Five questions about authenticity and the open source way with Jim Gilmore

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Five questions

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to meet Jim Gilmore, co-author (with Joseph Pine) of the book Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want. I first read the book a few years ago, and it really struck a nerve for me—these guys were on to something.

So I convinced Jim to subject himself to a Five Questions interview about the place where authenticity and the open source way intersect.

CHRIS: After joining the open source world ten years ago, it didn't take me long to figure out that most open source folks despise marketing as it is traditionally practiced. Is there something inherently inauthentic about the language of marketing? Perhaps open source folks have a low tolerance for inauthenticity?

JIM: I often quote from a letter-to-the-editor that appeared in the Harvard Business Review following the publication of our article, "Welcome to the Experience Economy."  In this letter, Robert Jones of Wolf-Olins shared his definition of a brand as "the promise of an experience." 

Joe Pine and I responded by saying Amen to that, but added that so often the actual experience fails to fulfill against the promise.  Indeed, marketing in general, and advertising in particular, has become a giant phoniness-generating machine.  And not just the language of marketing, but the very practice of marketing so often serves to erode the perception of authenticity among consumers—by making promises that bear little resemblance to the actual experience encountered. 

So much creative talent today is engaged in making promises as marketing instead of being employed to create compelling experiences as actual output.  The experience itself should be the marketing. 

My friend Robert Stephens, founder of the Geek Squad, is fond of saying, "Advertising is the tax you pay for being unremarkable."  I feel that way about most marketing.  I'd like to see creative talent diverted from making messages about goods and services and used instead to help create truly remarkable experiences, ones so compelling that they command a fee as product.

Marketing is in need of a shakeup, evidenced by the fact the term is so highly qualified today.  Witness the abundance of adjectives used to modify the term: database marketing, emotional marketing, event marketing, guerilla marketing, inbound marketing, Internet Marketing, one-to-one marketing, network marketing, permission marketing, social-media marketing, viral marketing, word-of-mouth marketing, ad nauseam marketing, and yes even experiential marketing. When the term has to be so highly qualified, it crying for a new paradigm.

Open source thinking can help inform an alternative approach.  But I do think open source is but a means to an end.  That end?  A term I coined over a decade ago, and published in some obscure pre-Web place, namely customering -- demand creation done not by manipulating aggregated markets but by interacting with and serving the actual needs of individual customers.

CHRIS: One characteristic of the open source way is a belief in the importance of extending openness and collaboration beyond corporate walls. Can a modern company succeed at being authentic without being transparent and collaborative with its customers?

JIM: While I believe open source is a way of rendering authenticity, I do not believe it the only way.  I do think a company can be successful in identifying and addressing true human needs without collaborating with customers or being transparent—and then offering something in response to such needs that comes to be perceived as authentic. 

It happens all the time. In some situations, customers don't want to spend time collaborating; or they couldn't be bothered with knowing more about the inner workings of a supplier.  And many unmet needs can still be identified by independently observing customer behavior, or addressed by embedding every conceivable permutation into a customizable offering. 

The key to authenticity, I believe, is for a company to put forth offerings that are true to itself.  I'd rather see a "closed" (must we call it closed?) company be true to itself as a closed company, than offer some fake form of "openness" just to be in vogue.  Of course, such companies must truly possess a keen ability to independently detect and respond to customer needs.  And even if it does possess such prowess, it will face ever increasing competition from companies who—being true to themselves—rely instead on collaborative and transparent approaches.

Interestingly, "transparent" and "collaborative" are two terms that we use to describe two of four different types of Mass Customization.  The other two being "cosmetic" and "adaptive."  Open source folks might be well-served to read about all four approaches in chapter 5 of The Experience Economy.

CHRIS: One of my favorite parts of your book was the articulation of the authenticity paradox. 

  • If you are authentic, you don’t have to say you’re authentic.
  • If you say you’re authentic, then you’d better be authentic.
  • It’s easier to be authentic, if you don’t say you’re authentic.

Given this, it must be incredibly difficult to talk about rendering authenticity, a subject you cover in the book. The word "rendering" implies manipulation, and manipulation screams inauthenticity to me. Your thoughts?

JIM: Well we think "rendering" is precisely the right word, despite how manipulative it might seem to you or others.  We base this upon a particular view of authenticity, having read all we could from the fields of social criticism and (largely existential) philosophy about the subject of authenticity. 

In making this in-depth study, we found that authenticity has historically been defined negatively.  That is, it is inauthenticity that actually gets defined.  And we can distill what's said about inauthenticity in what we call our "3M" model.  Authenticity is negatively defined as not of Man, not Mechanical, and not Monetary.  That of course defines all business and commerce.  So, ontologically all business output is inauthentic; but phenomenologically it can gain the perception of being authentic.  Gaining that perception is an act of rendering.

Such rendering is easier to do if one abandons any claims of being inherently authentic.  This is what our axioms address.  Can anything raise doubts as much as proclaiming one's own authenticity?  Doing such immediately raises suspicions.  So don't say your offerings are authentic, rather take measures to have them become authentic in the eyes of customers.

I should note that you've cited just the first three of five axioms that we advance. The other two, which flow from the first three:

  • It's easier to render offerings authentic, if you acknowledge they're inauthentic.
  • You don't have to say your offerings are inauthentic, if you render them authentic.

 That said, we do positively define authenticity in the context of business.  We define it as consumers purchasing something on the basis of it conforming to one's self image.  I do think marketers often manipulate self-image, or at least try to. 

Here I share your disdain for marketing.  But any action taken to alter the offering itself, that's not manipulative.  An artist, in painting some subject, does not aim to alter the subject, but to honor it through his rendering.  So too businesses in creating new output.  It's when marketers do not apply their skills to the creation of the offering itself, but only to messages about the offering, that's when manipulation can rear its ugly head. 

CHRIS: Last month, Andrew Potter released a book called The Authenticity Hoax in which he claims exactly what the title suggests—that so-called "authentic" experiences are just as artificial as any other aspect of our postmodern culture. What's your reaction to Potter's take on authenticity? 

JIM: Potter is right.  I welcome his book.  Do understand that his is not a business book; ours is.  We simply offer advice to businesses on how to better render authenticity by having output conform to a consumer's self-image, whatever that self-image might happen to be. 

As we write in the preface of our book, "[I]ssues of Real and Fake are not the same as issues of True and False.  Being true to oneself does not define truth itself."  So while I am an advocate of rendering authenticity in business, I also welcome provocations that challenge people's assumptions about themselves and therefore simultaneously about what they perceive as real.  And here is where open source practices may come into play -- as a platform for appealing to some consumer sensibility beyond authenticity.

Potter is questioning the very formation of consumer self-images at large.  Kudos to him.  I myself scoff at what many purchase as consumers.  Portions of our own book can be read as fodder for the point of view advanced by Potter: I point you to Brenda and Eddie's "One Unreal Day" shopping spree in chapter 3 of our book—and the ridiculous taglines that marketers affix to the nonfictional items that we have the fictional couple buy; and see our entire Chapter 5.  Such sentiments were why I was an (unsuccessful) advocate for titling our book Fauxthenticity.  And such an outlook is why TIME magazine labeled our thinking "synthetic authenticity."

CHRIS: I know you have strong feelings about some of the negative consequences of widespread use of social media tools. In fact, you are the person who recommended Jaron Lanier's book to me. But don't social media tools help us communicate more authentically in some ways? Do they make us communicate less authentically in other ways?

JIM: By the way, Lanier just wrote a great piece for Harper's Magazine, "The Serfdom of Crowds." 

I do think that in a world of increasingly electronic communications, handwritten communications gain a greater degree of perceived authenticity versus those issued in electronic form.  What's a more authentic expression to you—an e-mail communicating thanks or a handwritten thank-you note?  What birthday card is more real—one handmade by your child, or a store-bought one?  My 12 year-old daughter takes an unique approach here: she selects greeting cards at random off the store's rack without reading the content at all— and then tells you that is precisely what she did; she first learns what the card says alongside the recipient when the card is read for the very first time.  Of course, this whole act is her own true-to-self way of rendering the card-giving more real!

But I'm not so concerned about the authenticity of communications as I am with the intelligence of communications.  In The Experience Economy, we outline an Intelligence Hierarchy that mirrors our Progression of Economic Value from commodities, to goods, services, experiences, and finally to transformations.  Intelligence exists on five similar echelons, from noise to data, information, knowledge, and then wisdom.  I see most new "social media"—beginning with the mobile phone—driving the intelligence of communications down, adding more and more noise in the world. 

Do we really need this (overheard) phone call: "Hello? Honey, yeah, it's me. We just landed.  I'll see you in ten minutes."  We're building so-called Cell Phone Parking Lots to accommodate these calls!

I suspect what's happening is that the vast majority of social-media activity just serves as the inauthentic backdrop against which to stand out as offering something more authentic.  Millions may play chatroulette online, but only one Merton Piano Guy emerges from all the noise; my daughter treats the vast array of greeting cards at the store as a vehicle to create her own card-giving performance. 

I think Lanier is correct in depicting many of today's digital experiences as offering a form of faux individualism.  It's a kind of dumbing and numbing down of human expression.  I recently met an executive from a company who has printed on the back of their employee's business cards, "I look forward to ignoring you in LinkedIn."  It's that kind of honesty about the current state of social media—like Lanier's critiques—that I hope inspires new experiences that trump anything we've seen so far.  Remember, today's Facebook may soon become tomorrow's AOL.

CHRIS: Jim, thanks so much for your time!


Jim Gilmore has been published in many of the world’s leading business publications, including the Harvard Business Review, The Wall Street Journal, and Investor's Business Daily, among others. With Joe Pine, he is of co-editor of Markets of One: Creating Customer-Unique Value through Mass Customization, co-author of The Experience Economy: Work Is Theatre & Every Business a Stage, and Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want, all three published by Harvard Business School Press. 

Jim Gilmore founded Strategic Horizons in 1996 with partner Joe Pine as a thinking studio dedicated to helping companies conceive and design new ways of adding value to their economic offerings. He is a graduate of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and an alumnus of Procter & Gamble.

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Chris Grams is the Head of Marketing at Tidelift and author of The Ad-Free Brand: Secrets to Building Successful Brands in a Digital World. Twitter LinkedIn Email: chris(at)

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