We discussed this a bit on the podcast, but after we finished recording I kept thinking about it. The conventional wisdom—from perhaps the last 30 years—is that when you operate and market a firm in public you are supposed to be an “authentic” company. You’re supposed to have thoughts, feelings, a personality—especially on social media. The idea being that we’re all just humans in this together, even the brands.
Authenticity is hard to pin down because the definition changes with the cultural moment. The parameters vary a lot, but if you think of, say, beef jerky, that’s always advertised in an “authentic” way. A typical beef jerky campaign will show you footage of cowboys and go, “It’s meat on a stick. What do you want from us?”
Plain-spoken advertising has always been a way for underdogs to shine, but industry really started doubling down in the 1990s. Coke even released a beverage called “OK Soda.” Its marketing wasn’t just plain-spoken but actively ironic, a parody of soda advertising. Since so many young people were distrustful of capitalism (back then they called it “big business,” or “the man,”) you’d have to meet them where they were, with a whole new brand, in order to…sell your soda. Ultimately everyone just kept drinking Diet Coke.
Then the Internet came along. Peer-to-peer! The ultimate in authenticity! By the time brands got onto Twitter the authenticity was off the charts, culminating in companies crafting edgy, meta, postmodern, progressive, self-interrogating worldviews, then using them to ramble all day on Twitter. This all might have made sense if you were marketing magazines or films, but really was striking when it was Wendy’s—or Steak-Umm, the frozen meat substrate.
Steak-Umm made a lot of noise years ago with its ironic, self-deprecating tweets questioning the nature of everything. But what’s wild is they are still at it, using the exact same voice, posting just a few days ago on X: “here at steak-umm our mission is simple: freeze meat, develop a parasocial relationship with customers on the internet, and sell it.” Not just irony but actively undercutting the traditional narrative. Every day. For years.
However: I searched through their old tweets, and they never mention climate change or global warming once during all that time, even though beef production is directly responsible for enormous amounts of greenhouse gas emissions. This is not intended as a gotcha—more of a validation of limits of this sort of thing. Some topics are always off-limits in any context. But I think it does show the boundaries of authenticity in a brand voice. You can’t really address stuff like that in public, because the public will absolutely destroy you as a hypocrite. The public is hungry for a different kind of red meat.
But it all ends up kind of exhausting, the attempt to be real and true to some set of core values while showing the whole thing is a fraud anyway and then simultaneously not being permitted to engage with the world as it is, but only from within the simulacrum of your brand prison. Real authenticity is exhausting—think of that relentlessly “honest” friend who loves to criticize you and talk about your faults. Are they fun to hang out with? No. “Corporate” authenticity is even more exhausting. I know because I practiced it for years in many contexts.
I think a lot of it comes down to pacing. Everyone tries to get authentic too fast. Can’t we build the relationship first? When I meet a stranger at a party and they start telling me about their excruciating divorce or deep religious convictions or political anger right away, I see that as a warning sign. The same is true when brands do it. Tell me what you do, about your kids, talk about the model train meetup you host in your gazebo. You could even ask a question! No one asks questions. It’s been many years since anyone asked me a question at a party. Maybe I just look like I’ll give terrible answers.
My guess is we’re at the end of the long authentic moment. It’s unsustainable. The idea that every entity and product must participate in its own interrogation can’t stay novel forever—it’s not like Steak-Umm, the brand, can take a sabbatical and write a screenplay. The humans behind it can, but the brand must post until X dies, any day now. The idea of everything being “parasocial” is a bit much, too. Of course you have little internal relationships with people whose content you consume. I’ve probably had as many little two-sentence internal conversations with the musician Peter Gabriel as I’ve had haircuts. I talk to him like I might talk to a very pretentious prog-rock cat. Does he have any idea I exist? Of course not.
I’m thinking this through as we go out to market with Aboard. People in general want to build communities with their friends—and to look cool, to have nice stuff, to feel smart. They want their software to be invisible and silent. If something is broken, they want customer service. Sometimes they want to pay for things, and assess the value they receive in return. All of these things come first, before the relationship with the brand.
Sometimes I post to social media as Aboard, then reply as myself, and it’s all kind of ridiculous. All these fake-authentic relationships come with a kind of low-grade cognitive burden. I’ve been on every side of it and it’s exhausting for everyone involved. How should a thing talk to a human? It’s a question! I’d love to know what you think. Terrible answers are welcome.