Authenticity in Brands

Authenticity is a function of specificity.

Eating Out

Consider the perceived authenticity of various restaurant archetypes, and how this influences your expected dining experience.  Some examples are family-owned, concept/"New American", fast casual, and major chain restaurants.  

We can begin on the basis that a family-owned, home-grown restaurant is the most specific representation of a given cuisine "signifier", and consequently the most authentic.  Concept restaurants are tasked with grabbing hold of patrons' attention not by heritage, but through an innovative dining experience.   Concept restaurants which embrace a select amount of specificity seem most authentic in the sense that they address the underlying cuisine in a way that does it justice, while infusing it with a unique (and perhaps often bourgeois) culinary flair.  As this specificity of affect goes down, so does the level of intrigue and interest in the concept.  It loses its concept in becoming overly generalized; akin to a chain restaurant with non-specific or inauthentic cuisine.

It seems that there are also transitional states where a concept seems contrived, either due to "reaching" (i.e., an inflated/shallow sense of specificity) or becoming hyper-specified/devotional without a clear attachment to the underlying signifier.  The latter is an uncanny-valley effect of sorts; imagine going to a restaurant pitched as an authentic, rustic, Tuscan-style Italian restaurant, and being met with surprise as you found an airy, chic, modernist interior aesthetic.  The more pronounced this effect is, the deeper you sink into the chasm separating the signifier from "authentically devotional".  Some people may be more sensitive to this effect, where the bourgeois subtext of urban restaurants and bars can often overshadow the message they mean to deliver to patrons.

Authenticity in Fashion

The clothing brand SuperDry features a simple tagline on their clothes: REAL SuperDry, also often AUTHENTIC, or VINTAGE.  The peculiarity of this is that SuperDry is a 21st century UK-based brand that features lots of Japanese characters and overt branding in its design.  So... real "what"?  It's like an answer to the use of Western words in Japanese marketing and packaging to signal quality.  The name itself is mysterious.  The word "dry" is most markedly "not wet", as if the name suggests that it is superlatively not something else, without making a clear claim for what it actually is.  Their clothes are quality in general, and I enjoy the clever branding.

In Software

Specificity/authenticity is something I often consider even when writing software.  When I am looking at documentation and evaluating different libraries, services, and APIs to use, I find myself considering what the appropriate degree of specificity is for a given task, and whether the author accounted for a familiar level of authenticity/specificity in implementing a given library.  I am generally drawn towards technologies where there is a clear canonicalization of APIs.  

I love Go for this reason; it is simple, and there are clear interfaces for I/O bound functions, whether functions can return an error, and zero values that reflect well on the underlying memory behavior.  Go provides a powerful standard library for a wide variety of programming tasks, yet it is simple enough that there is typically a canonical pattern for a given task; it's truly like a modern C, with decades of paradigms and lessons-learned incorporated into a new, memory-managed language with lots of built-in functionality.  This proves super effective for unixy file, stream, and network tasks, as I usually favor built-in functionality to external packages.

Some technologies are authentically general.  React Native is interesting to me because native package developers do a great job generalizing underlying platform APIs and documenting them to the task the user wishes to perform; this hidden complexity limits the surface area for the consumer of the package, and provides a clear point of entry for implementing it.  A task which may require referencing many different classes and interfaces on each platform is generalized and documented in a single README file.  A counter example to this is Microsoft's .NET/Windows API documentation, where there are about 50 different ways to accomplish any given task, and no clear point of entry for identifying the canonical implementation of a feature.

I think there's a lot to be said for "sensible defaults", and I think that in the cloud space, players like and Heroku are on to something by providing a specific, well supported set of tooling for a variety of languages.  Developers have domain-specific problems, but they are almost always able to be generalized to a baked and well-automated basket of runtime, columnar storage, and block storage, with synchronous and asynchronous constraints as needed, and responsible stewardship of data.


So much information, and so much hidden complexity is buried in branding; entire committees spend months and years refining brand messaging for large businesses, making it difficult to navigate as a consumer.  I hope that this short article can help folks consider what exactly that je ne sais quoi is that makes some things seem more authentic.  This exercise is helpful to see into how businesses work to reach their customers, and can help us stay authentic as ourselves and in the things we create.

King Crimson - 21st Century Schizoid Man