Bryan Taylor

Authenticity in the (Re) Making: A Sociological Timeline

Seventeen years ago, I was asked to design a simple tri-fold brochure. I was trying to open an agency that was not built on the deception and tricks that had defined the advertising industry at the time, but was instead one built on transparency and authenticity. I was convinced that truth and honesty were not unappealing — and sociologically, I believed we were ready to move on from the advertising games that had defined my younger days.

I still remember the opening line of text that had been provided for the brochure: “With grounds unsurpassed in this county…” The brochure was for an athletic club, which had invested in some nice landscaping but certainly not of award-winning caliber. In the spirit of pushing for authenticity, I suggested maybe we soften the language. After all, if a potential member were to read this brochure and come to the club for the first time, they would experience a level of disappointment when seeing the grounds that were in fact surpassed by several of the club’s neighbors.

The club took my recommendation into consideration, and I thought I had won a small but important battle. However, they eventually came back with their appreciation for my thoughts, thanked me, and then asked that we stick with their original text. The battle was lost, but their willingness to reconsider was a crack in the door that I carried forward in this pursuit of authenticity.

Our agency was founded in 2000, the year that was recovering from the Y2K saga, in the middle of an inflated dot com bubble, and sorting through all of the expectations that come with a new decade, a new century, a new millennium. It was a year of uncertainty, but optimistic, and packed with anticipation of some important changes to come.

Change was forced upon us all the following year on 9/11 — a date rife with memories, sadness, and loss.  While still figuring out what a post-9/11 world was to look like, a seemingly small scandal at the energy giant ENRON proved to be a tipping point in our culture. This tipping point signaled the end of a half-century of corporate dominion.

Since World War II, corporations had set our cultural tone in America. We experienced pauses in this tone during other wars and social movements, but they nevertheless continued to define us as a country until we crossed over into the 21st century. ENRON was not all that different from so many other scandals before it, but we sociologically used that occasion and all of the 21st century expectation of change to chart a different course moving forward.

There has been plenty written about the changes that followed the ENRON scandal, most notably the economic and political changes that it triggered. But I speak and read a different language, a visual language, and that is where I found these changes to mark the most visible change.

The ENRON logo was visibly grandiose: big, bold, Helvetica compressed, staked large in the ground with a sign on its doorsteps taller than the people who entered the building. When the scandal became known publicly and the cultural tipping point followed, so too did changes follow with many other large, stately corporations who did not want to be associated as big, bold, and impenetrable.

In the years that followed, new logos evolved from their once-stately forms into brand marks that were lighter and thinner, with more depth and accessibility. The flat and extra bold sans serif fonts became thinner and all lowercase to feel less stated, less authoritative, invoking a perception that was more approachable and relatable.

The changes made by some of these corporate giants were in part a scrambling response to the tipping point of ENRON. They also became a necessary reaction to the rise of social media and reviews, to the reallocation of power from corporations who could claim to have unsurpassed grounds to the people who got to decide whether that was true or not. Websites, which were once little more than dynamic tri-folds, started to become interactive, dynamic, and daily refreshed. Reputations could be won or lost in minutes rather than months. And the decade that followed ENRON proved to shake out those who were able and willing to adapt to this new landscape and those who chose to ignore the signs of cultural change.

Authentic branding was more difficult to sell in 2000, but it is imperative to understand today. Authenticity is not a fad or buzzword; it is the new platform from which we now interact. People want stories they can trust. They want to be able to see what an organization really believes in, really values, really has to offer — not just in terms of products and services, but in terms of meaning and communal value.

There is room for your story on this new authentic stage. Write it down, draw it out, and then prune the parts of your company that don’t align with the ethos that is authentically true of your organization. Check back with that story often to remind yourself where you want to go. And then go tell and show that real and honest story. Don’t be afraid that you don’t have landscaping unsurpassed in your county. Cultivate a garden that is aligned and true and you’ll soon find a community who will come to join you in nurturing something that is real and meaningful.