“Woke” Authenticity in Brand Culture : A Patchwork Ethnography

Abstract: Authenticity is often considered the holy grail in marketing. Prior research has focused on authenticity in consumption and marketing communications based on countercultural images of personal freedom, including mythologies based on resistant rebels and social outlaws. In turn, research has constructed an androcentric view of authenticity using only one-half (i.e., the masculine/agentic) of its inherently ambivalent dialectic of meaning. Little is known about the authentication of more feminine/communally gendered consumers such as stigmatized seekers and other marginalized consumer segments. In that respect the literature on authenticity in consumer research is highly problematic, because the dominant worldview tends to essentialize an exotic version of the Other recognized as authentic while knowing next to nothing about the Other beyond this stereotypical image.This thesis fills an important gap in knowledge regarding the circuit of cultural ideologies around authenticity, particularly in relation to brand culture and consumers’ authenticating acts. Through a patchwork ethnography consisting of data collected in different empirical contexts (e.g., the Viking myth, queer cinema, disability in ads, etc.), the aim is to deconstruct the androcentric gaze on authenticity. Findings help pave the way toward a more empathic marketing theory and practice in which the Other is less confined by the harmful depiction of stereotypes. These findings are important because we live in times when brands are increasingly purpose-driven and expected to engage in activism (e.g., by taking a stand on socio-political issues even if they are not directly related to their business), while our social institutions are becoming more and more like brands. Indeed, recent marketing tendencies indicate a shifting cultural economy in which myths of personal freedom have been replaced with commodity activism in the “woke” discourse of authenticity in contemporary brand culture.I contribute to consumer research and conversations concerning the politics of authenticity, emphasizing issues of ethical representation and responsibility toward the Other, which may alleviate androcentric failings in previous research. I do this through thinking rooted in a deconstructive ontology, a feminist epistemology, and a transformative consumer research axiology.