Authenticity – What Consumers Really Want (But Can’t Afford)

I recently finished reading Authenticity – What Consumers Really Want, by James H. Gilmore and B. Joseph Pine.

The process of reading the book got me thinking about what authenticity really means and how we search for it in different ways.  If the key to happiness is living a life that is personally meaningful and true to what we really want – an authentic life – it makes perfect sense that we would so strongly seek out authenticity in every possible area of our lives.  This leads to questions about what people are actually looking for, if they even have the resources to pursue it, and if what they find will actually make them happy.

The Next Step

Authenticity is heavy on technical details (such as exercises on how to determine if your business is authentic (real or fake?) and light on social and economic exposition on how we’ve gotten to this point.  From what I understand most of this is covered in their previous book, The Experience Economy, so I’m reading that next (I know I went out of order!)  While the book is written towards business owners and decision makers, it’s still an insightful look at what the future holds for areas like consumer products and advertising.  I agree that authenticity is the next logical economic pursuit – with the pace of advancing technology and the “affordability” and availability of commodities, goods, services, and experiences reaching critical mass, the idea that consumers want more, and that “more” needs to align with their life’s purpose and meaning, is right on the money (pun intended!).

Even though Authenticity is a good next step (the book suggests consumers are thinking harder about these purchases and the meaning buying these products will bring to their lives – which is better than mindless consumption for consumption’s sake), I can’t help but be concerned about the idea of an economy built to fulfill our need for meaning, purpose, and realness.  Early economies focused on streamlining the production of goods, making them available, affordable, and high quality.

As goods neared their peak (most people have appliances, cars, food, clothes, etc that are usually better and cheaper than they were a few decades ago), the need for a service economy arose in order to further separate economic offerings and to appeal to consumers.  Fast, friendly and accurate service could separate two similar products – it’s extremely difficult to improve the product, but much easier to improve the service around the product.

For reference I’ve broken down the 5 Economy types talked about by the authors and 4 metrics for measuring a product or service.  This will help us understand why Authenticity is the next economic step.

5 Economy Types

  1. Agrarian – based around farming and livestock production, depends on use of natural resources.
  2. Abundance – based around the refinement of production – the supply chain from farm to factory to store to home becomes more efficient and stable.  In America, the postwar 1950’s saw great prosperity due to things like the return of a large military workforce to civilian life (many of whom went to college for free on the GI Bill), relative stability compared to the rest of the world and for the first time in decades, and the shift from production for the war to production for the home.
  3. Service – based on people providing value more so than products.  Increased globalization, advancing technologies, and a critical mass amongst competing companies in product efficiency led to exploring other ways to differentiate their brand.  Consumers will make their decision based on the quality of service when two products are similar.
  4. Experience – The natural evolution of the service economy.  Nearly every company offers working, in supply products and service standards (fast and friendly!) are used in every sector.  In order to differentiate themselves, brands now need to offer a unique, memorable experience that sets them apart from the competition.
  5. Authenticity – based on the idea that spending money is a form of expression.  Every purchase is a deliberate choice, a statement about ones self (a choice that is likely going to be presented on social media in the narrative of a person’s life).  The 4 previous economies are examined more closely than in Service and Experience economies.  The source of the product, how and where it was made (and by who), the experience of purchasing and using the product, and what having spent money on that product says about you.

Criteria For Evaluating Products and Services 

  1. Available – A product or service has to be accessible to consumers – the materials plentiful, the production reliable, the information widely available, and able to be accessed with the least amount of effort and disruption.
  2. Cost – Materials and production must be cost effective to create profits.  If competing with similar products a lower cost has an advantage.  Note that in some instances, more expensive products and services can be more appealing simply because they’re more expensive.
  3. Quality – Whether it’s food or a car, standards of quality are becoming more and more universal.  Most modern cars can easily reach 100,000 miles with only regular maintenance and food served in a restaurant is assumed to be safe to eat.
  4. Authenticity – In the evaluation of a product or service, Authenticity refers to whether or not that product or service is what it says it is.  Consider the brand image of the Ford F150.  No doubt the F150 meets criteria 1-3, but it’s also branded as tough, capable, and reliable.  If F150s were available at every Ford dealership in the country, cost around the same as other similar trucks, and were built with the quality and features of modern cars, they would not be the best selling truck in America if they didn’t look like trucks, were underpowered, couldn’t tow very much, and broke down under strenuous use.

Consumers Are Lovin’ It

I recently saw a billboard for McDonald’s advertising 100% real chicken in their chicken mcnuggets.  My first question was why people were just now asking what was in a product that’s been around for half a century?  For one, McDonalds’ are everywhere, which means you can get chicken mcnuggets anywhere, and they’re cheap and taste just like the mcnuggets at every other McDonald’s (the product is streamlined).  Multiple locations with lightning fast drive thrus (compared to other fast food chains) separates the product from other companies because the service is better.  McDonald’s also has quite the cache when it comes to succeeding in the experience economy.

By the time we’re old enough to make and spend our own money, we have dozens of memories of McDonald’s Happy Meals, Play Places, after-game treats and more.  When you go to a McDonald’s you know what you’re going to get, which when combined with the level of goods and services provided, creates the experience of “knowing what you’re getting”.  In our “busy” (too many obligations, too many choices, too many decisions, too much information) lives, the decision that practically makes itself is usually going to win.

The overall experience of McDonald’s is one of efficiency, ease and reliability.  Until recently, those qualities were enough to convince consumers that a trip to McDonald’s was a good decision.  Advertising the “realness” of it’s ingredients is McDonalds’ answer to the modern consumer, who view their purchases as a reflection of who they are and what they stand for.  Combine that with nostalgia (perhaps the most authentic of all feelings) and you’ve successfully fulfilled every need the consumer has.

The Authentic Dream

“A Good Standard of Living”, which the commodification of goods and services provides, aids us in living our lives in a way that is meaningful to us.  Commodifying experiences and authenticity is dangerous because it is limitless – companies are selling a path to a unique, meaningful life to generations (Millenials and Gen Y) who have been raised to believe that each one of their destinies is to live a meaningful, unique life.

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness represent what America is all about – the freedom to make your own choices and forge your own path in a place that will provide you with access to opportunities and (sometimes) a safety net to fall back on.

It’s obvious that the standard of living has improved in plenty of ways – appliances, technology, food, and cars have all gotten better while their relative prices have dropped or remained stable.  We have access to more choices for nearly everything in our lives.  In theory this sounds great, but in practice it hasn’t been all it’s cracked up to be.

To start, Americans are working more hours on average for less money compared to the 1950’s (when the Abundance economy was in full swing).  Many households require two full time income-earners who feel more stressed in a job they’re more likely to think is useless.  We save less, live paycheck to paycheck or perpetually in debt, and are too overwhelmed by all of it to examine where our happiness really comes from.  The prevalence of advertising and the rapid growth of social media means we spend hours hearing about ways to spend our time and money from both companies and consumers.

We’ve been conditioned to correlate spending money with being happy.  It’s easy to see how this lifelong thought process, when sparked by feeling like we’re not in control due to the reasons above, leads us to equate spending money with being in control of our lives.  And how much more bang for your buck can you get than spending money on producing that unique, meaningful life you want?  You feel fulfilled because despite not feeling in control you still have the power to create the version of you that you want the world to see.  This is a powerful feeling – one that can erase the pain of spending 40+ hours a week doing something you don’t really believe in.

At the end of the day, though, spending money in the Authenticity mindset is really still just consumption.  It’s not all bad – having a way to self-actualize yourself, being able to choose what product or service works best for you, and even having a standard of living that allows you to want for more than food and shelter are all good aspects of this economic evolution.  It’s when we fail to examine what the costs are and where we actually stand in this evolution that problems will arise.

Can We Afford It?

So an authentic life is what we really want, and the Authenticity economy seems capable of providing that life to us.  But here’s the thing.

We can’t afford it.

When you look at how we’ve evolved through these types of economies it becomes apparent that we may have fallen behind.  Let’s go back to the Abundance economy.  Most households had one breadwinner and many were able to afford the new standard of living that was being developed.  Over time this standard of living became even more accessible, affordable, and had better quality.

The problem lies in how these economies evolved and how we evolved in relation to them.  Cars and TV’s are way better but we have more of them.  Anything involving service is undoubtably easier – you can order food from your phone and have it delivered.  But we eat out a lot more.  Nearly every sector benefits from widespread availability, lower costs and better quality.  We don’t just buy products and services from every sector – we buy a lot more of them.

This evolving economy gives us more and better choices.  In response, we’ve evolved by working more, saving less, and going into debt to take advantage of all these new choices.  We’ve stretched ourselves thin taking advantage of the Abundance economy.  We stretched thinner to take full advantage of the Service and Experience economies.  And we’re on the brink of disaster when it comes to the Authenticity economy.  Because Authenticity hits at something deep inside us.  It’s no longer just about the necessities, a good standard of living, and modern conveniences.  It’s about finding meaning and purpose in life.  And because that search is a lifelong journey, we’ve triggered a cycle of consumption that will consume our lives (pun intended) and leave us wondering what we were chasing this whole time.

Real Authenticity

The Authenticity economy is consumption disguised as production.  It’s based on the feeling you get from being in control of your life, producing the you that you want to be.  By not being able to afford to survive this economy (due to severely overextending ourselves just to get here in the first place), we are destined to continue down a path of extremes.  Our jobs will feel more endless, our finances will feel more stressful, and our days will seem more and more meaningless.  So we’ll spend more in an effort to define our own lives.  And the cycle presents itself.

And there isn’t one answer to this problem.  I think learning about things like frugality, minimalism, and financial independence are the best defense against searching for empty meaning.  But we also need to consider what is beneficial about how our economy has advanced.  Spending money does feel good, and I personally love and have a deep connection with some of my possessions.  People have better access to better products and services than ever before.

While trying to come up with a closing for this article that could sum up what I’m thinking I kept landing on a quote from Don Draper in Mad Men:

What’s happiness?  It’s the moment before you need more happiness.

He’s talking about how people use money to create a life that is meaningful to them, that makes them happy.  The goal of the ad is to convince people that whatever product or service it’s promoting is there for you when you need it.  If you are able to create your own happiness (which I would argue is true authenticity) it becomes a part of you rather than simply a moment that will pass and prompt you to look elsewhere.

Image by Sira Anamwong at

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