Brands Without Wax

The ancient Romans had a word to describe the most precious artistic works of the time: sincere. A technique made popular at the time involved inserting wax into a sculpture’s cracks as it aged to preserve its life. From a distance, a work treated in this regard was remarkably indistinguishable from its original.

Over time, however, some artists would deceptively pass these on as works still in perfect condition. So as this trend continued, works that had never been tampered with appreciated in value due to their rarity. This is, as the story goes, where the contemporary word “sincere” is derived: sin (Latin for ‘without’) + cera (Latin for ‘wax’). To be a sincere work was to be truly unchanged from its original form. It was to be authentic.

We don’t find “sincere” used in that context now, but increasingly it seems authentic has become a safe heuristic to determine whether a brand can unlock mainstream consumer appeal. It relates to a set of companies that have not manufactured a false identity for commercial gain — those that remain true to some original essence, sometime at its own expense.

In many recent cases we’ve seen how powerfully this authenticity can hold up (Kickstarter, Etsy). In others, you find scrolls worth of sites that can read uncomfortably contrived — describing a “local” process or a “values-based approach” that doesn’t quite feel natural.

These latter brands are attempting to appropriate a sense of heritage into an otherwise identical product suite. Looking to inject a small bit of wax into their brand narrative in order to bolster their authenticity. These instances are getting covered and questioned more and more (herehere and here) and a new reality is being formed around it.

“…our obsession with the lost, forgotten, and vanquished is bigger than ever. The overlooked are having their moment and it’s beautiful. The trick is in how we assess the new. If not brave, we might be fostering the underheard at even more aggressive rate.” Band out of Time

One of the more visible offenders of this today might be J.Crew, which, in 2006, purchased a long retired workwear denim brand from the 1930’s called Madewell and repurposed it to create a new line intended to “reflect the authenticity and timelessness of the clothing.” Looking closer, the product line pays no tribute to the original, save the label and name. The great-grandson of the original Madewell founder interviewed J.Crew and penned a post on the move:

“How many corporations are out there rifling through the defunct brands of America’s past like a bin of used records, looking for something, anything, that will give them that soft Edison-bulb glow of authenticity?” — Something Borrowed, Something Blue

So, it seems this is a familiar cycle  —  there are a good few wax practitioners out there, and, as a result, consumers are championing the truly sincere. I‘ve wrestled with whether this is a simple return to the appreciation of the truer elements and soul of product or if something more entangled is at play.

Below are a few key shifts that I think have resurfaced this phenomenon.

Scarcity Value

In the modern online era, we can make copies of a digital good with little to no marginal cost. Everything is infinitely replicable. What makes that relevant for this discussion is that as humans we are naturally predisposed to the psychological force of scarcity value, which dictates that when something is too available, we inherently value it less.

So in an environment where consumers are surrounded by uniformity, they (according to scarcity value theory) will necessarily crave things that, maybe a bit rougher around the edges, maybe more worn, stubbornly preserve and insist on their creator’s original intentions. As the products offered by the market are consistently replicas in seemingly infinite volumes, it perhaps only intensifies our desire for what sits just out of reach in scarce supply.

A brand that feels “out of the way” expresses a uniqueness that draws significantly more intrigue.

Authentic companies convey this idea of scarcity in the products they sell and the sometimes modest intentions of their reach. A brand that feels “out of the way” expresses a uniqueness that draws significantly more intrigue. What’s more, because of the speed and ease with which digital products can now be assembled, consumers have come to overvalue where painstaking care and time were necessary elements of the process. True or not, authenticity then is not just serving as a proxy for value, but for quality also.

Questlove, drummer of the legendary hip-hop group The Roots, captured this thought well in a recent essay. He described how this phenomenon of new abundance, but more precisely, how a fan’s appreciation of a digital good (in this case music) negatively correlates with the ease with which we can now access it:

“There were, of course, less dramatic ways of finding music. Digging in the crates. Staying up all night with a transistor radio. Eavesdropping on conversations in high school. Those were offline revolutions, unwired; it’s just the way the old world worked. Then digital music arrived and again turned everything around. The iPod happened. Playlists happened. Pandora happened. YouTube happened. Spotify happened… Sometimes it’s a little too easy to get to a song: think, type, retrieve. What about calling up your friend, making him drive you to the record store, waiting patiently behind the guy who won’t move away from the “B” bin… All of that’s gone now. And, counterintuitively, because it’s gone, it’s harder and harder to truly fall in love with a song or album. What was your cost of entry? How hard did you have to work?” — Questlove, The Roots 

Direct-To-Consumer Noise

In a previous generation, there were gatekeepers to our consumer product choices. Sears, Macy’s, Best Buy and on and on — they wielded a terrific deal of influence. They navigated the universe of available items and distilled those to a manageable set of choices that were then accessible in their showrooms. We still had agency in our purchase decisions, but dramatically less than today.

Fast forward and the Internet has unlocked the most democratic distribution channel of all time: if your message is resonant (or loud enough), it stands a chance to bubble to the surface to vie for consumer interest.

Identity is playing an increasingly dominant role in purchase decisions.

We now have an unprecedented number of companies attempting to tell their individual stories online, where now it seems a music service doesn’t necessarily compete with just other music services, but with every other consumer product looking to steal a moment of human attention.

In such an environment, consumers inundated with choice look for signals to filter out new brands, and unsurprisingly, authenticity has become one of the first ways we do that. If your company is “real,” I can entrust my purchase to you in the hopes of developing a mutually valuable relationship over a longer horizon.

Brand Decentralization

The composition of a brand today has almost inversed, with the line blurring from where a company ends and the consumer begins. That is, as more and more platforms have leveraged the open and democratic power of the web, they’ve invited their customers into everything from new product decisions to brand representations to actual ownership of the business. In so doing, identity is playing an increasingly dominant role in purchase decisions.

It’s become clear the best brands being built today are acting as mirrors of their customers. These companies have chosen to de-prioritize their own singular brand in service of the people and stories that are actually powering their service.

Obvious but excellent case studies here are Airbnb and Kickstarter, which celebrate their users, not the company itself or even the employees, as the normative brand messaging. Even Uber, which, in spite of consistent questions around its integrity, has managed to craft a powerful narrative not only around the obvious passenger customer, but the drivers who have found meaningful employment value using its service in the face of fewer viable alternatives.

What’s more, it’s clear many of these companies are representing values of a completely different orientation. They are offering a superior user experience, but the decision criteria often sits a couple of levels higher.

A new generation sees brands like Wealthfront or Oscar or Walker & Co, and it’s immediately clear : “This is my generation’s [health/financial services/____] company. These are values I identify with.”

From there, the “sincere” test is quite straightforward. How more authentic can a brand be if it is simply a reflection of the values of the people using it?

Data + Privacy Breaches

The current shift to authenticity is also marked by a growing sense of brand distrust (studies by Pew and others indicate trust in the US is at its lowest in decades, even lower among millennials). The mounting evidence of misuse of personal data to the seemingly countless privacy breaches of Home Depot, Target, Sony and on have collectively given users a hesitancy that their welfare may rarely be placed ahead of corporate interest.

How more authentic can a brand be if it is simply a reflection of the values of the people using it?

Most companies can talk about all the ways they will use data to enhance a customer’s experience, but rarely are they explicit about what ways they won’t. Genuine brands signal a purity about who they are and a transparency around how they respect a customer’s private information, time and attention in a way that others don’t. Put simply, consumers’ bullshit detectors are on high alert.

While these values  —  heritage, integrity, authenticity  —  on the surface feel intuitive in terms of their appeal, they point towards something directionally different for what it means today to build a genuine brand. In light of a highly digital environment and a values-based generational imperative, there is little room to deviate from what a company sincerely represents.

Interestingly, what the above suggests is that the implication may not be seeking out a better brand strategy, but perhaps having no brand strategy. In some way having an elaborate one implies the application of wax and will therefore produce the opposite intended effect.

If the sincerity filter is now both narrow and profoundly discerning, a company would be well served to digest a willingness to go unnoticed, securing the favor of the modest audience for which it is truly designed. The larger objective for virtually all companies —  growth —  should flow as a natural consequence.