BY Joe Pine

Authenticity in Business & The Velveteen Principles

Authenticity in Business & The Velveteen Principles

As things slowed down over Christmas and I got to spend some time with my extended family – including my year-old grandson! – I also found some time to do some reading.

One book I picked up from my authenticity bookshelves was The Velveteen Principles: A Guide to Becoming Real, by Toni Raiten-D’Antonio. I had actually read it years ago, but it seemed appropriate to look at again.

Hidden Wisdom From the Children’s Classic

It’s not a long book and does not (as I had first feared) devolve into psychobabble (even though the author is a psychotherapist). While it could have used some grounding in theology to go along with its plucky psychology, the book does a great job of drawing out, as its second sub-title attests, “Hidden Wisdom from the Children’s Classic”.
It is in many ways a less contemplative but more applicable companion to William Ian Miller’s terrific Faking It, which Jim Gilmore and I cite in Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want.

You probably know of the wonderful children’s book The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams (with illustrations by William Nicholson), even if you have never read it. It is the tale of a rabbit (sorry, I couldn’t resist. . .) – a stuffed bunny covered in soft, cheap velveteen – that feels most inadequate compared with all the shiny, seemingly important, and often quite expensive toys in a little boy’s nursery.
Guided by a wise old Skin Horse, the Velveteen Rabbit perseveres through various trials, eventually becoming quite loved by the boy – to the point of its faux fur being rubbed almost bare – until it becomes what its mentor had guided it toward all along: becoming Real.

Guidance For Achieving Authenticity in Business

I read The Velveteen Principles in the hope that it would provide some guidance for businesses in their own quest to become Real, and I was not disappointed.

In many ways, it was a psychological companion to all of the philosophical works that Jim and I read in the writing of Authenticity from which we discerned the 3M Model discuss in Chapter 5.
Philosophers almost always negatively define authenticity (that is, they do not say what authenticity is, but what it is not), and it came down to three factors: authenticity is that which is Not of Man, Not of Machine, and Not of Money.

Authenticity is That Which is Not of Man, Not of Machine, and Not of Money.

And that model is all right there from the very first chapter of The Velveteen Principles. After all, the villains of the original story are the mechanical [of Machine] toys that, as Raiten-D’Antonio notes, “value only mechanical perfection and the most modern ideas” (p. 43).

She relates these to people who “always do what is expected of them” (p. 17), following the dictums of society [of Man] because “our culture values those who conform” (ibid). Indeed (p. 43 again), “Society’s one-size-fits-all recipe for success disconnects us from what is Real. It forces us into roles that ignore our individuality and require us to reject what is Real in other people.”

And the villain in Raiten-D’Antonio’s story is what she calls the United States of Generica, or U.S. of G (shades of Richard Florida!). Or, more precisely, the villain is its “media mouthpieces. . . . promising you that certain Objects (clothes, bear, breath mints) will make you happy” (p. 19). Her other word for such an Object: “a purchase” [of Money].

These Objects are the very “opposite of Real”, and people like that have gone through a process of “self-objectification” (p. 15), or what in regards to economic offerings we call commodification. But as the Skin Horse explains (p. 5, quoting from Williams’ original book):

“Real isn’t how you’re made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

As we proclaimed in Authenticity, so it is with economic offerings. They become real. We as consumers make them real, make them real for us, at least, when we identify them as conforming to our own identity.

[As an aside, I would even say that the Velveteen Rabbit took the Fake-real route to authenticity via the strategy of Create Belief, as we discuss in Chapter 6 of Authenticity. As Raiten-D’Antonio points out, “Eventually the Velveteen Rabbit came to believe he was Real, and this belief spurred his transformation” (p. 29).]

Conformance to Self Image Not Brand Image

Until I came across the part about Objects and objectification (p. 21ff), I was worried that the author would surely abhor how I was taking her book, aimed at people in psychological need (primarily those who treat themselves as Objects), and applying the Velveteen Principles to businesses and their economic offerings.
But then in this section, I came across the same sort of diatribe against modern marketing and especially advertising that Jim and I wrote in Chapter 8 of Authenticity, going so far there as to call advertising a “phoniness-generating machine”.

And here’s exactly where the greatest learning happened for me. We define authenticity in business as “conformance to self-image” – that what consumers choose to buy reflects who they are and who they aspire to be in relation to how they perceive the world.

Well, the opposite of real, then, is self-conformance to brand image – getting people to change who they are to match what a company wants to promote as its own brand attributes. That’s what advertising tries to do, relentlessly, pervasively, mercilessly.

Achieving Business Authenticity

If you want your economic offerings to be perceived as authentic, then stop trying to get them to conform to your advertised images and start creating places where people can discover how your offerings conform to their own self-image.
That is the way to take your Objects and make them Real to your customers.
That is the way you achieve authenticity in business.

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