King Adz on what we talk about when we talk about authenticity

24 March 2015

In the branding and advertising world, authenticity seems to have become the Holy Grail. Seemingly melded to whatever people need it to convey, it’s become a buzzword whose significance has mushroomed while its meaning has all but vanished. With this in mind King Adz, aka Adam N. Stone – whose new book Unbrandable is out this summer – considers what authenticity really means in a contemporary creative context. You can add your thoughts using the comment thread below…

If there is one word that is bandied about at the moment, it is “authenticity.” But what the fuck does this really mean when it comes to brands and their communications (which is how the brand actually manifests itself in our day-to-day life)?

Authenticity begins its journey behind closed doors, when the brand is being created (or in a lot of cases, re-booted). And for a chance of any authenticity, there has to be a brave person in charge who knows that to really succeed, the only thing to start with is the truth – and this means being transparent; easy to say but almost impossible to carry out in these times of absolute greed and obsession with the biggest margins. So in the name of truth I have to tell you that I’m writing this piece in order to plug my new book Unbrandable and as I swear a lot IRL and need to help my publisher sell books, and this all has to be reflected in this authentic piece about authenticity. There. Start with the truth and work backwards.

Transparency means no planned obsolescence. No hidden costs. No fuckery with your employees, contractors, local and international laws, or consumers. Nothing but total respect for the planet and Mother Nature, and nothing but absolute love for each and every permutation of wo/mankind. Okay so I’m typing this on something designed in Cupertino and manufactured in China, which is where the book is printed, but that negative (horrendous manufacturing conditions and planned obsolescence) doesn’t dilute the authenticity of my message, which is all wrapped up in my “voice.”

My voice manifests itself in my writing style, and this has taken me 20 years to hone, and has been indelibly shaped by the sub-cultures that have in turn shaped my own personal cultural DNA: reggae, skating, hip-hop, raving, street art. So when it comes to creating an authentic “voice” for a brand, this is usually achieved by embedding it within someplace undeniably authentic.

"Being authentic is obvious to someone whose DNA has been shaped by the culture but a lot of people in charge of brands have not had the benefit of this experience."

Adam N. Stone aka King Adz

Previously this would have meant some variant of sub-, street-, or youth-culture – Nike and gang-bangers, Monster with modern skate-punks, or Clarks with roots rock reggae. Sometimes these things happen by accident but mostly they are carefully curated experiments. Sometimes the people put in charge of the marketing of the brand really know their stuff – such as Paul O’Shannessy and his ingenious launch of mobile network Skinny in New Zealand. First thing he did was fire the ad agency and the marketing team and hire a bunch of the target demographic (19-21 year olds) who became the Skinny Mobile marketing team.

“The culture needed to reflect the brand and the brand needed to reflect the culture,” Paul tells me after I send him this piece to check to see if it’s alright to use. “If Skinny wanted to build a brand that was young, fresh and willing to challenge the status quo, the business needed to be young, fresh and challenging. The complete opposite to a corporate structure! And every member of the team had to live, breath and believe 100% in Skinny and what it stood for.”

Sounds obvious when put like that, and being authentic is obvious to someone whose DNA has been shaped by the culture, but a lot of people in charge of brands have not had the benefit of this experience. They are just in it to make money, which is the least authentic place to start. Okay so we all need to eat, but that shouldn’t be the starting point, but the end.

I was in a meeting recently pitching some hair-brained idea when it dawned on me that the only reason I was there was because I had seemed “authentic” – and this was confirmed when the guy sitting there told me that he had checked me out and I wasn’t the usual advertising wanker, that my oeuvre was “dope” and that my books and films and other stuff were way more important than a string of awards (the only industry with more awards than advertising is hairdressing). This lead to the brand of King Adz being seen as authentic. Which it is as it is about the culture – the good stuff – and not the selling.

Unbrandable is published by Thames & Hudson and is out this summer – find out more here


Adam N. Stone: Unbrandable

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