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Standard economic theory assumes that buyers are rational creatures who observe supply-and-demand laws. For centuries, this model worked pretty well to explain most economic activity. Two hundred years ago, agrarian Americans decided whether to buy a hoe mainly on the basis of whether it was available and affordable. But in the past 20 years, a school of behavioral economists has emerged to point out the obvious: consumers with higher living standards often make stupid, irrational decisions. We don't simply look at price and quality; we decide how we feel about a refrigerator or even a pair of socks before we buy.
Authenticity is a way of understanding this concept. Some see the iPhone as a silly pose; others find Apple products genuine because of their unique design and "Think Different" posture. Gilmore and Pine give a name to this ephemeral dimension of consumer behavior: in addition to the established dimensions of availability, price and quality, we are buying according to authenticity. If Gilmore and Pine are right, the dominant business polarity of the past decadeonline vs. off-lineis irrelevant. The crucial factor dividing success from failure in the next few years will be whether a business is perceived as real or fake, authentic or inauthentic.
So how can companies deliver authenticity? What businesses will survive our jaded new form of capitalism? Gilmore and Pine offer two approaches. First, companies can strive to be transparent and exactly what they say they are. Chipotle Mexican Grill"Food with Integrity"goes for this approach, as does Honest Tea, the clothier Anthropologie, and Ethos water. These companies use the holier-than-thou strategy. Chipotle, for instance, serves meat only from animals that have never received antibiotics. But striving for complete authenticity can be dangerous. If tainted meat is found in a Chipotle outlet, the reaction could be something like what happened when JetBluewhich claimed to be the passenger-friendly airlinestranded travelers on runways for hours during a February 2007 snowstorm. JetBlue's stock price has fallen from about $12 a share to about $5 a share. Gilmore and Pine note that "being perceived and branded as authentic puts a bull's-eye on your back."
The best strategy for many companies is to openly fake it, to poke fun at their marketing excesses and admit their inauthenticity. A good example: last fall Verizon (a Gilmore-Pine client) "advertised" on 30 Rock with a product placement in which Alec Baldwin and Tina Fey extolled the virtues of Verizon phones; Fey then looked at the camera and said, "Can we have our money now?" Another example is Dave & Buster's, the restaurant-arcade chain. Dave & Buster's doesn't pretend to be a real arcade; it's a place where adults can drink a martini and play with little toy basketballs. And it's thriving.
For the average U.S. company, Gilmore and Pine have simple advice: think less about where to put adsubiquity is killing advertising's powerand more about how to shape the places customers interact with their products. Example: REI, the outdoor-gear company. In 1996 REI opened a flagship location in Seattle with a climbing wall and a walking trail. The climbing wall isn't some little displayin fact you have to pay to use it. The location also features a meeting space for local nonprofits. The store was more ambitious than any other the company had built, but it has become the city's No. 2 tourist attraction after Pike Place Market. Consumers bond with REI's goods in a way they never will with an ad. True, only 1.6 million people a year visit the REI store, but Gilmore and Pine reason that creating 1.6 million knowledgeable customers will be more lucrative than reaching 5 million with an ad campaign: "Stop saying what your offerings are through advertising and start creating placespermanent or temporary, physical or virtualwhere people can experience what those offerings, as well as your enterprise, actually are."
But what if you sell screwdrivers or bug spray? It may not be possible to create a "place" that offers an "authentic experience" that anyone would want. ("Tighten screws all day!" "Tour the mosquito museum!") Actually, once I began to think like Gilmore and Pine, I found myself coming up with seemingly authentic experiences for even the most insipid products. Sell tools? Cover a huge wall with construction materials so customers can try the tools in the store. Bug spray? Try it on a roach. Little boys would love it. Gilmore and Pine understand that in an era when even Wal-Mart is selling organic mesclun and gourmet coffee, people want their purchases to elevate them, to transform them. They want products to connect them to history or to a cause (how many products are "green," "raw" or "eco"-something?). They don't want to cook, but they do want the package on the manufactured food product to say USDA ORGANIC. Does all this striving for authenticity make us more fake or more real? Gilmore and Pine offer a third option: "fake-real." Economic offerings don't have to be exactly what they say they are (Canyon Ranch isn't really a ranch; The Daily Show isn't really a news show), but they must be true to themselves (you actually can transform yourself at a spa; you actually can learn something from The Daily Show). Today you are authentic when you acknowledge just how fake you really are.
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