everything. In short, new ideas.

After all, what are traditions if not brilliant new ideas that have endured for a long time?


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