Change Agent - Issue 48

When it comes to food, music, and more, which do you prefer: ubiquity or authenticity?

Want soup? The very best soup in the entire world is served by Al Yeganeh, owner of Soup Kitchen International on West 55th Street in New York. Slandered in a notorious Seinfeld parody, Al's restaurant is busier than ever. Some of the folks in the 30-minute-long line (waiting to buy a $6 bowl of soup!) are insensitive clods who saw the TV show and want to experience a real celebrity moment. Others are longtime customers who are willing to brave the cold to get the real thing.

At the same time that hundreds of hungry people are waiting to get a unique bowl of soup from Al, millions are eating lunch at the most ubiquitous restaurant in the world: McDonald's. In fact, every single day, McDonald's serves a meal to one out of 14 Americans.

Take a drive through Illinois -- home to McDonald's headquarters -- and you might discover that many of the towns you pass don't have one "real" restaurant. No diner, no place for a fancy night out. Just a Hardee's, a Pizza Hut, and, of course, a McDonald's. This is not a phenomenon limited to tiny towns near Springfield. There are thousands of McDonald's franchises across the country, along with chains like Arby's, Subway, T.G.I. Friday's, and countless others churning out anonymous, forgettable meals to people in a hurry. Hey, it's what we asked for.

So what's wrong with selling out? Paradoxically, it seems that once you become popular, you also become very unpopular. Suddenly, those in the know aren't as awed by Wolfgang Puck -- not when his name is displayed in major airports across the country. They look down their noses at Yo-Yo Ma. They disdain Andy Warhol.

What is it about ubiquity that breeds contempt?

Every day, successful entrepreneurs have to make important choices about whether to expand, to open another branch, to franchise, to license. Once you've figured out a winning strategy, it seems only rational to cash out by letting the market have what it wants: more of you!

As long as you're giving the market what it wants, what's the problem? If some is good, isn't more better?

Here's the problem: The moment you take your special, authentic, limited-edition product and leverage it, make it widely available and normal, the very people who loved it inevitably rebel. "Starbucks isn't what it used to be," they tell you. The tastemakers who made you successful in the first place turn on their heels when they smell that you're not authentic anymore.

When a product is everywhere, when it's hyped in the media and advertised on the sides of buses, sometimes it seems as if the product exists and succeeds because it is everywhere. Before ubiquity, when it seemed as if the product (or its creator) wasn't in it just for the money, somehow that felt more real, more wonderful, more authentic.

Marketing has always been one of the most despised aspects of business. Brands, logos, salesmanship, positioning, and focus groups have gained a reputation for insincerity and corporate greed. Most of this comes from people's desire to have something real -- and to get it from someone who isn't trying quite so hard to sell it.

Are we ever authentic? Is fresh goat cheese made in tiny batches (bought on a farm in France) any different from huge vats of goat cheese produced by Kraft somewhere in Wisconsin and delivered weekly to your local supermarket? What if you couldn't tell them apart in a taste test?

Sure, the vistas, the smell of the sheep, and the excitement of a true discovery make the first kind of cheese seem to taste far better than the second. But isn't that just another form of marketing? Why does the intention of the creator have so much influence on our perception of the product?

The paradox: Markets talk. Word spreads. When something is great, we all want it. We want it to be local and reasonably priced. And we want reliability. We want it to be just as good every time we experience it. What's a marketer to do? On one hand, for something to be authentic, it needs to be rare and special and live. On the other hand, the market demands that it be delivered with reliability and in quantity. Which ice cream do you prefer: Ben & Jerry's or Häagen-Dazs? Which sports franchise do you root for: the Chicago Cubs or a newly minted XFL team? Which jazz performer do you groove to: Miles Davis or Kenny G? What's the difference between authentic and manufactured?

If you're lucky enough to create something authentic, you have real choices. You need to decide how important it is to be real, how much of yourself you have tied up in the authentic experience that you've created. Most of all, you need to decide what you'd like to do all day. Some of us can be happy taking today's flavor and selling it like crazy. Others need to have a deeper relationship with their craft, something that establishes a connection between themselves and their product. If you ever get a cup of soup from Al, look into his eyes. You'll see what I mean.

People who create something authentic but then sell out almost always end up unhappy. Why? Because once you sell out, any new success you have isn't because you are authentic. You're in a new business now. Ken Burns is just as authentic as he ever was. But he's not rewarded for that. He's rewarded for ubiquity. Could you be happy with that?

Before you pull the trigger and sell out and scale up, consider a few questions: Is it better to be big than to be (perceived as) real? Is spreading the word more important than being admired by a tiny coterie of truly devoted fans? Should financial rewards come to those who make good stuff for the masses?

Could you be happy practicing your authentic task for the rest of your life?

If you do get big, you won't be practicing authenticity for the rest of your life. When you sell out, you're making a trade. The big market wants reliability and conformity. The big market won't reward you for being authentic.

Authenticity. If you can fake that, the rest will take care of itself.

Seth Godin (sgodin@fastcompany.com) is the author of Permission Marketing: Turning Strangers Into Friends, and Friends Into Customers (Simon & Schuster, 1999) and Unleashing the Ideavirus (Do You Zoom Inc., 2000). Get his latest book for free on the Web (www.ideavirus.com).

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