New research presents a useful model to understand how consumers combine different attributes to judge the authenticity of products and services

One of the most discussed topics in marketing and brand management today is the concept of “authenticity” and with good reason. There is a general consensus that consumers (especially younger ones) consider this an increasingly important brand characteristic. For example, in a recent survey, 90% of consumers said authenticity is important when deciding which brands they like and support. The challenge for marketers, however, is that those same respondents believe that only a minority of brands communicate authentically with consumers. The results of this survey highlight what might be coined the marketer’s authenticity paradox: consumers crave authenticity in marketing, when marketing is itself seen as inherently inauthentic.

Business researchers have noted the increasing importance of authenticity for consumers, but the lack of a standard definition for the term “authenticity” itself has yet to emerge. A new paper from Joseph C. Nunes (USC), Andrea Ordanini (Bocconi), and Gaia Giambastiani (VU Amsterdam) addresses this issue, presenting a comprehensive way for both researchers and marketers to understand authenticity.

The authors start their paper by noting that “despite widespread agreement about authenticity’s importance as a concept, no commonly accepted definition exists.” Confusingly — for marketers at least — researchers have a habit of creating new “subtypes” of authenticity when they study the subject. The authors cite examples such as “indexical authenticity,” “hyperauthenticity,” “constructed authenticity,” “creative authenticity,” and even “passionate authenticity” to make their point. While each subtype may shed some light on the concept, this “fragmentation creates problems because when a single term such as ‘authenticity’ acquires a variety of meanings, the inevitable result is conceptual ambiguity.” This ambiguity naturally creates challenges for marketers “who would benefit from clearer guidance regarding ways to enhance consumers’ assessments of the authenticity of their offerings.”

The researchers thus set themselves the goal of defining “authenticity in marketing such that its definition provides a cohesive, comprehensive understanding of its meaning and specifies the concept’s defining characteristics as well as the extent to which it is generalizable, or at least adaptive, across contexts.”

The Study

To understand how consumers think about authenticity in products and services, the authors conducted three studies. The first study looked at authenticity in music consumption. The authors interviewed 30 music consumers about music and musicians they knew well, asking each participant to identify features important when evaluating musical artists and their output. For all respondents, authenticity “emerged as a relevant feature, reaffirming the concept’s importance.” Next, informants were asked to make comparison judgments about the authenticity of certain artists when compared to others. 

The authors found “significant breadth in terms of what drives consumers’ assessments of authenticity at the individual level.” Despite that breadth, the researchers concluded that consumers generally combined six broad concepts in determining authenticity:

  1. Accuracy: The extent to which a provider is perceived as transparent in how it represents itself and its products and/or services and, thus, reliable in terms of what it conveys to customers

  2. Connectedness: The extent to which a customer feels engaged, familiar with, and sometimes even transformed by a source and/or its offering

  3. Integrity: The extent to which a provider is perceived as being intrinsically motivated, not acting out of its own financial interest, while acting autonomously and consistently over time

  4. Legitimacy: The extent to which a product or service adheres to shared norms, standards, rules, or traditions present in the market

  5. Originality: The extent to which a product or service stands out from mainstream offerings present in the market and does so without unnecessary embellishments

  6. Proficiency: The extent to which a provider is perceived as properly skilled, exhibiting craftsmanship and/or expertise

Consumers, note the authors, describe these six terms with nuanced and independent terminology:

…one informant described authentic experiences as those produced by artists who “have the ability to create something new” (originality), “engage with fans” (connectedness), “write their own songs” (proficiency), and “are free to choose what to sing” (integrity). Another informant spoke of artists who “talk about what they have really experienced” (accuracy), have “respect for traditions and styles of a certain genre” (legitimacy), “are unique” (originality), “are consistent” (integrity), and “show a desire to have a dialogue with the listener” (connectedness). 

Critically for the authors, consumers combined the various traits, using each one as a unique dimension in a set of traits that, when integrated, ultimately define authenticity. Because these dimensions are not substitutes for one another, the authors see authenticity as a “complex, composite construct.” Indeed, the various dimensions were combined in surprising ways and showed that high levels of perceived authenticity can be reached in different ways. For example, “Beyonce and Pink received similarly high authenticity scores — the former due mainly to high levels of connectedness and integrity, the latter due to a high level of originality.” 

In their second study, the authors asked a group of 1,011 U.S. consumers to describe a highly authentic previous buying experience in specific product and service categories (e.g., sports cars, toys, etc.). The results of this second study were consistent with the first in that once again six broad authenticity dimensions appeared. Interestingly, “respondents’ descriptions were distributed fairly evenly across components as follows: accuracy (20%), connectedness (15%), integrity (12%), legitimacy (20%), originality (16%), and proficiency (17%).” As in Study 1, note the authors, “respondents did not provide a single, rudimentary description of what would make a particular product or service category experience authentic;” instead, “they raised specific dimensions (components) of the concept consistent with authenticity’s meaning depending on the dimension(s) discussed.”

With the six broad terms classified, the authors conducted a third study with 2,419 respondents to examine the role of authenticity when comparing products and services. Respondents were asked to read what they believed was a review of a consumer experience in which evidence of all six [authenticity] components were present. First, “respondents reported their overall assessment of the authenticity of the offering reviewed.” Second, “they rated the extent to which each of the six component judgments (e.g., originality, accuracy) contributed to their overall assessment of authenticity (six items).” 

In this final study, the authors found that “certain components appear as more or less important to consumers’ assessment of authenticity.” For example, for products specifically, the authors found that proficiency is more important to authenticity in products brought primarily for pleasure than for more utilitarian purchases. In contrast, the skill and artisanship of the provider matter more in purchases made for fun or pleasure. The authors highlight that their findings are consistent with other studies that have found that “film sequels are more successful if named (e.g., Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason) than if they are numbered (e.g., Spider-Man 2) precisely because they are perceived as more dissimilar from their predecessor.” On the other hand, “Bank of America makes it abundantly clear that it maintains a culture committed to ethical behavior and “complying with applicable laws, rules, regulations, and policies.” 

Conclusions

Taken as a whole, from the findings of the various studies, the authors present several conclusions for researchers and marketing leaders. Below are what seem the most relevant to marketers.

First, authenticity is “a holistic consumer assessment determined by six component judgments (accuracy, connectedness, integrity, legitimacy, originality, and proficiency), whereby the role of each component can change according to the consumption context.” Put another way, to determine authenticity consumers make multiple judgments (e.g., “Is this original? Is this accurate?”) that correspond to the six dimensions. Moreover, “these judgments are not interchangeable (e.g., originality is not a substitute for accuracy); it is only a combination of these judgments that jointly determines whether consumers consider a consumption experience more or less authentic.” 

Second, authenticity is “a composite construct,” meaning that it is “defined entirely by its components instead of existing on its own as a latent construct.” Put simply, when consumers describe “what makes something authentic, they do so only [italics mine] through some combination of the six components.” Indeed, it is only by combining and recombing these dimensions that consumers are able to decide if a product or service is genuinely authentic.

Third, while consumers generally associate higher levels of authenticity with positive feelings toward products and services, “consumers can be inclined to buy products and services deemed authentic even if they do not especially ‘like’ them, which underscores the importance of considering authenticity as a semi-autonomous driver of consumer decision making.”

Overall, this paper provides a useful framework for marketers to think about authenticity in their own products and services. As the authors conclude, “knowing that judgments of accuracy, connectedness, integrity, legitimacy, originality, and proficiency are key components when assessing authenticity, managers can more efficiently and effectively deduce actionable strategies in terms of positioning.” 

Additionally, this research also gives marketers an initial roadmap to assess how their current marketing is aligned (or not) to the authors’ model. For example, companies that sell products primarily on the basis of personal pleasure should see authenticity perceptions rise by emphasizing their brand’s proficiency. Furthermore, “knowing the six components enables managers to assess how competitors currently signal authenticity and presents alternative routes to signal the authenticity of their own offerings.”

As noted at the start of this post, advice on authenticity is easy to find. Typically, however, the advice is either too generalized — just be “more authentic” — or lacks a clear model to understand authenticity itself in the context of consumer sentiment and behavior. By offering a comprehensive definition that can be put to work in real-world consumer analysis and brand development, this paper is a valuable addition to the academic literature on the topic and to a marketer’s everyday analytical and decision-making toolkit.  


The Research

Nunes JC, Ordanini A, Giambastiani G. The Concept of Authenticity: What It Means to Consumers. Journal of Marketing. 2021;85(4):1-20. doi:10.1177/0022242921997081

Posted by:Carlos Alvarenga