Authenticity Through The Narrow Lenses Of The Instagram Age

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The old cliché that a picture is worth a thousand words suggests that a complex idea can be distilled with only a single image. And while there is no doubt that images have a unique ability to convey messages and create meaning, one must not forget the power of words. The late Dr. Angelou said, "Words are things." When words are put together they become stories and according to social scientists, every culture can trace its beginnings back to storytelling. Yet, with the rise of social media a new breed of storytellers has emerged. They tend to want to "influence" us with filtered and carefully edited pictures on their social media pages.


The general claim that social media has democratized information and every person holding a smart phone can suddenly become a source of information is not only false but also a very dangerous one. Fake news has become so popular that people for the most part have a hard time to make the distinction between real journalism and conspiracy theories, and if you are not convinced, just look how the recent US election played out.

The question whether a picture is worth 1,000 words has been haunting me for many years; in fact, I dedicated an entire dissertation trying to answer this very question. I could give you a short answer and say no, a picture is not worth a 1,000 words, not even a 100 words. To be more precise, I don't think the two are comparable.

Since ancient times stories and pictures have coexisted. We told stories and drew in the caves, yet the majority of us still can't make sense of their meanings. Why is that? That is because we don't understand the context. Stories bring depth and breadth to the society, and pictures serve as illustrations of the underlying context.

So, why is this important for today's marketers? The very essence of branding lies in the brand's ability to connect and resonate with its customers. It is not about the latest creation, it is not about the highest budget or the most digital savvy team, it is about relevance and authenticity. It is about being able to communicate clearly with your audience in a way that is relevant to them.

There is no magic formula for this, and no amount of Instagram followers, and certainly not influencers, can replace the value of authentic communication.

School books teach us that "mavens" are expert connoisseurs in one or more particular subjects. They may be scholars or passionate advocates who stay informed and enjoy sharing their knowledge. Some do it without monetary compensation, others are "mavens" by profession. For example, a professor at a university is a maven in his field. Also, journalists, and nowadays to some extent bloggers as well, are considered mavens.

And this is where the grey area begins. With almost no barriers to entry to become a blogger, even less an Instagram blogger, anyone with time and a smartphone in their hands can start snapping pictures and gathering tens of thousands followers on Instagram. They are the new so called "brand influencers" who will endorse a particular brand for a fee that ranges from a couple of thousand US dollars to large sums depending on their "credibility and reach."

Among the glossy Instagram posts or Snapchat craze the brands' authentic voice gets lost. The very tool that is meant to help brands personalize and communicate is creating an unprecedented clutter and noise.

How can I as a costumer relate to an "influencer" whose full-time job seems to be editing Instagram posts and documenting every single second of their lives? What value does that bring to me? Back again to brand authenticity- to be authentic is to be relevant, relevant to your identity, to your costumers, to your values, and to your purpose. Best brands today have a purpose. In fact, an entire BCG department -called Brighthouse- focuses on helping brands finding their purpose and staying relevant.

Today, best brands are storytellers and authentic communicators who use social media to their advantage and to the advantage of their consumers. They don't ask for attention, they don't give away power in exchange for likes.

Influencer marketing has and will continue to be an integral part of the marketing and communications, and brands need to adapt to these trends with caution, understanding that there is still very little correlation between influencer endorsement and monetary ROI.

Today's brands should seek to be heard where it matters; they must act as champions of worthy causes and earn the privilege to be talked about. By showing their true colors they remain both relevant and authentic.

Related: In Defense Of Influencers: The Importance Of Protecting Your Personal Brand