Barbie, Ken & Taylor: A Masterclass in Brand Authenticity

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September 14, 2023

Authenticity is all about being true to your own values and spirit, being real, genuine, regardless of the pressures you may face to act otherwise. It is a characteristic that many philosophers and psychotherapists explore, the authentic self, the quest to know oneself and to live your life from that intrinsic place (whoa… that got deep fast).

It is also a brand attribute that many businesses crave to manifest and a value the modern consumer expects from the brands they invite into their lives. They want authenticity, a brand that knows what it stands for and then delivers on it.

A food truck experience is authentic, KFC is not. A quirky, independently owned, 6-room boutique hotel is authentic, a 300-roomed Hilton is not.  A shabby-chic coffee shop owned by two brothers with beards is authentic, Starbucks is not. A small intimate acoustic gig in a basement bar is authentic, a stadium concert less so (we will come back to this one though).

Today’s consumer wants authenticity. Look at the image below. They vote with their feet. One of these is a large multi-national offering, the other an independent authentic offering. One is empty, the other full.


Bigger Doesn’t Mean Less Authentic

However, the examples above give the illusion that scale drives authenticity, that somehow only a small business can achieve such acclaim, that once you grow in scale you lose the ability to remain authentic. While scale does make it more difficult to deliver some of the aspects of an authentic brand experience (intimacy, personalisation, connection), it is by understanding and focusing on the attributes that drive authenticity we can begin to manifest this value in our product offering.

barbie-movie brand authenticity

Brand Identity: Lessons from the Barbie Movie

Most of you will have seen the Barbie Movie over the summer. As a Ken I, of course, had a vested interest in going to see a movie whose tag line was ‘Barbie is Everything… He’s Just Ken.” How dare they put a ‘just’ in front of my name.

For those of you that didn’t indulge in the pink party, the movie operates on a relatively simple two-world set-up. There is plastic Barbie Land, a matriarchy where empowered women can be whoever they want to be, with all the Kens just existing to support their Barbie. Then there is our ‘real world’, where patriarchy and capitalism rule. When Barbie and Ken make the cross-over, it causes obvious complications, chaos, and learnings.

Ken’s Journey to Authenticity

Ultimately the movie is about the authentic self, staying true to your values and who you are. This is particularly true of Ken. Early in the movie the narrator tells us that “Barbie has a great day everyday but Ken only has a great day if Barbie looks at him.”  At the end of the movie, Ken struggles with his self-identity and tells Barbie “I just don’t know who I am without you… It’s Barbie and Ken, there’s no ‘just Ken’” to which Barbie says “what if it’s Barbie and it’s Ken”, blowing Kens mind that he can be an independent authentic self.

For brands, the relationship with their customers is no different to poor Ken. Do we exist if our customers do not look at us? Do not talk about us? We seem to be fully dependent on their attention to survive. And this is not a good place to be. It is a co-dependent relationship, and these can be very destructive.

Beyond the Shadow of Dependency

In a personal romantic relationship, you must have independence, self-belief, and your own purpose before you can really add value to the relationship. Otherwise, you possibly become a needy, co-dependent partner and this can be rather unattractive. In business we do not want to be a needy brand, but most brand marketing communications seem just that. Please buy me, please consider me, please look at me. Talking about ourselves, our brand, our product. Simply put, most brands are Ken, waiting to be noticed by their Barbie customers.

The secret to being more attractive is to know who you are, what you stand for and have absolute belief in your values, and few brands seem to get this right. Most are just another copycat brand, each thinking they are unique but really presenting very little authenticity to the customer. And thinking you are authentic is not enough, you must show it in how you deliver the product.

Behind the Secret Door

I recently visited ‘El Silencio FFF’ a Mexican speakeasy located in Dublin. They don’t have a website or phone number. To book you have to DM them on Instagram and they will let you know if they have space. When you turn up to the location all you see is a neon-tacky Mexican fast-food restaurant. But inside, hidden behind a cooler, is a secret door. A host checks your name on the list, and assuming you’re on it, the door is opened and you climb the stairs to a dark, edgy bar serving the most amazing tacos and margaritas. The décor is urban, graffiti with stickers everywhere, the music loud, the experience authentic. And that’s the point.

You leave having had a ‘real’ night out, not another dining experience in a franchise or casual-dining cookie cutter restaurant. This isn’t another Nando’s. To be authentic you must find ways that cut-through and are true to your own values. Of course, you need to know what those values are first.

Taylor Swift: The Power of Authenticity

Which brings us to Taylor Swift and her Eras tour. If we are to discuss authenticity, it is difficult to do so without exploring why Taylor has built such a successful empire. Beyoncé, Rhianna, Lady Gaga, Lana del Rey … they are all superstars but it is 33-year-old Taylor Swift that has the biggest grossing tour of all time. It is Taylor Swift that has broken all Spotify and Billboard chart records. Why?

I discuss many aspects we have explored many aspects of her product, demand creation, her tribal brand belonging, and collective consumerism, but it is her authenticity that drives much of her success.

She holds true to her values, she writes about the things that affect her, she is real in a way the other ‘superstars’ are not. She has used social media to position herself as ‘the girl next door’ but also appears to genuinely be that way in life.

I am lucky in that I get to do some personal development work with high-performance individuals, and something that everyone in the public eye needs to learn early is the difference between the ‘authentic self’ and the ‘celebrity self’, and how best to live these two lives and not be torn apart.

Taylor Swift: Brand Authenticity Beyond the Spotlight

The phrase ‘never meet your heroes’ refers to the shock of discovering that your favourite celebrity in the ‘real world’ is perhaps not actually who they are in the Barbie Land version you’ve been watching on TV or social media.

But the Swifties, who watch every move Taylor makes (to the point of course of making her personal life a living hell) feel there is only one Taylor Swift. And this is because Taylor genuinely seems to care. She cares about her fans, her music, her team. As a leader she is someone many CEOs can learn from. Her vulnerability, courage, and resolve dealing with a male dominated music industry is admirable. Her decision to re-record all her previous back-catalogue to own her own work once again was her giving the finger to those that think they can control her. But at the same time, she is generous and cares about those who work for her.

The Eras Tour: Authenticity Captured in 5 Moments

In this first one she accidently stands on the foot of one of her male dancers. It’s nothing serious, just a momentary lapse of concentration on her part and she doesn’t hurt him in any way. But in performance, mid-flow, you can see her mouth the words “Are you OK?” and then explain to another dancer “I stepped on his foot” as they turn into the next sequence.

Are you OK?

I don’t think we would see Madonna or Rhianna care that they had clipped one of their dancers. At a push they might have apologised backstage later, but Taylor does so immediately, mid-performance. Taylor understands this is all a team effort. She also genuinely cares.

Kameron Saunders Steals the Show

Staying with dancer examples, here’s another one of her dancers (a guy called Kameron Saunders) going rogue during a sequence and, as the young people say, ‘busting-some-moves’. Again, most other celebrity superstars would not be happy about anyone else stealing their limelight, but watch Taylor’s face here. She loves it, she is genuinely happy for him to take ownership of her stage for a moment. She even blows him a kiss. This is a team production. This is real leadership.

Taylor’s reaction after she took off an earpiece

Here, in one of her first ERA tour performances, she briefly removes both her earpieces (which generally a performer keeps in throughout to listen to the backing vocals, stage manager instructions etc) to hear the 70,000 crowd first-hand. You can see the genuine wonder in her eyes as she hears, for the first time in 5 years, that roar of appreciation, love, and affection from her ‘customers’ and you can see she is genuinely touched. Her vulnerability is one of her core values and something she is never scared of sharing with her fans. It is one of the strongest customer connection points she leverages.

Leave her alone

She also cares about her fans. Here one of the security staff (remember arena security staff will not be her crew, they will be hired in for the night by the stadium) is having some altercation with a fan. We don’t see what happens off the camera, but from Taylor’s perspective she is clearly not happy how her ‘customer’ is being treated and makes it known to the security mid-song. She is not afraid to stand up for what she believes in, even while she is performing.

Lastly, because she is so popular, tickets were like gold dust. In the seating plan and stage design, they had a choice. There are some seats that have restricted view (behind the main stage). They could have left them empty, but most fans would prefer to buy a low-price $50 ticket and have a restricted view then not to be at the concert at all. So, the set was designed with side-screens to address some of the restricted view issue, but Taylor herself wants everyone to feel included.

Here we see her dangerously hang off the scaffolding to acknowledge the fans behind her viewpoint and give them a wave.

I could keep going. I could share lots more videos as to how she surprises fans from learning about them on social media. Lots of examples of making them feel special, on an individual basis, as she performs. Lots of examples of her making journalists feel at ease and special. She understands it is important to be authentic with every stakeholder.

Aside from her outstanding talent and savvy business mind, she is winning the current popularity stakes in the music industry because she has invested in CX for over 15 years, leveraged new technology (social media platforms) to build genuine and real customer connections, but above else has done it all with an authenticity that cannot be faked.

Taylor’s Genuine Connection with Her Team

She has tipped her truck drivers on her tour $100,000 each after the US leg finished, a life-changing amount of money. She appreciates everyone on the team and they appreciate her. Coincidentally, the truck drivers had all lined up in a guard of honour and applauded her as she left her last LA gigs, completely unaware she had signed their bonus checks only the night before and were yet to let them know.

As she looked out the window of her limo leaving the arena, flanked by her applauding drivers, her father later reported to the head of logistics that she had been in tears in the car, touched by the crew lining the road for her. This is a team that feel as much belonging as the fans do. This is a genuine authentic brand at work.

So, the question you need to ask yourself is what are the brand values that make you authentic and different, how are you going to share and communicate those values to your potential customers, and how you are going to live those values everyday through a CX and EX strategy that feels real, genuine, and authentic. Do that and you start to build real customer connection.

Read 2 previous posts on the marketing and CX science behind the Taylor Swift phenomenon click here and here.

Ken Hughes, known as The King of Customer Experience on the International Conference Circuit, studies emerging consumer behaviour and helps businesses and brands establish deeper and more relevant connections with their customers.

He is also an unapologetic Swiftie.

Book Ken to speak your next event.

Ken Hughes
Ken Hughes
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September 14, 2023