Original illustration by Ruxandra Șerbănoiu

The genuine original: three avenues to authenticity in branded content

As humans, we yearn for authenticity. In our personal lives we gravitate towards those we perceive as genuine, and equally, we keep at arms length those we feel ‘aren’t being themselves’.

While defined as the genuine original, authenticity in marketing is actually more a perceived quality rather than the real thing, communicated in the way that something looks, feels or acts ‘authentically’ on screen.

We’re told that audiences value this kind of authenticity most, especially in an age where consumers can easily access other ‘authentic’ narratives through their social networks. I think, broadly speaking, consumers simultaneously desire and are fearful of trusting companies, and behind that trust is a perception of authenticity.

While most of us can probably identify characteristics that speak to us personally as authentic, creating authenticity from scratch is a considered craft. Having pursued this goal now across 100s of projects at Commoner, here are three ingredients that I have observed that help build authenticity in branded video content.

You are what you eat. Brands big and small eat heartily from the customers that pay them day-to-day for use of their products and services. Matching the internal intent that drives this exchange, such as our service values or corporate purpose, with the intent of our external comms is a first step to authentic work.

Often I see clients looking to their agencies and production partners to carry the torch of authenticity into a project. But the opposite is a better approach. Heading into a branded content campaign the client sets the rules of engagement, and any client that seeks to tell an authentic story must include in these rules a criteria for authenticity.

Start with do we have the right to tell this story?

If we believe that our products truly help our customers grow or reach some creative potential, then we should be able to find such stories in our own wheelhouse and use them either directly in comms, or as evidence in our briefs. If we struggle to find these stories, perhaps there is a reason. If we make great leaps to justify the truth behind a story, then we will also make those same leaps over authenticity during production.

When we set out to keep the truth at arms distance, that intent has a trickle down effect on the authenticity of the final product, and its lack will not be obvious to anyone but the audience.

Not all stories are for us, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t opportunities to look for others. Tell stories that you own, or tell those that you aspire to own. But don’t confuse the two.

It took six months for us to film Carlo Cannon (see film below), a Filipino-born Melbourne-based wrestler who relies on online shopping to feed his passion for wrestling. When we first met, Carlo was eager to please, telling us he was on board with whatever we wanted to do. Still, it took months to lock down a film date around his 7-days a week schedule, and weeks of check-ins to attend his wrestling shows, watch him train, and build a story around his connection to the sport. This kind of dedication to character is the bedfellow of authenticity.

Carlo’s larger than life story still required a subtle approach to story in order to bring it down to reality

Time then is one of the crucial levers for authenticity. Time shows up mostly as pre-production on a budget, and it allows creatives and producers space to understand and develop stories, details and scenarios that are the right fit for characters and brands.

For example, time can allow pre-interviews with talent/characters to happen, which aids in the development of a more authentic story treatment. Time means giving the opportunity for the production team to attend and select each location and plan the best filming approach. Time often means canvassing more characters or stories than you actually need, so you can filter down to those that resonate most.

Characters and brand ambassadors, particularly those who are media trained, are frequently eager to tell you what they believe you want to hear, which while incredibly convenient for time, can also feel shallow to viewers. In life, people whom we feel are telling us what we want to hear are also those we tend to listen to the least.

At times, authenticity can feel like the blood within a stone, drawing it out takes patience and special access. That isn’t to say that all authentic moments require long journeys, just that what often shows above the water is a fraction of the effort required to get it afloat.

Money can’t buy happiness, but it probably can buy authenticity.

If authenticity means ‘genuine’, it suggests that it what you see is what you get and it should cost nothing to bring it into our videos right? Except that authenticity is a perceived quality, and it carries a fluid definition that shifts whenever we turn on a camera or shift a light.

We can lean into authenticity two ways with our money hats on.

First, we can embrace a lack of polish by designing a visual approach that allows people to be themselves, using simple production techniques and equipment, but cuts out the boring bits. While it is authentic to let our talent talk for 5 minutes on their personal motivation, it can also be uninspiring to watch. Often when we strip back the visual approach, we allow life to be, well, life. Which is to say, we let in some of life’s ability to feel inconsistent, directionless, sometimes dull, and ambiguous in intent. Creative time then is required to corral life back into useful bounds, and budget lines reflect the need for someone to supervise and design this process.

And then, there is the other kind of authentic. That which we perceive to exist when we see its signs.

When we watch movies and feel ourselves caught in their reality we do so not because the actors are real people (as we know for a fact they aren’t) but because the symbols surrounding them make a case for real. The situations feel real. The subtle details in a character’s home are recognisably real. The actors expressions and reactions feel real. Even what they are wearing feels appropriately real, even though we may have never worn the same outfit ourselves.

Authenticity like this costs money. We may not always be working with real people with real locations, hence our visions of reality can start from a very blank slate.

For example, my kitchen at home is not regularly spotless, and everyday it bears symbols that my wife and I live in and around it. Objects aren’t quite put away, there are old shopping lists left discarded in an overflowing bowl of keys, pens and spare change. Sometimes we are so busy that grocery shopping is left bagged on the bench and we proceed to use it as a makeshift pantry for the rest of the week.

Point is, looking at my kitchen today reveals numerous signs that viewers could read to deduce that we are real people who have commitments and lives outside this one room, but that affect this one location in such a way to make it unique to us.

When starting from a blank slate, these are just some of the details that need to be thought up, discussed, purchased and lugged to shoot day to dress or tweak a location ‘authentically’. The lack of these symbols is obvious to audiences, and their absence often dominates their attention more so than the story we set out to tell.

Considered design of scenario, character detail and sound design creates a sense of authenticity in this short for life insurance company TAL by BMF

In this way, we can buy authenticity by employing set designers, lighting professionals, sound designers and wardrobe stylists on our projects. We can employ the time of others to make decisions that impact on our authentic output. Or we can approach it as we found it, and hope for the best.

Authenticity isn’t the absence of intervention, it is the art of intervention by professionals experienced in recognising the signs. Whether through investment of time, money or original intent, if you yearn for it, you gotta search for it.

Mark Welker is an award winning short fiction writer, filmmaker, day dreamer and company director at video agency Commoner.