News & Views

Opinion / Authenticity By Numbers

by Contagious Contributor
Hazel Barkworth, cultural insight associate director at Added Value, looks at how 'authentic' spaces can quickly become disingenuous and asks how brands can push their spaces and ideas beyond the aesthetic



We all know the exposed brick. We’ve sat on the distressed wood, run our fingers over the lightly rusted metal. And we know what it all implies. Authenticity. Well-worn interiors and perfectly imperfect packaging have become the tropes of realness and integrity. They are so unpolished and unsophisticated that they can’t possibly be false. But it all looks the same. The powerful concept of honesty has now become an easy-to-replicate design code. Hipster brands, from Workshop Coffee to Crate Brewery, led the way but it seems that almost everyone has followed.



The high street is full of it. From restaurant chain Bill’s, with its mock-industrial pipes, Tom’s Shoes (above) with its stripped back walls, to Byron Burger with flaking paint and exposed lightbulbs, a huge range of brands are taking the easy route to implying integrity. The little roughed up details are designed to add up to the overwhelming sense that the people there are far too concerned with doing their jobs with passion to possibly have the time to pop a lampshade up. But it doesn’t work. The aesthetic is now so prevalent that it feels disingenuous. What is designed to looked stripped back actually looks covered up. What was intended to portray realness actually feels false.



When this visual code is pushed further it can feel even less real. Burger brands are prime examples. The MEATliquor chain boasts specially scrawled graffiti walls and tarnished furniture, and Dirty Burger interiors go all out with downright grubby metal and beaten walls. These brands take perfectly clean spaces and rough them up to meet the aesthetic code. Authenticity once meant integrity, but these visual cues don’t seem to represent anything real. There is nothing raw or honest behind the splintered wood.



With so many other aesthetic options on offer, it seems short-sighted to stick to just one, and those who break away can feel so much more authentic. While everyone else was busy making their brands look rough, minimal and earnest, interior design brands such as of House of Hackney (above) and Timorous Beasties stormed onto the scene with an absolute commitment to sumptuous, plush and maximalist prints. By stalwartly sticking to what they loved and believed in, the brands felt not only original, but honest.

To be truly authentic, a brand needs to be open. It needs to reveal something about itself. This pushes the concept beyond the simply aesthetic. It works best when the brand shows vulnerability, and divulges something personal, even something a little bit awkward. This can be through recognising a cultural truth about their brand. The recent adverts for the city of Las Vegas entirely owned its reckless and sleazy reputation, playing on the popular saying – ‘what happens here, stays here’ – and admitting that it is a ‘holiday destination you won’t write home about’. By capturing the cultural connotations the city exudes, and not covering them up in the slightest, the adverts felt resonant and real.



The truth can sometimes be unglamorous. Kopparberg’s recent adverts show its tiny Swedish home town. It is not made to look glossy, or even gritty. It is simply humble, small, and beautifully dull. The tagline reads, ‘This is a tourist bus. It doesn’t stop here.’ The unadorned honesty feels real, and it feels charming. The truth can also be refreshing. The current Oasis adverts are startlingly, amusingly honest – ‘It’s summer. You’re thirsty. We’ve got sales targets.’ By putting transparency so directly front and centre they seem genuinely open.

As the visual trope of ‘authenticity’ becomes more and more of a cliché, we’re looking to brands to bring something new. They should own an aesthetic world that is genuinely linked to their brand story or origins – or even just to their specific taste – or they should own up to something, and open a part of their brand that might usually be hidden. Rather than rough up their exterior to feel more real, we ask brands to look inside, and find an element of truth about themselves or what they do – whatever that may be.