When You Say “Authentic”, What Do You Really Mean?

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When You Say “Authentic”, What Do You Really Mean?

By Michael Colton

Directory of Design Strategy at Brandimage, Desgrippes & LAGA

It’s the nature of supply and demand. The better we get at persuading consumers to buy, the better they get at identifying the difference between hyperbole and truth. As consumers look more astutely for evidence of proof of investment in quality, marketers further optimize profits by limiting investments in their brands. As a result, designers are often left with the challenge of advancing renderings of authenticity. The visual language of quality investment, honesty and trustworthiness are getting more conspicuous.

From the advent of packaging goods for sale, the trustworthiness of a product was depicted as a symbol of perfection. There really wasn’t much to prove or promise to consumers because there were few competitors. The more beautiful depiction of fruit on that can of peaches, the more dramatic the highlights and the more drippy the dewdrops, the better it seemed. But today things are much different. Consumers have unlimited choice. And the competition for their pocketbooks has forced communication tactics to become overly solicitous and imposing. Consumers are on their guard and armed with greater access to information—information like product recalls, corporate malfeasance, brand acquisition and the quality of ingredients. They have become suspicious of front panel overtures and savvy enough to spot the fakes—the egregiously insistent ones with heroic-looking logos, the mimicking me too’s and the schmaltzy romancers with overly enthusiastic typestyles and showy ribbon decorations.

The stakes have risen, the game has changed and the expectations for design are higher. Yet how many times have you seen a creative brief or brand tenets that offer you little to work with in making the experience of the brand more meaningful and genuine? When the personality traits are verbally defined as authentic (or optimistic or premium or contemporary) it’s time to ask, “what do you really mean?” Chances are, your client cant answer or they’ll know it when they see it. This moment—This gap between business and design is precisely where we, as designers, can add value. This is where we become more than a service provider. We become an invaluable translator that can visually articulate the alternatives. 

I thought it would be helpful to take authenticity (one of the many overused, rarely second-guessed descriptors of brand personality) and explore the realm of its interpretation. The distinctions we make that lead to a more precise definition of the brand not only have implications for design. They have implications for the tenets of the brand. The insight I hope you gain isn’t from analyzing the style of each approach. Most of the examples will be quite familiar to you. The remarkable thing to me has to do with the way a single adjective can actually be so inadequate, misleading and a killer of design efficiency and effectiveness. Enough said…let’s get into it.

Neutrality

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In the age of social networking, brands like Facebook and Flickr simply appear to be civic in their intent. Credibility comes from creating public portals providing access to shared content and enabling community. Jones Soda is a perfect package design anolog. The label is like a bulletin board—a public space to share interests. The style of typography is perhaps as commonplace and utilitarian as Helvetica. It’s legible, rational and intelligible and appears to be the property of the public.A brand may be considered true and trustworthy when it takes a position of neutrality. Successful design masks a brand strategically crafted to be persuasive. In fact, at its best, the brand is perceived as one without any self-image at all. There appears to be no interest in creating atmosphere or making an emotional connection. The intent is to be clear in the delivery of information. The expression of the brand simply becomes a window into the world as it actually is. It appears to be neutral and democratic—untouched by the manufacturer.

Care in Crafting

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Respect and trust are bestowed upon the brand that demonstrates its time and trend enduring qualities. There are those rare designers fortunate enough to see to market their recommendations of an actual monogrammed waxed stamp that fastens a closure. But for most, the graphic language merely implies fine craftsmanship (illustrated wax stamps with drop shadows). The design suggests origination in a place where time has stopped and where each product is a specimen whose manifestation is the result of love for the craft in making. The container’s design proudly sanctions the quality and christens its entry into the world.

Graphic elements might appear carved into wood, etched into glass or pounded in steel. Serif typefaces are common as they too are the result of a time-honored precision craft. The visual architecture is almost always centered and formal. Other common signifiers of pride include bellybands, seals and delicate decorative accents. The style might appear stuffy and archaic. But it’s still alive and well; often reinterpreted or integrated to counterbalance very modern or trendy graphic elements.

Primitivism

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Trust comes from the perception of a locally grown or small batch producer. Unrefined and amateurish brand expression insinuates the product maker is naïve to strategies of persuasion. Like “Care in Crafting” there are always signifiers of human involvement. However, in this case, imperfection, not precision, reassures.

Labels appear designed on a shoestring budget by an aspiring small business owner. Human touch is always evident. The perception is that product may seem fresh—locally sourced and recently made. It might look homemade, put in a mason jar by grandma or packaged by the farmer for selling at the stand. Often you’ll see handwriting, potato printing or hand-done fasteners like rubber bands, string ties or paper wrapping.

From the Source

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All the brand does is act as a conscientious curator bringing what’s good from the earth directly to the consumer. Trust and admiration are bestowed upon the brand that does everything it can to uphold its unadulterated unaltered quality.

Good examples make real ingredients feel tangible. When design mimics nature, close up textures are simulated or the substrate appears to be derived from natural materials (like unbleached paper or wood caps). Graphic elements or typography might appear distressed by the forces of nature. Actual cut windows into the container, prove real ingredients. Broken pieces of product, often discouraged, are in this context, encouraged since they indicate nature’s way with them. Natural and irregular textures may reinforce the message as it provides another sensory input.

Innocence

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Like a child appears, an innocent brand seems optimistic, idealistic and unassuming with nothing to hide. The innocent believes that providing what is simple, pure, and good is the best thing it can do to enable a happy consumer.Clean design with vast areas of white space and unadorned photography are hallmark codes of the innocent style. The humility and unpretentiousness of the innocent shows up in the lonesomeness of a single, naked depiction of the product. Typography is understated. Lowercase type is common and rarely overlaps with any other graphic elements.

Ideology

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Ideological brands have the luxury of pushing without putting off. You may not share their beliefs but you admire their candor, passion and the willingness to wear their heart on their sleeves and to speak emphatically. Their product has deeper meaning and is the result of a set of ethics that extend into product making or formulation. Often, these designs are eclectic and breaking convention—reflective of a company that beats to its own drum. These designs might be full of messages and involved details. Perhaps the combination of graphic elements appears un-orchestrated, as if extending the gospel preceded profit making.

Predictions for the Future

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The next new to the world manifestation of authenticity will directly reflect the fact that brand trust is at an all time low. Many brands might feel compelled to push all product ingredients to the front panel. One emergent example “Five” by Haagen Daz.

Another possibility I call “Random Assortment”. Imagine going to the supermarket and finding a brand of orange juice where a single product SKU has an array of product depictions of the orange fruit in a marquee position on the front panel. It’s like nature—no two pieces of fruit are exactly the same.

So there you have it….for now. As the world turns, meaningful designs that convey authenticity will be forced to evolve. New modes of communication might emerge as existing ones integrate with the style of their times.

There are probably other formulas of authenticity out there and perhaps others are hybrids of two or more of the formulas listed here. For example, I would argue that “Artisanal” is a combination of care in crafting and primitivism implying the pride in a time-honored craft of making something all by hand.

The visual architecture is centered and formal while food depiction and their graphic elements are often rustic.

I hope you find this survey useful. Consider sharing the ideas with your client or reflecting upon it the next time you get that brief that says, “Make it look authentic”.

Michael Colton is the Director of Design and Strategy at Brandimage - Desgrippes & Laga. 

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