“I don’t feel like playing tonight”

How much do you care about authenticity?

Years ago, Bill Evans walked off stage at a jazz club… and the audience applauded. Why? Even though they weren’t going to hear the jazz great and his group that night (even though they’d paid, hired the sitter, etc.) they were applauding how real he was. If the artist didn’t want to play, that was fine with them.

Reading an auction catalog tonight, I just discovered that Gene Roddenberry designed the phaser to be a profitable children’s toy first, a Star Trek prop second. And the only reason the
Klingons had a ship is that the Enterprise model kit sold so well… They even let the model company, AMT, build the prop so that they could be sure the model sold in stores would be the same. Does that make you think anything less of Roddenberry’s universe?

Jackson Pollock painted what he wanted and died young. Andy Warhol painted what would sell… and died rich.

If I write a book or a blog post or design a web page that’s designed to spread first and inform second, do you care about my intent? It’s pretty obvious that most of the online video stuff that’s running wild online was designed to do just that–run wild. And MySpace is a traffic triumph. Not because the pages are what you or I might design, but because they were intentionally built for that sneezing teen and post-teen cohort.

When David Chase built the Sopranos, he wanted to tell a great story first, and get rich second. It was authentic in its first goal, and he accomplished his second. But when you eat at the fifth or sixth restaurant opened by a celebrity mega-chef, it’s pretty clear that the goals are reversed. Does that make the meal worse?

Is it okay to set out to serve a predictable, reliable, impersonal meal in a restaurant that costs $100 a seat?

I thought of these countless rhetorical questions when the waiter came over and said, "Sangrias for the table? They’re really good tonight!"

Are they? Are they better than on other nights? Or is this part of the script, designed to easily improve profit per seat by 30%… By selling us on the smell of authenticity, the fact that the sangrias might in fact be special, it makes it more fun to eat there (for some). I noticed on the way out that the specials were painted on the mirror over the bar… I had a fantastic time in the restaurant, because the company and the conversation were terrific. But I couldn’t help feeling like I was a little cheated because nothing felt real.

It’s that bell curve thing again. Those of us on the left, call us the authentic fringe, value intent, sometimes even more than we care about the results. The middle, the masses, they want both, that blissful combination of authenticity (even if it’s well faked, or especially if it’s well faked) and popularity. Call them the "smells authentic" masses. And there on the right is the factory fringe, the people who don’t want even a whiff of authenticity… it reminds them of risk and inconsistency. [click on the picture to make it readable].

Like Rogers’ product adoption lifecycle, products can move along this curve. Starbucks used to be just one place, way out on the fringe… Howard, the founder, got yelled at by his father-in-law for being a nutcase about coffee. And then, it moved to the right. Same thing for Emeril and Bobby Flay.

Of course, I’m letting my Authentic Fringe biases show here. The reason that the popular restaurants are so popular is because people like them!