Authenticity is important for both people and for brands. But what does it really mean to "be authentic"?  Ana Serrano (CFC chief digital officer) shares her expertise on authenticity, including how the digital realm has amplified the performative nature of authenticity and how inauthentic “green-washing,” “art-washing” and “social impact washing” on behalf of brands can backfire.

References & Links

Ana Serrano and CFC

Other References

Talk About Talk & Dr. Andrea Wojnicki


Interview Transcript

Dr. Andrea Wojnicki: Thank you so much for joining us.

Ana Serrano: Thank you.

AW: Let's just get right into the nitty gritty and start with what your definition of authenticity is.

AS: I think it's the act of being real or true. And it's interesting that I'm using the word act there. Because it's either you are real or true. But can you also act real and true? And I think that's the purpose of this conversation -  is to unpack where that performative aspect of authenticity lies.

AW: Okay, so let's unpack it. So let me ask you one question. First, is there a difference between real and true?

AS: No, I think they're different. I think, in a weird way, real, could have more scientific proof around it. You know, you could imagine observable phenomenon as being real. True, perhaps, is less observable and is also attached to a certain amount of subjectivity. So that's not from the Oxford dictionary or anything like that. But that's how I would make a distinction between the two.

AW: Okay. So an example of that, that I'm thinking of, is someone who is expressing their true beliefs about something. But when you hook them up to an MRI, or something that's taking latent measures of their physical reactions, it would say that what they're saying is true, actually, is not really what their body is saying.

AS: Sure. Sure. That's an example. Yeah.

AW: So in your definition, you also used the word Act, which is just getting right into it!

AS: Yes!

AW: There's what we want to be. And when I say we, we are of course talking about us as individuals in the many roles that we have, but also us representing the brands that we work on as marketers.

AS: Yes.

AW: So what do you mean, when you say act?

AS: Well, I think especially today, although I'm not sure to what extent the digital realm has amplified the performative nature of authenticity? Perhaps authenticity has always been performed, even without the performance being mediated by any kind of media, okay, whether that's print, books, etc. But I think it is important to understand that there's a fine line between being authentic and performing authenticity.

AW: Okay. So the being is your true self?

AS: Well, I wouldn't call it true self. It's actually it has to do with how much we mediate our representation of ourselves to others. So some people think that we're constantly mediating how we want others to see us.  So any kind of communication is a kind of conscious or unconscious projection of ourself - in the way we want to be perceived.

AW: So as a psychologist the term self-awareness is coming up. And, it's to the extent to which you're self-aware, have appropriate behaviors or were. And then presenting or performing, consistent with those.

AS: Yes, it how much is the presentation of the self in any way, shape or form performative unconsciously or consciously? And so, in a way, if you think about that, then all of a sudden, any of the ways in which we represent ourselves as either being authentic or victimized, or, or those are could all be performative in a way?

AW: Yeah. So my brain’s exploding with all the different examples, right? How did I dress to come here?  Was I my authentic self? Am I doing something to make you think something?

AS: And so … but I think -  I don't want people to get all freaked out about this, because it can get really kind of like, Oh, no, am I really not being true? Because I'm performing my truth, whatever. You know, I don't I'm not saying this to give us yet another thing to be anxious about. I'm just saying, you know, communication is complex, basically, which is what your podcast is all about. It's not, it's actually not just a simple you relay a message, and someone receives it. There's a lot that goes on in the relaying. And there's a lot that goes on as it travels. And there's a lot that goes on when it's received.

AW: Absolutely. Okay. So we use the term self-awareness when it comes to an individual, what would be analogous to that for an online brand? So as a human, I'm self-aware. As a brand?

AS: Well, I think what I have noticed, being, I would say, a medium expert at social media (and I say medium because I think I'm adept at managing my social media profiles, or at least my performances and social media), if you will, but I'm certainly not, that's not my full time job. And so I don't devote 100% 24-7 of my day to it. But you know, posting often enough, you start to understand the cadence, the tone, the responses, the phrasing, the nuance. I don't know if this is the way it is for everyone. But that's actually what makes social media fun for me. So I see it as a kind of like a conscious, creative craft, where I'm trying to really --not to be inauthentic-- Okay, again, because I'm trying, it's not like I'm trying to pretend to be anyone else other than I am, especially in the personal social media accounts that I have, or platforms that I that I'm in. It's more like, I have an idea that, you know, Instagram is a private account for me. And that's where I talk about my son. Actually, it's less about how I talk about my son. It's actually a space where I'm trying to display my visual prowess. So for me, Instagram is all about the type of photography I like to take. And the kind of things that I'd like to present about my visual eye, if you will. Unfortunately, or fortunately, my poor son, you know, beleaguered son is my is my model in many of these photographs, right? So that's, so that's become my thing. On Facebook, I'm a lot more of the citizen activists type sort of persona. And that's certainly a part of my life. But that's what I'm sort of curating in that platform. And so, I know which parts of myself I'm showing on which platforms, and depending on those selves, I start to really understand that the stuff that I talked about-- the cadence, the tone, the things -- and then you start to understand what people respond to. And so you, you give them more of what they're looking for, depending on the responses.

AW: So it sounds like you're describing a learning curve. Right? Where, as you said, if you were on at 24, seven, , learning curve would be vertical., quickly learn what gets responses. Is that the goal? Kind of playing the devil's advocate here, but is the goal to get responses?

AS: No, I think, well, is it the goal? Let me see. Let me see. For sure, the platforms are created to encourage that kind of feedback loop. Right. So for sure, like the answer can't possibly be no. The answer is definitely a yes. But the but then the question becomes, is that the only goal? And I don't think it's the only goal? You know? So the answer is yes. Not necessarily because that's the explicit sort of perceived and conscious goal you might have. For many people, it's probably not conscious. Unless that's really what you're doing, which is if you're an influencer, and you know that you're counting your likes, because that translates into money. But for most people, I don't think they're really think of it as like, Oh, I want 300 likes for this. That's my goal. I don't think they consciously think that. But I think because the platforms are built that way, you can't help but make that be a metric to determine whether or not what you've said resonates. Its less about the likes, really, it's more like, Am I looking stupid when I post this? Or does this resonate? So it's about resonance, I think in many ways, which is slightly more nuanced than likes. Because I think likes is a very transactional, which is like, I want likes, because it makes me money. For the average person who's just using social media, to start to curate conversations with their communities. What they're really looking for is resonance.

AW: Right. And probably from people that they respect.

AS: Yes. From people that they respect, so there's a qualifier to that. So it's not just the quantity, but who, who responded.

AW: So whether it's in the context of social media, and also, again, whether it's personal or for a brand, why does authenticity matter?

AS: Because the media is an intimate medium, the medium appears to be one-on-one. Okay? So if you look at YouTube, for example, there's a reason why all the major YouTubers have their face-- the first thing you see is their face. And they go, Hello, everybody!!! You know, it looks like they're talking to you. They're connecting with each individual.

AW: It’s like podcasting, right?. You're literally in people's head. With your earbuds.

Yeah. So it's because of the intimacy of the medium, despite the fact that it was never meant to be this broadcast medium. I mean, what's really interesting about digital network media, is it was supposed to be this kind of like multi-channel many-to-many, one-to-one broadcast medium. That was the antidote to the broadcast media of television, where you've got the expert telling everyone what to do, right? But what's happened, I think, is that you've had the weird shift, where many of the mainstream platforms--  especially the ones, the monopolies, like YouTube -- it's become a broadcast medium, which is one too many. But it disguises itself as a one to one.

AW: What do you mean by that?

AS: Meaning, it's definitely a one to many, but it feels like it's a one-to-one because of the intimacy of it.

AW: Okay, you know, and also, I'm not sure if you were getting at this, but the democratization of it, where suddenly the person that was being broadcasted to can spell it out.

AS: Of course, of course, that's a key part of it - is that it's a two-way street.

AW: So what happens then, when a brand or say an influencer, whoever it is, is perceived as being inauthentic?

AS: I think you can get a backlash very, very quickly, you know, very quickly. I mean, you just have to, I'm almost scared to bring this up. Okay? Three weeks before the election, we have a perfect case study of a brand - you know, one of our revered brands in Canada, the Prime Minister's brand -  taking a beating for things that were revealed, that did not fit the brand that they were promoting across all the media platforms, including social media. The social media use of the Prime Minister's office with Prime Minister himself was quite adept. There are many, many instances of posts that spoke directly to creating an intimate relationship between the life of the Prime Minister (the kind of ordinariness of his life )that and…

AW: actually, you know, his employment of social media, particularly Instagram, I think is actually part of his brand. It’s not just the message, but it's also the medium.

AS: Exactly, exactly. And then, and then you've got the stuff that came out and the yearbooks… I think where people really looked very carefully was like, Okay, so how is it going to respond to this? How is he going to,… how authentic will his response to this particular issue of the yearbook photos be? And that authenticity is an interesting to think to watch, because it's different at a press conference (distributed via media channels), when versus when he has prepared remarks, versus whatever he tweets out, versus the subsequent tweets that he might put out that's more formal versus … So it's like, you then see, wow, you know, it's a very difficult thing to cultivate. (Now I'm talking about it is true authenticity, which is even weirder!) but you know, it's very difficult to cultivate sort of a more conscious …Well, I guess, true authenticity, I think.

AW: you know, so I think this is actually a great example. Yes. Because you spoke about your books from what was it? 15 years ago?

AS: 2001.

AW: And then so there's the consistency of what he's communicating in terms of his values. implicitly, right.. And today we and explicitly advocating things, and then also today, it's across mediums. Here's the meta question is authenticity, consistency? Is that really what it is?

AS: No, no, no, not at all. I don't think so at all people change, people change. I think I think the best we can do with authenticity is:  as close to an expression of what you believe to be true at the time that you're telling it.

AW: So personally and professionally, I agree. But the rhetoric, the discourse out there right now is all about how can we trust him if he said and did this 15 years ago, and now he's saying and doing something completely different?

AS: So if I were to do an audit of the responses to his responses, let's say. There's responses to his apology that's politicized. And then there's a whole bunch of responses to his apology, that I think span the continuum of understanding that they buy the sincerity, or at least they believe that he thinks he's being sincere in his apology, but there are those who don't care how sincere he is, and therefore still will chastise him for not knowing any better. And then there are those who say, okay, he may think he's sincere, I'll grant him that, but let's look at his actions. And then the other part, which is like, let's check out what he does from here on in, you know,

AW: so the responses then are, you're basically creating a segmentation scheme, right? There's well, who cares? People that don't care. The people who are politicized the ones aren't the people who believe them, the ones that, ones that think people could change the one thing people fundamentally can change. So across all those things, you have a myriad of segments that you could put people into. But the truth is, this is a huge challenge for him. And the other example when I google “inauthentic brand, faux pas” the example that came up a couple times was Whole Foods in the States, which was touting all sorts of great values for our planet and for our people. And then they were caught putting barely perished, in fact, not quite perished food,  out in bins, like in the garbage basically, they were…:

AS: Oh, dear, I didn't even know about that.

AW: it was a long time ago. So whether it's your reputation at work, and something happens, and people think what she's not as professional as I thought she was! Or it could be your prime ministerial candidate who's trying to get re-elected and something's rediscovered from your past. Or it could be that you're a retailer who has explicitly touted certain values.. And you've been caught doing things that are inconsistent with those. Yes. What can you do I probably employing digital media again, but what can you do about that?

AS: Well, I guess the one thing we haven't talked about is like, you can think you're authentic. And I understand there are certain moments when you can't actually reveal, especially if you're in public office, let's say. It might be very difficult to actually say exactly what you feel or think. Right. So I get that part. But if you didn't have to worry about that, and you could actually do this, then the other part that I think helps us determine how authentic that piece of communication is, is whether the attendant actions, either at the time or in the future, match what's being said.

AW: So I'm walking-the-talk.

AS: So I think part of it is has to do with this walking-the-talk thing.

AW: And then in the new digital economy, would be demonstrating that in an appropriate way across each platform.

AS: I think in the digital economy, what is absolutely clear, is how you behave is so much more easily capturable, if you will. Information moves so fast, and travels so quickly, that it's very difficult not to get caught in a lie. If you are actually saying one thing and doing another. I think I think that's very hard to do. Unless, well, maybe I'm being naïve? Maybe that is easier to do, then, you know? Certainly there are lots of examples of corporations doing things for a very long time that the public didn't know about. Right? And so it depends on your timeframe. Eventually you get caught? I don't know.

AW: I found lots of stuff, when I was doing the research on authenticity, about Trump. There's the question of whether he is authentic, because he seems scattered and it’s down to the consistency thing, right?

AS: I think Trump is a very interesting figure, because I think (well, that's an understatement). But weirdly enough, I think he is authentic, in that he truly believes what he is saying is real or true at the time. So that is what translates across media. And perhaps that's what has translated to his supporters. They believe him, when he says, you know, whatever, I can't even …

AW: We're going to make America great again!

AS: Exactly. He conveys it with unequivocal belief. And so I guess, his supporters - that delivery resonates with his supporters. I can't say whether he has any mental illness or what psychological profile he has. Certainly, there's been enough written about him by experts who are suggesting that he is a particular type of psychological profile, in which case, that particular profile tends to be delusional. And so the delusion extends to - him really thinking that what he does and say, is true and real and comes from this authentic place.

AW: That's fascinating. Actually, a psychiatrist, I suppose, would be the person that would do the assessment or analysis of this. But when I was doing the research on authenticity, they said in the psychology, it's true self, its original self, it's vulnerable self and its consistency. And then for inauthentic, it's fake self, idealised, superficial, pseudo self. And these are qualities associated with narcissism. Which is a term that I've heard associated with Trump. But then he also gets written up as being the most authentic candidate, because of exactly what you just said: He says what he thinks.

AS: So yeah, that is right. It is absolutely, it is absolutely a conundrum.

AW: Okay, I actually read something yesterday on LinkedIn that a friend of mine posted. And it was a comparison of Millennials versus Gen Z, their work styles and their true values and their desires and all sorts of things. And on one of the lines, it said that millennials prefer brands that share their values, and Gen Zs prefer brands that feel authentic. And I was like, Wow, so the older folks, they want to hear about what the brand's values are. And I think I feel like this gets a lot of discourse in marketing writeups and branding, right? Like, what are your brand values? Make sure you're communicating it consistently? and etc.? Is it unique enough? Is it consistent enough? And then apparently, Gen Z, they care less than I just want the brand to feel authentic? What do you think about that?

AS: I actually think that they mean the same things. The difference is that where the values get distributed to Gen Z is in the digital media platforms. And because the digital media platforms are intimate media, the way values get reflected in the feeling of authenticity, I actually think they're the same thing. Where it gets tricky is this notion of feeling authentic and or being authentic. I honestly think it has to do with a deliver a medium, and I think Instagram is your medium. The sharing of values on Instagram, let's say is, is really the feeling of authenticity in that medium.

AW: I think I've got it; I think it’s: we share the same values. Perhaps they're saying that the generation Z's are more open minded to diverse perspectives. And as long as you are being

AS: oh, interesting. Do you think that's what it is? Might be? That's interesting. So do you think then that Gen Z, is all about self-actualization?

AW: That wouldn’t be a bad thing, would it? Another thing that comes up in the writing about authenticity is the difference between being nice versus being good. So nice is more conforming to expectations and being pleasant and acting positive. Versus being good is about being honest. When I think of branding, I think of the conflict, I guess, between being for-profit, but then also having strategic priorities or values associated with the firm, that really aren't related to profit at all -  that you that you want to communicate, because they're socially valued. Do you know what I'm trying to say?

AS: Umm hmm. No, no, no. I mean, we are in that kind of bizarre arena right now, where there's a lot of greenwashing. There's a lot of artwashing. There's a lot of …

AW: love that!!!

AS:social impact washing, or what have you, right? Where corporations are using some of these changing cultural values to promote their activities or their products, thinking that that's all that's required, essentially, and for the benefit of their shareholders. And that's what I mean, I guess by saying, you know, you do that at your peril. Because more and more people are getting cynical. And really, it's like the post-Snowden world, right? Where it's not, you don't have to be a whistleblower, to kind of be in that mode of trying to ensure that who you say you are is really who you are. From a brand perspective, I think that's a very difficult road to travel, if the type of marketing that you end up doing is just lip service to certain cultural values that aren't really part of your firm's core DNA.

AW: What is the definition of it being core to your DNA?

AS: So that, again, I think there's a there's a continuum of thought around that right. So for the purists, if you will, core DNA means is it embedded structurally and the way you do business. You know, so do you treat your employees well? Do you give the minimum wage? Do you have gender parity? Do you have…, and that's for a particular set of values. Obviously, not all corporations will purport to have those values. But for the ones that do, you know, there are certain structural issues around how you run your business that are going to matter to those shareholders who have bought into that type of branding, if that's what you used.

AW:  And that's where Whole Foods got caught, right?

AS: yes, exactly. Exactly.

AW: They weren't doing the things they said they valued.

AS: Exactly, exactly. So that's the hardest part. And then I think there's a whole variety of incremental moves towards that structural end. And that's where I think people are now. Where they're trying to negotiate Exactly. Where is the line?

AW: So the other continuum - that was Nice versus Good, okay? or nice versus honest. And then the other one is Individualism versus Conforming, or individualism versus outer authenticity? You're conforming to expectation. So, perhaps social expectation. Corporate expectations

AS: So for me as a brand. The way I would like, not as a personal brand. I don't mean that like that. But, but I've always been a proponent, visa-vis, versus businesses to really understand what their differentiated value proposition is. And so because I think if you know, what your differentiated value proposition is, and it has to be a value proposition, meaning you are actually delivering value to someone. And if you know what makes that value unique to someone than you, then you're able to connect with that someone and that someone will connect to you and perhaps purchase your whatever it is you're purchasing, okay

AW: Can I just interrupt you to say… That was beautiful marketing.

AS: Was it?

AW: Yes, absolutely.

AS: Okay.

AW: You should teach a class!

AS: But anyway, to me, that is actually the expression, a brand's expression of authenticity, because you know, what your product is, why you made it, why it's good, why it's important, why it's valuable, and to whom and for whom. And so I think it's really important to have that as part of your core. And then if you understand that, and the marketers of your firm know that, then they know how to communicate that value. And that becomes an authentic way of communicating that value.

AW: But I have to tell you, based on my experience in consulting, working on boards, so many organizations are just stuck missing that. They don't understand that there is something about them, that is probably important to them. It's also important to their current and prospective customers or consumers, that is unique versus their competition, and they need to find that thing and hang their hat on it.

AS: Yeah.

AW: And then they will be authentic. And they will succeed.

AS: I suppose that is such an important perspective for me, because we run an accelerator. So you know, we're dealing with founders and start-up founders all the time. And that is a core thing if they don't know what their product is doing and why. So people talk about it as product-market fit. I actually hate that terminology, I don't think it has the essence of that notion of delivering value to someone. So the product-market fit is almost like decoupled from the reason why most people do this kind of work, which is, they do it because they found something that they think would be a value to other people. And they want to see how they can make them, how they can share. So there's a generosity and sort of creative act and entrepreneurship, that in a weird way, I think has been stripped out from all of the rhetoric surrounding start-up ecosystems, especially the ones that are coming out of Silicon Valley. Because they've made it this kind of scientific three-step way of how to make profit, you know? As opposed to really looking at like, Well, why do people make things? You know, what is this creative act all about?

AW: Right, right. They're trying to systematize it. They're putting textbook frameworks basically on something that is much simpler than that. But yeah, another way you have to almost like, allow yourself to be vulnerable to get what it is.

AS: Yes, exactly. Exactly.

AW: Well, when you were talking here, I was thinking, I know exactly what I'm doing what, I am so passionate about communication, and how powerful it can be if you know how to do it. And I want to learn more about that myself personally, and share what I do know, with people to help them become more effective parents, coworkers, managers, whatever they're doing, right? So okay, I'm going to ask you one last question. In terms of advice for listeners. Obviously, being perceived as being authentic is a positive thing. So what can people do to ensure that they are perceived as authentic?

AS: So because there's actually a video of me floating around on the internet with me saying this, I'll say it again. So my biggest advice to myself to my son, and in fact, I just shared this with them the other day, which will make the audience members laugh, perhaps. And certainly, the young people that I mentor, is, it's really, really important to know when your *&%$# stinks.

AW: Bahahaha

AS: That is one of the most important things. It all stems down to self-awareness. You can't actually be authentic, if you don't have an awareness of how you process information, synthesize and process… When I say information, it doesn't have to be just words, it can be what you see and how you feel, and all that sort of stuff, right?

AW:  internally and externally?

AS: Yes, internally and externally. If you have no knowledge of how regulated or unregulated your emotional responses are.  And so self-regulation is one of the most important skills that we're going to need as we try to negotiate what … It will be a very difficult time in the next 25 years, you know, as the planet gets taxed, with the issues plaguing us, and as we need to start sharing space with a lot more people. This is not just an issue for our daily lives in terms of our jobs. It's going to be an issue of survival, right?

AW: You're thinking about yourself, your family, and then humanity, right?

AS:  Yeah.

AW: Beautiful. So now I'm going to ask you the five rapid fire questions that I asked every guest. Okay, the first question is, what are your pet peeves?

AS:  Oh, my gosh, I don't have very many, but like --people who are fake.

AW: people who are not self-aware?

AS:  People who are not self-aware. Yeah, I would say yes. But I have a lot of compassion for people who aren't self-aware too because it's very difficult work. So it’s both.

AW: I could just going off on that! Second question. What type of learner are you? Visual, auditory, kinesthetic, or some other kind of learner?

AS:  I would say visual, I am a reader. Is that visual?

AW: Do you draw things in your mind? Do you think in pictures?

AS:  Do I draw? Hmm. What I like to do is really make connections, that's my favorite thing in life -- is to gather data from all sorts of different corners, and then start to draw connections between them. That's what I like.

AW: So one of my favorite people on the planet, whom also I interviewed in my 11th podcast focused on storytelling, is a professor at Harvard Business School. And he says that being able to make those connections from apparently disparate places is actually a key indicator of intelligence. And I think it's true, though, right?

AS:  Yeah.

AW: If you can be abstractly about something, and then bring it in … Okay, question number three, introvert or extrovert?

AS:  I'm an introverted-extrovert. It means that on the whole, I'm extroverted. But then I crash very quickly. And so I will perform, perform, perform, and then I need to Netflix and chill for hours on end.

AW:. Okay, question number four: communication preference for personal conversations.

AS:  This is the pet peeve of my entire social circle, which is I like to call people. And they're like, why aren't you texting me? Stop calling -  including my partner! It's like, you could have told me that in a text. Stop calling us.

AW: Why do you think you want to call people all the time? And your friends and colleagues don't?

AS:  I don't know. I guess I'm a chitty-chatter. I don't know. I just need …that's how I connect. Texting I find, is too. Oh, you know what it is? I know what it is, weirdly enough. Anytime I write,  I think of it as a creative act. And so even texting or email or whatever. Not to say that I overthink my texts or anything. But you know, you're creating something. So you search for the right GIF or whatever. Well and for me, when I'm talking on the phone, I feel like it's more natural or more spontaneous, more spontaneous.

AW: Interesting. Is there a podcast or a blog or an email newsletter that you recommend the most lately?

AS:  Well, I'm a big fan because we invested in them. So obviously, The Logic and The Discourse are our two local news sources that I go to often. The logic is from Toronto, and it focuses on the innovation economy in Canada. And then The Discourse is another local news, but it focuses on communities. So they have particular issues surrounding different communities. So I like those. I like Exponential View. And then in terms of podcasts, I guess you're not allowed to use this term anymore. But I'm not a loyal podcaster because I pick and choose episodes and I flip and flit and fly around. You know, I'm a podcast slut.

AW:  People use podcasts like that! Now more they're googling within podcasts.

AS:  Yes, yes. Okay.

AW: We're not all sluts!

AS:  True, that is true. So there is one thing I do want to recommend. So for podcasts, again, another company that we invested in at Ideaboost, it's called the Podyssey. So it's the Goodreads of podcasting. And so it's a place where people who love podcasts can talk to each other, and you can share and recommend episodes and things like that. So you should be on Podyssey for sure.

AW: Okay. I’m in! How can listeners connect with you? Can they email you or?

AS:  They can definitely find me via email. So it's

AW: okay. Oh, we will link to that in the show notes. Is there anything else you want to add about authenticity or communication and authenticity?

AS:  You know, only that this is has been such a great conversation. I'm now really, really curious about all the other podcasts in the series and I can't wait to listen to them.

AW: Oh, that's great. Thank you so much for your time. It was great to get to know you better.


THANKS for listening!





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