The demand for authenticity

by | 28.04.2022

Authentic communication, authentic job ads, authentic everything

You have probably read one or two calls for authenticity in recent weeks or months. Authenticity is taking over the job advertisements and is promptly declared to be the advantage of smaller organisations over corporations. It helps in marketing and sales, in working in and leading teams1, in developing solutions or attitudes. Sorry, but I can’t believe in authenticity as a guiding principle for companies!

A buzzword is a buzzword

Agility, new work, transformation, digitalisation, new normal, sustainability, VUKA, leadership, complexity, eye level, appreciation, resilience and mindset – a list of past or current buzzwords can easily be filled. A few years ago, transparency was demanded by and in companies. Then there were calls for organisational rebels up and down the country. Transparency now seems to be manufactured or no longer so important, organisational rebels are probably extinct. Now it is the turn of authenticity.

From a marketing perspective, authenticity is another buzzword, i.e. “a word or expression from a particular field that has become fashionable through frequent use”.2 Why it is becoming so fashionable right now, I don’t know, and probably, as with many other terms and topics, this cannot be answered conclusively. At any rate, many people and organisations are currently trying to actively use authenticity for their own interests. Presumably, this development will also annoy many an organisation that has already used the term as a differentiator for several years, as it is now being “stolen” from them through inflationary use. But there is hope for these companies too: with “honesty”, the next buzzword is already waiting in the wings.

Authenticity – what is it actually?

The Duden defines authenticity succinctly as “genuineness, credibility, certainty, reliability”.3

And Wikipedia adds: Authenticity (from Greek αὐθεντικός authentikós “genuine”; Late Latin authenticus “vouched for, reliable”) means genuineness in the sense of originality.4

Perhaps you are like me, but I can do relatively little with these explanations. Reliability and credibility seem clear to me, both in private and professional contexts. Both are siblings in spirit, intertwine and are important for interaction with the environment. A company whose credibility is shaken – e.g. because it acts carelessly or even negligently5 – will certainly have major problems on the market in the future. A manufacturer who repeatedly announces deliveries at defined times but cannot keep these promises will not be considered reliable (although continuous unreliability is in itself also a form of reliability, albeit not a particularly positive one). I have difficulties with “genuineness”! What is that supposed to be?

Genuineness in communication

In 2009, a feature film was released: “The Invention of Lying”. In the comedy, a world without lies was outlined, as lying as such had not yet been invented. For fun, I would like to apply this briefly to some typical corporate statements:

  • “We are a leading provider of …”
    “We have been on the market for many years, but most people don’t know us. And our product is so-so.”
  • “We are an internationally operating company.”
    “In addition to our customers in Germany, we sold two licences to Austria a few years ago.”
  • “Our support is available for you from 9:00 – 18:00…”
    “… and if not, the answering machine usually picks up.”
  • “We have an innovative product that will revolutionise the market…”
    “Unfortunately, practically no one knows about the product!”
  • “We guarantee 99 per cent availability.”
    “Our service pretty much fails one day out of 100!”
  • “We offer intuitive project management!”
    “With a few days of training, you too will be able to use our tool.”
  • “Become part of an innovative team …”
    “… that spends 6 out of 8 working hours per day on routine tasks or meetings.”
  • “We offer a company pension scheme …”
    “… provided you get through the probationary period.”
  • “We operate on an equal footing…”
    “… but since the management bears the economic responsibility for the company, it makes the important decisions itself.”

Of course this is just a bit of fun. And of course it is part of the trade to emphasise individual aspects of cooperation in a company or product or service strengths. The question that is troubling me: why are these things emphasised? Is genuineness or authenticity the motive behind it? From my perspective, no! It is simply not possible.

Roles, organisations and valid evidence

There are at least three reasons why I believe that authenticity is not a significant motive for people or organisations to act:

People take on different roles or functions depending on the context. For example, I am a friend, a son, a buddy, a co-worker, a husband, a neighbour, a colleague, a contact person, a good-humoured uncle, a best man, a footballer, etc. I act according to these roles and functions.6 I speak differently with a friend than with a customer. One day I like to communicate, another day I want my peace. I answer the phone at the first ring or I decide to call back. Honesty means, for example, that I do not deliver the same service every day and that this is not even a goal of mine. Authenticity means that I act differently in comparable situations. In short: I am an individual7 and even if I personally find it nice to work for a company in which I am also allowed to be an individual, authenticity is neither a guiding principle for me nor for the company.

Viewed rationally, organisations are an association of individuals with a common purpose.8 To pretend that an organisation is a homogeneous entity (“We are creative, committed and successful!”) seems strange to me. Of course, one can believe that an organisation functions like a common organism – if one employee works less, the other employee makes up for it with extra work – but how the individuals feel about it, what they sincerely think about it, remains hidden. Those affected are welcome to discuss this within an organisation, but I cannot see a necessity or even an advantage to discuss this beyond the boundaries of the company or system. Neither in the recruitment of new employees, nor in the description of companies, products or services.

And last but not least: I know of no valid evidence for a correlation of authenticity with important company key figures, not to mention causalities. Why should an organisation therefore commit to the topic, promote it or even elevate it to a leitmotif if there are no “certainties” or reasons other than a relatively diffuse feeling?

One piece of good news and two tips

I have one piece of good news and two tips for you. First the good news: you are automatically authentic. As an individual and as part of an organisation. You are used to acting and reacting according to context. You learn from experience. You have your views, values, feelings, attitudes and that is good. Of course you may (and can) deal with these aspects, of course you can try to show “better” behaviours. If you want to do that, then do it. But not because there is a demand for authenticity and not under the heading of genuineness, but because it is a concern for you personally.

This concern leads to an observation: almost certainly you and I understand the terms reliability, credibility and genuineness as explanations for authenticity in detail somewhat differently. Who is the judge who decides whose perspective is the correct one? There is no such person. And thus there is no final right or wrong.

And two tips derive from this observation:

  1. Someone who promotes authenticity as a “miracle cure” is pursuing a goal. He or she may want to sell you something. That’s fine per se, but you should always keep it in mind when assessing the issue.
  2. Many marketing, sales and human resources departments employ people who are good at putting themselves in the shoes of potential customers, partners or employees. These people are used to listening before they act. They are used to communicating favourably. Talk to these people and get to the bottom of the need for reliability, credibility and genuineness. It may be that the demand for authenticity is merely a symptom and the cause of a perceived lack lies elsewhere. From my perspective, this makes much more sense than relying on authenticity as a leitmotif.



[1] Ralf Lanwehr has written a great, very readable article on authentic leadership.
[2] Cambridge Dictionary: Buzzword
[3] German Duden: Authentizitaet
[4] German Wikipedia: uthenzitaet
[5] Glaubwuerdigkeit am Boden– Versaeumnisse beim Produktrueckruf
[6] Ulrike Roeseberg has recorded a short, very plausible video in German about this: Hauptsache authentisch?
[7] Janine Tychsen explains the topic of inner work very clearly. From her point of view, inner work is fundamental for a fulfilled and successful life!
[8] Conny Dethloff offers a clear opinion on the topic of the purpose of companies.

Michael Schenkel has published other articles in the t2informatik Blog, including

t2informatik Blog: A buzzword is a buzzword

A buzzword is a buzzword

t2informatik Blog: VUCA, so what?!

VUCA, so what?!

t2informatik Blog: Hunting for key figures

Hunting for key figures

Michael Schenkel
Michael Schenkel

Head of Marketing, t2informatik GmbH

Michael Schenkel has a heart for marketing - so it is fitting that he is responsible for marketing at t2informatik. He likes to blog, likes a change of perspective and tries to offer useful information - e.g. here in the blog - at a time when there is a lot of talk about people's decreasing attention span. If you feel like it, arrange to meet him for a coffee and a piece of cake; he will certainly look forward to it!​