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We’re Not Sure What Authenticity Is, But We Know We Like It

Foodies, employees, and art lovers all prize authenticity—but each means something a little different when they say that something or someone is authentic. In new research, Yale SOM’s Balázs Kovács explores how authenticity takes on different meanings across domains like people and leadership, brands, organizations, art, and restaurants.

A man inspecting a diamond using a magnifying glass, with a trash can full of discarded diamonds behind him

Sean David Williams

By Áine Doris

“Authentic” sells, whether for an ethnic restaurant, craft beer, a raw theatrical production, a bestselling memoir, or a late-career, stripped-down album of music. From Coke’s claim to be “the real thing” to Dove’s “real beauty sketches”; from “home-baked” bread to “grass-fed” cattle; for brands, for services, for experiences, authenticity is apparently a desirable and differentiating quality—a value that is highly prized by consumers all over the world.

But what exactly is authenticity?

Surprisingly, perhaps, there is very little academic consensus on what we mean when we say something is authentic. While most researchers agree that being authentic ties to things like being genuine, true, or real, there’s also a plethora of alternative definitions that make the concept slippery. Some define authenticity as proximity to the creator or the quality of being true to oneself, or associate it with ideas of consistency, conformity, or connection. Why is this prized attribute so hard to define?

New research by Balázs Kovács, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Yale SOM, takes what he calls a “bottom-up” approach, investigating what authenticity means to ordinary people. Kovács also looked at how the meaning of authenticity might change when used in different contexts or domains. He found that regular people have broadly different definitions of authenticity, mirroring the academic understanding, and that these differences tie to differences between domains.

In the process, he assembled a repository of key words and terminology across these domains that could prove to be a valuable toolkit for marketers, business owners, brands, and organizations.

Read the study: “Authenticity Is in the Eye of the Beholder: The Exploration of Audiences’ Lay Associations to Authenticity Across Five Domains”

Using Amazon Mechanical Turk, Kovács surveyed a sample of 300 U.S.-based individuals to capture the words that they associated with authenticity in five domain areas: people and leadership; brands; organizations; art; and restaurants. These specific domains represent the areas that mainly interest academics, psychologists, marketers, and academics studying leadership, says Kovács. They are also domains where the concept of authenticity is highly relevant.

“For marketers, brands are a focus area,” he says. “They want to know whether the likes of Nike is seen as authentic, and if so why. Restaurants are really relevant here because people use the word authentic about food and dining all the time.”

The word “authentic” comes up frequently in discussions of art, but, Kovács notes, it has a distinctly different meaning. “An authentic Rembrandt isn’t the same as say, an authentic organization,” he says.

Survey participants were asked to list the words they associated with authentic in the different domains, and to rate how important they considered authenticity to be in each.

For each domain Kovács listed and then counted the number of times different words appeared.

A table of words associated with authenticity

Kovács then analyzed which words were most “diagnostic” of each domain—that is, most commonly used in a given domain context. He also used hierarchical clustering, an algorithm that organizes synonymous or similar terms into groups or clusters, to determine the nuanced differences and similarities between what authenticity meant to people in different domains.

“The hierarchical clustering figures reveal interesting patterns about people’s representations of authenticity,” he says. “For example, the words different and interesting are typically mentioned together in the person-authenticity domain; while different tends to be mentioned together with one-of-a-kind in the brand-authenticity domain.”

Taken together, Kovács’ findings confirm that authenticity has different meanings for different people in different domains or contexts. “This is key when it comes to things like marketing,” he says.

Another important finding is that a given attribute can be viewed very differently depending on the domain. “For brands, for instance, honesty ties closely to authenticity,” Kovács says. “But if you look at domains like art or paintings, the same concept doesn’t apply.”

A leader might be seen as authentic if her behavior is “unique or boundary-breaking,” Kovács says. But breaking new ground doesn’t make a restaurant more authentic. “Say you are coming up with a new way of making pizza; does that help you be seen as an authentic Italian restaurant?”

For marketers, a command of the language of authenticity is becoming more and more necessary, Kovács says. As society becomes more digital, connected, and modern, researchers are seeing a demand for greater authenticity that spans all walks of life.

“We’re living in cities, behind computer or cell phone screens with less and less interaction with the natural world. And people are increasingly reacting to that by wanting to push back against modernity and get back to our roots in a sense. Back to the way that things used to be. So authenticity is a concept that is very much in vogue. It’s just that what people mean by this term is very different.”

Department: Research