By James H. Gilmore
and B. Joseph Pine II
Harvard Business School Press, 299 pages, $31.95
HOW STARBUCKS SAVED MY LIFE
By Michael Gates Gill
Gotham Books, 265 pages, $27.50
We all want to buy goods and experiences that are real - authentic - rather than fake. In the same way as we used to turn up our noses at products that were junk, these days many of us spurn products, services, and experiences that aren't original and genuine (at least as defined in our own eyes).
From wilderness trips, to organic food, to craft beers, to reality TV shows, we seek authenticity.
"No longer content just with available, affordable, and excellent offerings, both consumers and business-to-business customers now purchase offerings based on how well those purchases conform to their self image. What they buy must reflect who they are and who they aspire to be in relation to how they perceive the world - with lightning-quick judgments of "real" or "fake' hanging in the balance," James H. Gilmore and B. Joseph Pine II write in Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want.
The consultants wrote the 1999 best seller The Experience Economy, which divided economic offerings into five categories reflecting the progression over the years of our economy: Commodities such as grain or gold, goods that combine those commodities into a package, services, experiences, and, finally, transformations, in which we pay for our life to be transformed, as when we hire a coach or consultant.
In this book, they define five genres of perceived authenticity, each corresponding to one of those five economic offerings, although still applicable to any other offering.
Commodities: We tend to perceive things in their natural state as authentic, such as organic foods or handmade soap from natural ingredients (with little packaging, so we can see and touch the bar).
Goods: We seek goods that are original in design, or are the first of their kind, such as the iPod.
Services: We perceive services as authentic when provided exceptionally well, executed by someone demonstrating human care.
Experiences: Iconic experiences refer back in our mind to some other aspect of real life, a concept Disney theme parks have followed.
Transformations: In seeking transformation, we look for influential offerings that call us to a higher goal. Fair trade practices stem from this genre of authenticity, trying to change the world.
Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so is authenticity. Companies seeking to present an aura of authenticity can come off looking like fakers. And sometimes reality and fake can be so intertwined it's hard to separate them.
The authors point to the reality show The Bachelor, when in the inaugural season eventual winner Amanda Walsh remarked: "I can't wait to get back to real reality." Or think of grass: We know that artificial turf is, well, artificial, but the average authentic lawn is not exactly the untrammelled grass we would have if we actually let it be real.
They therefore divide economic offerings into four categories, depending on whether it's what it says it is and whether it's true to itself. They base that on Polonius's counsel to his son Laertes in Hamlet: "This above all - to thine own self be true." The resulting labels - real-fake, real-real, fake-fake, and fake-real - are confusing. But they remind us that this can be a tricky area.
For example, the National Basketball Association store in New York City is filled with NBA merchandise, so it is what it claims to be. But it's not true to itself: Despite the fact there is a half basketball court in the store, signs warn customers the basketballs are for display only, and not for shooting at the basket. For what it's worth, that's real-fake in their classification.
The authors present a series of issues to consider in the quest for authenticity in order to ensure your business is what it claims to be and is true to itself. These include pondering what your enterprise is at the core, what you offer others, how your identity is manifested, and whether the statements you make about the business and how you display yourself to the world fits with what you claim to be.
There's a lot more, notably some illuminating thoughts on the authentic experiences you can create virtually or at your actual locations. Authenticity is important, and this gives a better understanding of the sometimes-slippery issues, but I came away somewhat confused and dissatisfied, perhaps because I was hoping for something as dazzling as The Experience Economy.
One of the companies the authors cite repeatedly for authenticity is Starbucks, and in How Starbucks Saved My Life, Michael Gates Gill - son of New Yorker writer Brendan Gill - offers a paean to that company as a noble place to work. A former creative director at J. Walter Thompson Advertising, he was turfed out of that firm after 25 years service and unable to find work. In his sixties, nearly broke and with a recently diagnosed small tumour at the base of his brain, he was in a Starbucks one day when a recruiting fair happened to be taking place and he was mistaken for a candidate. When approached about a job, he leapt at it, even if it seemed grossly beneath him.
His memoir tells how that accidental job changed his life as he persevered to learn new skills, and, along the way, find himself and unexpected joy, working side by side with his young, effervescent, African-American colleagues, the type of people he would ordinarily avoid in the subway. He became more flexible, understanding and caring, rebuilt his self-esteem - and gained health benefits.
It's an engrossing, uplifting story, although at times little points don't ring quite true (the ending is like a movie, with every customer he mentions happening to come in the afternoon he is transferring to another store).
But then Mr. Gilmore and Mr. Pine classify memoirs as "fauxauthentic," and say such items can be quite enjoyable, as Mr. Gill's book certainly is.