The “Authentique” – New Fakes with Real Results

02 Mar 2007|Lori Hobson

Do you care if you buy the real thing? Do you mind if a company dupes you into using its product if in the end you are glad you did? If you found out most of the parts of your PC, auto, handbag or mobile phone were repackaged in China and sold for less than 1/10 the cost, would you lament it? Would you buy the Chinese versions if you had access?

In design these days, “authenticity” is mentioned as a key global trend more often than JetBlue strands customers on the tarmac. And yet there seems to be an endless market in knock-offs, me-too products and services, and campaigns that are at their roots deceptive.

Is authenticity really a trend or are consumers actually ogling its evil twin at the local Wal-Mart?

We are conditioned to accept some deception. For example, when we found out lonelygirl15 was a paid actress, it was a minor disappointment, but hardly a shock. The disappointment was in the irony that Web 2.0 businesses like YouTube are supposed to be built on user-generated content for which the users presumably aren’t paid. Still, the Internet remains uncharted territory, so when the news came that lonelygirl was scripted, it was more of the “did you hear…” kind of news than the “can you believe it…” kind of news.

Harder to swallow in my mind was when, weeks after the YouTube sale to Google, I read that Chad Hurley, one of the co-founders of YouTube, is the son-in-law of Jim Clark. Yes, the Jim Clark of dot-com bubble bloating and fancy yacht fame. With that news, the previously glorified success story of YouTube as a garage startup went, well, down the tubes. You see, where I live, in Silicon Valley, we all pay homage to the genius in the garage; we respect and aspire to the rags-to-riches tech dream. We are creators, inventors, and tinkerers who love to hear that one of our own has made it big. In our unwritten guide to life in Silicon Valley, if Chad Hurley is Jim Clark’s son-in-law, YouTube is not at all a garage startup in the classic sense, nor worthy of awe. Most likely, YouTube is a product of the Jim Clark build-to-flip company machine. At a minimum, having Jim Clark as your father-in-law opens far too many doors to allow a Chad Hurley to claim his company was a fledgling tech dream that he and his colleague grew to fame. YouTube was doctored up and positioned using a stunning array of deceptions.

The question is: Does it matter? YouTube has remained a phenomenal success and is becoming ingrained in our culture. If it took lonelygirl15 and hiding in-laws and connections in the PR closet to make the company that way, do we care? It doesn’t seem like it. Google is probably happy with its purchase, and we continue to use the site.

In honor of our succumbing to these and other deceptions, I propose we coin a new word to describe products, services and brands that have succeeded despite their occasional or blatant disregard for honesty, copyrights, ethics, trademarks, originality, and IP. Let’s call these less-than-genuine-but-still-accepted items the “authentique.” Kind of like Stephen Colbert’s word “truthiness,” the authentique becomes genuine because its creator believes it should be and invests in making it accepted as such.

Who specializes in the authentique? It’s not just manufacturers in China making replica Rolexes. Big success stories are companies like William-Sonoma, whose businesses include its kitchen store, Pottery Barn, Pottery Barn Kids, PB Teen, William-Sonoma Home, and West Elm. One of the fastest growing retailers in America, William-Sonoma, Inc. scouts the world for great ideas, nice designs, antiques, etc., and then has its in-house design team use these finds as “inspirations” for its own products (i.e., has the team make store brand versions of the items). I have heard their designers cringe in horror at having to copy others, a practice that goes against the grain of the creative and genuine.

Another example happened last week when a teenage girl in our area threw a party so her friends could “learn about Microsoft Vista.” The girl claimed she was just getting so many questions from her friends about Vista that she decided to throw a party to have them informed. As a mother of a teenage girl from the same social hemisphere as this girl, the suggestion that her friends were asking her about an operating system makes me LOL. The Mercury News picked up the story explaining that Microsoft found out about the girl’s plans and supported party with a barbecue and some prizes. I won’t go as far as to say that someone at a company as respected as Microsoft cooked up more than some barbecue with this one, but I haven’t heard operating systems come up much in my exposure to teens, even here where all of us live and breathe technology.

For the sake of open-mindedness, let’s say the girl leans to the nerdy side and was the driver of the party; it’s still quite a stretch to believe she was inundated with questions. Her friends are unlikely to own Vista yet since few consumers do. It’s also difficult to believe a kid would throw a party for something like Vista, at least not unless she is trying to build up her story for college applications. No, a party for Vista would not be cool. Authentic parties are for cool reasons. (I asked my daughter about the idea of a Vista party, and she – the owner of the latest laptop, four or five iPods, a Treo, a Razr, and a wealth of other techno-gear – first clarified what exactly an operating system was and then made a face that one might say suggested she wouldn’t be attending.)

In any case, the party did get a bunch of kids excited about reviewing Microsoft’s product. Students and the school jumped on the opportunity. They were undoubtedly grateful for it. This gave Microsoft a forum with teens that one does not typically associate with a corporate giant.

Most the time when corporations try to reach out to teens, their approach reminds me of the ok guy that asks you to the prom two months in advance. You know he’s going to wear and say the right things, he’s going to take you some place nice for dinner, and you really want to have someone lined up for the night. So, you say yes. The reality is that you just wanted to be sure you had a date. He knows this; that’s why he asks early. He hopes that by being your date he’ll win you over or at least be admired for winning you for one key night. But when the party is over, you still want to leave with the guy you really like, the guy you think is your type based on a broad range of ever-present qualities, not just his timing in asking for a prom date.

So, the authentique fits the bill at times, but the authentic article will always pose a threat. The product or service that is created based on genuine values and meaning is aimed for something larger than those that simply mimic. This is not to say that companies can’t make a killing making the authentique, but unless they embrace the values and qualities that inspired the original, they will always be at risk of being leapfrogged by those who understand and genuinely embody the meaningful factors that made the design vital.

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