The Future Foundation has been monitoring an aspirational trend we call Authentiseeking for more than five years now. Born of a confluence of three other long term trends in our stable – Ethical Consumerism, Local Preference, and the Simplification of Complexity – this is about a powerful urge that many people feel to get in touch with what they believe is a more ‘real’ world. The idea of what constitutes an authentic, unmediated way of living is of course, a fascinating construct to explore and one that has multiple components. It is also driving a demand for new services amongst marketers and innovators from firms in our line of work thus creating a strong business-to-business angle to consider. More and more, it seems there is a desire amongst business people to get out of the office, away from the computer screen and to be exposed to raw and unpredictable environments and experiences – including debates, lectures and tours. The IPA recently took groups of agency heads to China and Silicon Valley as the most effective way of learning what is really happening. The idea of consumer safaris which provide direct access to curated experiences in the same physical space as craftspeople and niche services targeted at specific consumer groups is gaining momentum – such as The Liminal Space run by artists and designers. And every night of the week, the business community in London can choose from myriad events, debates and tours ranging from art tours with House 7 (organised by the Soho House group) or high level debates with Intelligence Squared that provide privileged access to the intellectual and cultural coal face for those needing ideas, inspiration and insights.
For many consumers Authentiseeking is about a return to a more natural mode of existence –in harmony with nature and our ‘true selves’ – as an antidote to the consequences of mass production and the consumer society that shapes so much of our existence and reference points these days in what is also an increasingly urbanised world. Rural sociologists from Newcastle University working with us on a Defra-funded scenario project on the future of the countryside, described it as ‘symbolic rurality’, by which they meant the idealised image of the countryside that we all carry around in our heads, and want to be there for us, even if we find it almost impossible to leave the city these days. More than 50% agree that they feel a need to be closer to the country, rising to two thirds amongst the baby boomer age group. This certainly contributes to desire for second homes – in an attempt to inhabit that rose- covered cottage in the country although fewer than 10% actually own one. And it doubtless drove the much-heralded ‘downshifting’ trend that was widely discussed by journalists in the quality press in the late 1990s – although by our calculations only 7% of people could ever have afforded to seriously consider this option.
There is also a more challenging explanation of the Authentiseeking trend. This proposes, following in the footsteps of the recently-deceased French social theorist Jean Baudrillard, that our daily lives in the modern world are becoming a negation of reality as we once understood it. With proliferating communications channels, now filled by signs and symbols constructed to communicate and promote the products and services of the consumer society, he argued that we effectively live in a simulacrum which simulates physical and emotional reality, but are ersatz representations and thus less able to satisfy our real needs. And the growing amount of screen time that each of us is now giving to the range of digital devices we own could be accentuating the scope and depth of the simulation possible. We spend more than ten hours a week on average on line and nearly half of the UK population is extending that through ownership of a smart phone. It is no surprise that many express the need to get away from it all – from the 60% who agree that they sometimes want to just switch off their phones and computers, to the 40% who now define luxury in terms of relaxation and escape rather than material goods – suggesting a wish to get behind the façade and reconnect with our true self(another potent construct in our post-Freudian age).
Clearly this creates a big challenge for marketers and advertisers – how to communicate that a brand is authentic through using the very complex language of signs in a more digitally facilitated world that is creating the simulacrum itself? No wonder semioticians are becoming more widely consulted – they are becoming part of the deciphering equipment that brand managers can deploy, along with a wider tool kit of good insight and probing analysis. Jack Daniels’ current advertising is a good example of how the emphasis on the real, the slow and heritage can work for a smaller niche brand. Divine chocolate puts the accent on their co-owing grower community – ethics and authenticity are mutually reinforcing. And some big names are beginning to figure out what it requires them to do and it can tick another box by demonstrating transparency too. Oxfam offer visits to overseas projects as a prize for supporters in a regular draw and Asda now provide live feeds from webcams in farms and factories round the world. Authentiseeking may be well established, but it is gathering momentum in response to the spread of digital interaction and our long term responses to the reality of living in the urbanised consumer world.
To give our clients a taste of the real thing, Future Foundation will be hosting our very first consumer safari on 28th June, a curated adventure into luxury, sustainability, connoisseurship plus a futuristic food tasting. We still have a few spaces left so if you’re interested in attending, please contact Josie Watson on 0203 008 4889.