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How Authentic is Your Brand Experience?

How Authentic is Your Brand Experience? Uwe Hook

In his 1975 book "Anarchy, State, and Utopia," Robert Nozick introduced a now famous thought experiment he entitled "The Experience Machine." Nozick believes that he successfully demonstrated that human beings value things other than happiness and pleasure as goods in themselves-- namely authenticity.

Nozick discusses the following scenario: "Suppose there was an experience machine," he says, "that would give you any experience you desired. Super-duper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, preprogramming your life's experiences?"

Nozick's machine could provide a "large library or smorgasbord" of experiences to choose from, and while in it we would not be aware that what we were experiencing was not reality. Nozick presents us with this interesting dilemma and assumes that few or no people would choose the experience machine over real life. Taking this into account, Nozick argues the following three premises:

  1. The experience machine provides us with a life of maximal happiness and pleasure, but minimal authenticity and reality.

  2. Real existence provides us with a life of maximal authenticity, but in all likelihood only a modest degree of happiness and pleasure.

  3. Most people would choose real life over life in the experience machine.

Nozick concludes that the best explanation of this choice is that most people value authenticity and reality as goods in and of themselves. "So," he explains, "something matters in addition to one's experiences and what one is like."

So what is this other thing that Nozick refers to? It is the desire to make contact with real, authentic existence. "[P]lugging into an experience machine," he says, "limits us to a man-made reality, to a world no deeper or more important than that which people construct." For Nozick, it is this thirst for authenticity that defines human life, not the neverending pursuit of pleasure.

2007: the year of authenticity
2006 was the year of 'YOU,' user-generated content and all of us scratching our heads, trying to figure out how to deal with this phenomenon. There were a few instances where marketers tried to venture into new the world (Chevy comes to mind), just to be slapped down by consumers. But more often marketers tried to pull the wool over their target audience eyes and hoped to fake their way into the consumers' mindsets. And all of these companies (Walmart, Sony, Buick come to mind) have paid dearly for it.

Let's be honest: most of the user-generated video is messy, crappy and pretty boring. But it's real. If we've learned anything from the tribulations Wal-Mart and others have experienced, it's that the YouTube generation is not fueled by adrenaline, it's fueled by reality and, even more importantly, by authenticity. User generated content is nothing without it. While we still enjoy entertainment that suspends our disbelief (James Bond films come to mind-- however good the acting is, I still know that when I watch Daniel Craig jumping over buildings, it's all manufactured), it was very refreshing when we could suspend our imagination and experience reality through YouTube videos and the like. The content in this video may not look that great, but the experiences really happened, and that just changed the whole game.

Engaging the already engaged
Merriam-Webster defines authentic as "not false or imitation." And that should be the basic rule for all our marketing efforts. BMW Films was such a good idea that numerous competitors and advertising agencies tried the same tactic-- and ruined it for years to come. BMW got all the ink and praise, and the other agencies and competitors just got a disappointed sigh from the crowd. In today's world, copy machines will change a great idea into a mediocre marketing tactic.

Instead of chasing yesterday's trends we need to focus on engaging the already engaged consumer. You can find them in chat rooms, blogs, vlogs and personal websites, just to name a few. Exploring these personal tools is not only an amazing research opportunity but also a way to tap into the real relationship between consumer and brand. As an organization, each OEM has to embrace and cultivate customer involvement and engagement in order to stay competitive.

We don't know yet if the current wave of UGC is sustainable or if it's a trend that will fade quickly, just to be replaced by another trend. But we know that the jig is up for fake blogs, staged UGC and all other customer fooling tactics.
Nozick's thought experiment does show us the great value humans place on the belief that they perceive the world around them authentically. Marketers will only be successful if they tap into this new world in a real and authentic way. It's something we had to learn from the consumers-- again.

Uwe Hook is director of interactive marketing strategy at Genex, and blogs at Uwehook.blogspot.com.

Uwe Hook helps organizations increase business value through capturing the hearts and minds of today's empowered consumers/customers. He has worn many hats in his career, including creative director, business leader, media and marketing strategist,...

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