What happens when every brand tries to declare its authenticity?
Recently, I ran across a billboard for a McDonald’s bacon cheeseburger that touted the sandwich as both “Artisan” and “Handcrafted.”
Now, I’m not ashamed to admit I like me some Mickey D’s every now and then, but: “Artisan”? “Handcrafted”? Who are they kidding? I feel a bit sorry for the client who demanded to use those words and a bit sad for the copywriter who acquiesced to that demand.
If McDonald’s can tout artisan hamburger buns, what credibility does a local bakery have to make the same claim? Where should advertisers draw the line when they try to make themselves seem more genuine than they are?
Marketers and advertisers have glommed on to the language of authenticity. We see it all the time: “Artisan.” “Bespoke.” “Hand-crafted.” “Curated.” It doesn’t matter what the product or service is, these words are intended to convey a sense of specialness in a world of mass consumption.
You might say we’ve come full circle. In the era of industrialization and mass marketing, the rise of national and global brands was driven because people, no matter where they lived, needed products that represented a sense of quality when they couldn’t meet the maker of those products. Hence, “genuine” or “original” became more commonplace descriptions found in ads where “customized” or “handcrafted” did not.
Advertisers also adopted the language of superiority and size. Station wagons with “oversized” back seats. Homes with “generous” closets. A lawnmower with “Best-in-Class” horsepower. Much of that verbiage is still commonly used by marketers in many categories. But after a while, the language of superiority and size became an arms race of sorts, where marketers tried to continually out-better the competition. And many consumers had heard enough of the bigger-is-better argument. So there was a pivot to the next area, authenticity. Where smaller was more unique, and therefore better or more desirable.
So why, in a world where we can have almost anything we desire (if we can afford it), do we crave authenticity so much?
The Internet and globalization have driven both extremes. Nowadays, it’s both amazingly easier to meet or connect with the makers of products, and exceedingly easy for brands or corporations to obfuscate and mask the real sources of their products and even their own identities. Plus, the more connections we’re able to make virtually, the more connections we want and desire in real life.
While most of us still consume mass quantities of mass goods sold in big-box stores and supermarkets, there is a burgeoning desire for things that have a more personal origin or a very traceable provenance. I just moved into a new house, and while my wife and I brought home quite a few mass-produced IKEA pieces, we also found a furniture maker to create a table made from reclaimed wood. It’ll be one-of-a-kind, and that makes for a better story.
This desire for authenticity in products doesn’t have to be costly, either. Where I live, yes, you can meet the farmers that grow and sell vegetables locally, and in a “Portlandia”-esque sense you can probably learn the name of the animal you’re eating. I suppose people enjoy or appreciate things more when they know where it was made and who made them.
But leave it to advertising people to bastardize the terminology and cheapen what might be a truly unique benefit for a product. Ever since someone decided “New and Improved” could adequately describe the addition of an artificial flavoring additive, ad folks love to trot out complete BS words and phases and overuse them.
So we’re seeing words like “artisan” slapped on everything from a local brand of jelly to yes, a McDonald’s bacon cheeseburger. And while consumers aren’t necessarily fooled by what’s authentic and what’s not, the language of authenticity will inevitably lose its meaning and its significance if it’s indiscriminately slapped on every product out there.
Not all products and services are unique or artisanal, and there’s simply nothing wrong with that. It makes for a tougher marketing challenge, though. Maybe the true hand-crafted, bespoke approach should be applied at the initial strategic thinking and concepting phases. Then perhaps copywriters and brand managers wouldn’t need to trot out words that are fast becoming clichés.
If that doesn’t work, we can always keep faking authenticity, right?
Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small.
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