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Authenticity as we know it is dead as brands go minimalist to express their craft and quality

By Ed Silk, strategy director

February 12, 2016 | 7 min read

Authenticity as we know it is dead. No longer the bastion of trust it once was, consumers are now seeking new and different expressions for quality, craft and individuality in brands.

The authenticity ‘movement’ came to prominence on the back of the hipster culture that mushroomed post-recession where dark economic times forced us to become more cautious with our spending.

Jam jars were used for drinks because real glasses weren’t deemed affordable and were more ecologically friendly. Foraging was a way of getting cheap, unprocessed ingredients locally. We developed a need for assurance that the products we purchased were not just ‘produced’ but also conscientiously ‘crafted’. It was the very antithesis of the mass-produced, a synonym for quality. But as the aesthetic for this counter-culture became more mainstream (beards, tartan shirts, craft beer, rugged wood textures, etc) the original values of the founding hipsters eventually became somewhat lost, mocked and even parodied.

Global brands recognised the desirability of this aesthetic and have understandably jumped on the bandwagon, manipulating innovation to borrow ‘crafted’ design codes where once they were driven by purpose, vision, resourcefulness and passion.

Beer bottles made with hand-stamped labels are now made on a factory line to look old and distressed because it fits in with the codes of ‘authenticity’. What was once deemed authentic has become bastardised and devalued through over exposure. Style has superseded quality of content.

So what’s next? How are consumer trends evolving with this shift? What does it mean for brands that were once the original trend-setting proponents of authenticity? And what is to become of the conglomerate copycats who have hijacked the movement with faux ‘craft’ looks that intrinsically lack any of the core values of authenticity?

We’re now seeing a different design trend emerge – a backlash against the ubiquitous empty effigies of so-called authenticity, and a return to unadulterated aesthetic simplicity; a celebration of iconic branding and distinctive structures in refined substrates.

This new design expression is a rebellion against the copycatting of conglomerates; a shift from the rustic treatment of authenticity to a more uniquely contemporary one.

But as faux authenticity increasingly bleeds into the mainstream, have consumers really lost faith in a movement that once made branding and packaging more human and therefore more meaningful?

Far from it. Consumers still hold respect for a product that has been created through skill and hard-earned knowledge. Reassurance of quality is still sought in the manifestation of a marque, and this still rings true in the premium sector. Elite and discerning collectors have always and will always need long-established legitimacy in a world of knock-offs and markdowns. However, for more affordable mass and niche brands, the look and feel of that authentic marque is evolving.

This trend has been reflected by the behaviour of brands such as Gap in its ‘Dress Normal’ campaign and Marc Jacobs’ Juergen Teller naturally lit campaigns. The media has nicknamed this movement ‘normcore’. The trend has not only been led by cosmetic, skincare and luxury brands but now challenger food brands are beginning to emulate the simplistic, clean aesthetic – recognisable by its mono palette, intriguing structures, metallic finishes, direct language and plain, unisex typography.

This pared-back, almost undesigned style is a result of the Scandi influence that focuses on unfussy quality. In addition, the cross borrowing from high and low design has blurred the lines between mass and premium. Where luxury brands are looking to loud, transient, spontaneous frippery from the ‘street’ for inspiration, the mass brands are premiumising by stripping back and highlighting the integrity of the product. Like us, they are embracing technology and using its slick finishes to evoke a more chic aesthetic.

Brands are moving away from overtly emphasising their heritage with layers of embellishment to being more subtly proud of it. For mass brands, their provenance is already intrinsically known, whilst smaller brands will encourage their back-stories to be ‘discovered’ more naturally, galvanising more of an advocacy role.

Our Vodka branding, for example, is strikingly impactful in its utilitarian, does-what-it-says-on-the-tin look. In its own words, from brand label to bottle form, the aesthetic is all about ‘keeping things simple – it’s vodka’; pure, unfussy and straight to the point. Clean lines, monochrome typography, a silver crown cap allude to a product quality that is honest, unadulterated and fiercely proud of just ‘being’ with no fussy embellishments doing a tacky big sell.

Of the same ilk is APC’s Olive Oil bottled in a shiny metallic vessel that wouldn’t look out of place in a garage, and branded with monochrome caps typography that reflect a contemporary utilitarian look. Simplicity of identity and design reveals a brand that is so confident and sure of its quality that it feels no need to overtly manifest its values through design – rather it’s simply implied in a dramatically understated way.

In fashion, Diesel’s candid “This is a fashion campaign / this is a Diesel poster / blah blah blah” advertising offensive rejects the usual marketing speak and aspirational quotes that hook or hoodwink the consumer into ‘buying into’ a desirable lifestyle. The unfeeling, hardline commercial values that drive advertising have been splayed out and presented to the consumer in a way that subtly pokes fun at the goals of traditional branding and poster campaigns. Again, this is a very clever mechanic that allows the quality of the product and clothing to speak for itself without flashy embellishment or filter.

So what can both mainstream and niche brands learn from this emerging design trend in anti-authenticity? There are three ways brands can mobilise these design codes to bring packaging and brand design back to the fundamentals that underpin and differentiate its proposition from the competition:

1. Go naked – really strip away the white noise on pack and hero your core qualities.

2. Sensualise your substrate – make people want to touch and handle your product more.

3. Respect your heritage, don't pillage it – be quietly proud of your history. Use it subtly and with restraint

Whether mass market or niche, one thing is discernible – the look and feel of authenticity is evolving, shifting from a rustic treatment to a more uniquely contemporary one. This is revealing a purer, sincerer form of brand authenticity that is truly unique, showcases individuality and quality of product that remains intrinsic to that brand, and which cannot easily be copied.

Ed Silk is strategy director at brand and packaging design agency Bulletproof

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