I remember seeing a presentation about the importance of authenticity from an advertising agency in 1987, and coolhunters talking about it ever since. And of course we see a lot of brands talking about their authenticity – Converse has leaned into this in various ways over the last decade – though far fewer actually Doing authenticity.
But my boys offered me an interesting example of Doing Authenticity vs. Saying Authenticity the other day, in the brand that is Jackie Chan.
Jackie Chan actively tried to be different right from the beginning, not simply in his image but in his actions – the physical behaviour he was known for. The dominant code for Martial Arts in movies at the time had been defined by Bruce Lee, and much copied – so Chan set out to deliberately differentiate himself by doing the opposite. Since Lee was known for a style characterised by big, flowing movements, for example, with his arms held away from the body, hands always in motion, Chan developed a martial arts style that involved small choppy movements, arms held closer in.
Then he dipped a muscular toe into Hollywood. With a bad accent, limited acting skills and a mixed choice of partners and scripts – but always with his own style, inimitable gusto. And always doing his own, trademarks stunts.
What a western audience sees of Jackie Chan is very different from what a Chinese Audience sees of him – we don’t here see the range of roles he has explored, for instance. And on the basis of the evidence in front of us we could see him just as another cheesy comedy actor, albeit with some good martial arts moves. But what makes him more than this, for my boys at least, is authenticity (they wouldn’t necessarily use that word, but that is what it amounts to). Where does that authenticity come from? Those stunts. Much of his authenticity lies not just in the fact that he does these stunts (though he does), or that they are spectacular (though they are), but that he continues to do them in spite of the extraordinary physical risk and cost to himself that they represent.
The boys showed me a piece on YouTube about his top ten stunts. And the narrative over the top of this piece is frequently about where the stunt went wrong – the considerable personal cost to him in behaving like this. Not in his wallet, but in his spine, his cheek, his skull, his pelvis. Potentially in his ability to walk, to breathe. But that he went on doing it anyway.
So if we want authenticity in our brand, perhaps we should be looking to Jackie Chan for inspiration. Three lessons here. One lesson is that it is not simply that authenticity can and should be measured in terms of what it costs us, now, to maintain our authenticity (Doing Authenticity), rather than just trade off the retelling of a founding story (Saying Authenticity). Another is the power of what a maintained authenticity communicates about you. Mark Barden, our San Francisco partner, has an unwritten book idea called ‘The Story That Cannot Be Denied’, a concept I have always loved. And that is surely the real power of ‘Doing’ Authenticity: Doing Authenticity, far more than Saying Authenticity, is a Story That Cannot be Denied. Jackie Chan breaking his bones, going to hospital, getting up and doing it all over again, on film – that is A Story That Cannot Be Denied.
And the third lesson, perhaps is that Doing Authenticity, Maintained Authenticity, is now available in the palm of our user’s hand. My son showed it to me on YouTube on his phone in the middle of our kitchen. Unarguable authenticity, downloadable anytime, anywhere.
Three reasons why I humbly put it to you this morning, Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury, that Jackie Chan might be considered one of the most authentic brands in the world today.