Authenticity Isn't About Being Deep, It's About Being Honest

And doing shallow well isn't easy

We all have a friend who is obsessed with luxury goods, with having the best of everything and buying the latest gadgets. Do we see that person as being "deep"? I think most people would agree that an obsession with image and buying things isn't an indicator that someone is motivated by important philosophical concerns. 

Buying things you don't need because of the image they have is not an exercise in depth, it's inherently shallow. And that is ultimately the purpose of marketing—we make people buy more stuff by giving things a better brand or image.

So why, then, is marketing so obsessed with being "deep"? We look for "deep" insights into fundamental human motivations. We construct lofty purposes disconnected from the actual function of the product. We try to evoke feelings of awe and "inspiration."

Often this search for the deeper meaning of the product is justified by the fact that the latest generation is "savvy" and seeks "authenticity." There are two problems with this.

The first is that this is not a new thing or a characteristic of the latest generation. BBH's initial pitch for Levi's from the early 1980s (written in prose!!!) lays out that consumers are now overwhelmed by media choice, are cynical about advertising and are seeking brands with authenticity.

The second is that authenticity is not about being deep, it's about being honest. Who is more authentic? The salesman who says they want to help you find the meaning of life or the salesman who says they want you to buy what they're selling? There is nothing more inauthentic, and more likely to be seen through, than speaking to lofty motivations when you are selling something fundamentally prosaic, as is illustrated by the ridiculous new Colgate campaign currently running on YouTube.

Choose greatness. Choose Colgate Total

I've worked in marketing for over 20 years. I think it's a worthwhile profession. It's difficult to master, it's about understanding people, it makes a difference to businesses, and it can (occasionally) create things that enhance the world and the lives of people in it. But I don't think, most of the time, it does this by being "deep." In fact, arguably, it's impossible for "the rattling of a stick in a swine bucket" to ever really be "deep." 

The truth is that marketers want to be deep so we can feel important. We want to make a difference to the issues of the day, and to see ourselves as doing something worthwhile. We like to think our brands are close to consumers' hearts, inspiring love and admiration and helping them fulfill their deepest and most progressive desires.

But when we look at the kind of advertising that really makes it into people's hearts, it's not often the deep stuff. All those "Guinness is good for you" vintage posters, the silly jingles from childhood, the Dos Equis "I don't always … , but when I do…" memes.

The McDonald's Travis Scott meal turned an 8.7 percent decline into 4.6 percent growth in the middle of a pandemic, and sold T-shirts worldwide (I've seen dozens of teenagers wearing them in Singapore alone). It didn't right any wrongs or stand up for any issues, but people loved it. I don't think anyone's going to be wearing a Colgate "Made for Greatness" T-shirt anytime soon… 

The truth is that doing shallow really well isn't easy. Making things that people find entertaining, funny, or that just look "cool" is a very difficult endeavor in music, in fashion, in television and in advertising. 

And it works. 

If marketers truly want to be authentic (and effective), we should think less about "deep motivations" and "cultural tensions" and far more about "entertainment," "taste" and "aesthetics." It takes real depth to be good at being shallow.

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Jacob Wright
Jacob Wright is chief strategy officer of BBH Singapore.

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