To Thine Own Self Be True?  What Shakespeare Can Teach us about Authentic Branding

Posted by Owen Matson, Ph.D. on March 13
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this-above-all-to-thine-own-self-be-true-authenticity-paradox-shakespeare-marketscale-b2b.jpgAuthenticity, as readers in the marketing profession have likely heard (many times), is all the rage these days. The trend makes sense.  For one, claims for authenticity always sound good, even inspiring.  And why wouldn’t they?  Authenticity suggests a host of admirable virtues: Honesty (you’re not hiding anything), courage (honesty despite the possibility of negative consequences), integrity (commitment to personal values), and individualism (being oneself despite social pressures to be otherwise).

As applied to companies, authenticity has been described as “an internal truth and capability,” a “defined heritage” and a “well-grounded value set.” The current concern over authentic marketing reflects another big marketing trend: The need to appeal to millennial audiences (consumers born between 1980 and 2000).  Apparently, millennials are a skeptical bunch: According to studies, “authenticity was second in importance only to rewarding their loyalty with discounts.”  Of course, given their disposition to authenticity, it’s no surprise that, according to another study by Pew Research, millennials also resent being pigeonholed into generational categories like “millennials.”  After all, generational labels suggest conformity to broad social trends.  I also wonder what studies might have to say about millennial attitudes toward the phrase “according to studies.”  Though not a millennial (I was born in 1974), I’m also pretty skeptical.  And my skepticism extends to the concept of “authenticity.” 

I don’t know whether my skepticism has anything to do with my generational situation: “Generation X.” I guess some could argue that my skepticism over the term “authenticity” reflects my "Generation X” cynicism. To which I would say: Whatever.  I tend to think my skepticism is, in fact, the expression of a deeper enthusiasm for the complexity of words. Over 2 decades of immersion in literary training that has inculcated a deep-rooted appreciation for the fact that a word is always more than it appears. 

Consider the famous admonition to “be true to oneself”—the quote comes from Shakespeare:

This above all: to thine own self be true

And it must follow, as the night the day

Thou canst not then be false to any man

(Hamlet, act I, scene iii, lines 78–80)

As a slogan for authenticity, it doesn’t get much better than that.  Do an image search of the quote on Google. You’ll find Shakespeare’s words imaged and memed in a dazzling variation of photo-shopped sentimentality: Pictured against digitized simulations of aged print, sunsets, mountain ranges, and mountain ranges at sunset.  Here’s a good one:


Ahh--words from Shakespeare: What better place to find wisdom?  As imaged here, they become timeless wisdom, literally, to be looked up to. Step out of the shadow of your anonymous silhouette and into the light of yourself—or something like that. Yet, the attribution to Shakespeare (“~Shakespeare~”) does not exactly capture the authentic context of the phrase.  The words are actually those of a fictional (that is, untrue) character in Hamlet.  Arguably among the most famous expressions of “authenticity,” the quote in fact reflects the deeply ironic verbal hypocrisy of Polonius, probably the last person you’d trust to deliver lofty aphorisms on authenticity. Written by Shakespeare, but mouthed by Polonius, the quote becomes a bit more, well, complicated. On the vast listicle that comprises western literature’s long tradition of hypocritical wind-bags, Polonius holds a top spot. I don’t have research to support the latter claim.  You’ll have to trust my authority on the topic. Or better yet, watch a performance of the play.  Personally, I find Bill Murray’s performance of Polonius the best.

All this is to say that teaching and studying literature tends to engender a certain healthy skepticism around the term “authenticity.” It’s not that I do not admire many of the virtues associated with the term.  To the contrary, my skepticism has more to do with a need to guard against the ways in which claims to authenticity tend to go in the opposite direction.  As evidenced in the misleading quotation of Polonius, endorsements of authenticity come with a long history of contradiction—complications exacerbated by Google search.  No wonder millennials are so skeptical.

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