Why We Should All Go Fake Ourselves
In a post-authentic world, brands need to recognise the value in fake, argue Maximilian Weigl, strategy director & Nathan Makan, comms strategist at 72andSunny Amsterdam.
A few weeks ago, Lil Miquela was named one of the 25 most influential people on the internet by Time. This wouldn’t be big news, weren’t it for the fact that Lil Miquela is not... well, she’s not a person.
She’s an avatar, a depiction of a person. She’s an imitation that lives on Instagram and on Instagram only. Lil Miquela is fake.
Still, her posts, her fake stories, resonate with a huge audience. They create value for her followers. Her stories feel authentic – but they aren’t. Which raises a simple, but uncomfortable question: if things don’t need to be authentic to provide value, is there value in fake?
Above: Time's list of influential people on the internet includes Lil Miquela (pictured third from right)
Miquela’s story shares some interesting similarities with the story of any brand. Brands are carefully built and maintained constructs existing only in the memory structures of people’s heads. They aren’t objectively real. And yet, many architects and builders of those very constructs hold up the concept of authenticity when it comes to brand building.
Even in the age of the Internet, it seems to be some kind of gospel that brands, those artificial constructs, need to be constantly true to themselves in order to be relevant. But what if a brand actually needs to be much more true to culture than to itself to keep resonating within that culture? And what if this entire single-minded brand positioning thing doesn’t really help doing this?
The value of authenticity, for many years, was about the absence of commercial and transactional value. The most popular proof for this could be found in the social phenomenon of hipsters, who knew things “before they were cool.” Hipsters identified the obscure and weird as something that helped shaping their identity. The less transactional value, the more value for their identity. Toby Shorin wrote an interesting article about this.
When, inevitably, businesses and organisations started leveraging those very symbols and images of authenticity, the concept was led ad absurdum. To a point at which global corporations that are, from a hipster’s point of view, everything but authentic dared to poke fun at the very idea of it. We probably reached that moment when McCafé threw a punch at craft coffee culture in their smart ad for...well, just coffee.
Above: McDonald's McCafe Madness
Once authenticity was commoditized and turned into a currency for corporations, it lost its original meaning and, ironically, its value. It’s like the pendulum swung back and culture embraced the absence of authenticity as we knew it – leaning into hacking, imitation and faking as a driver of value instead.
The internet increasingly provided the tools that turned personal opinions into cultural responses and with it made the origin of ideas take a backseat to most creative ones. It's perhaps most acutely demonstrated with meme culture. The meaning to culture is created through repetition and re-imagination, not by iconising the original creator.
Above: Is this a pigeon? meme
The end of authenticity as we know it might sound like a nightmare for brands. Brands traditionally gained value from fiercely controlling their image, be it in the distinctiveness of their origin, their product or the consistency of their communication. This works fine, as long as you try to connect with a homogenous group of people.
But if the past years taught us one thing, they thought us that there is no such thing as a homogenous group of people and a brand never only has one kind of audience. Brands operate in a mass-niche world today, defined by hyperpolarization, quick hysteria, and micro-convictions, and need to find different angles to connect with different target groups. This contradicts the single-minded communications approach that has been pursued for ages.
"Once brands embrace the fast moving, hacking and faking nature of popular (internet) culture... they set themselves up for bigger resonance with people."
If brands want to succeed in this world, they need to embrace something we call open-minded brand building. Starting with a clear POV of the world around them, brands need to allow consumers and culture to continue shaping that point of view as a way of amplifying the brand’s resonance in the world. Rather than positioning a brand in culture, brands need to be built with culture. This requires a shift from tight control towards an approach of tight collaboration with those who take, make, and shape culture.
Brands like adidas have understood this and live by those principles every single day. When people started to ‘uncage’ their adidas UltraBOOST running shoes, adidas embraced it and followed up with an official ‘Uncaged’ line extension. A brand imitating teens hacking a brand to amplify the behavior of a niche to resonate with the masses.
In honor of Steven Spielberg’s latest movie Ready, Player One, the burger chain Carl’s Junior and 72andSunny LA had the idea of developing a whole range of “Spielburgers.” The brand put the playful, not quite serious concept out into the world – and was told off by the director. Which resulted in a cultural ripple effect. A brand imitating a director and his oeuvre increasing resonance in a niche culture – which then rippled into the mainstream.
Once brands embrace the fast moving, hacking and faking nature of popular (internet) culture; once they open up their brand, their processes and their positioning to let consumers and culture in, they set themselves up for bigger resonance with people and culture. A culture where the meaning of authenticity is no longer defined by a singular authority but by every single consumer. A culture where there is actually value in the imitation. So, let’s go fake ourselves.
- Agency 72andSunny Amsterdam
- Strategy Director Maximilian Weigl
- Comms Strategist Nathan Makan
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