Now a month out from its release to your doorsteps, it’s now time to leak just a few samplings of what’s in our summer issue of The Mockingbird. If you feel you missed your chance, fear not! Click here and we’ll set you up.

This essay comes James Gilmore, business school professor and co-author of Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want and The Experience Economy: Work Is Theatre & Every Business a Stage, both published by Harvard Business School Press. In this essay, Gilmore examines the pervasive and nuanced Economy of Authenticity, where the myth of what is “real” is what sells. The question becomes: Are we buying what’s real? Or are we buying the real we want to be?

To read the essay in full, visit the magazine page here.

Cover_Issue2At the lectern for the 2011 multidisciplinary design conference Gravity Free, meeting at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, stood award-winning graphic artist and designer Rick Valicenti. Toward the end of his slideshow, Valicenti displayed a color palette for automobiles in the 1950s―vivid blues and vibrant greens, sharp reds and bold golds. The colors jumped off the screen. He next showed the present-day array for car colors, which he dubbed “the color palette of cement.” Valicenti concluded with an impassioned plea for designers to restore color’s rightful role in good design.

To experience firsthand this dismal grayscale road-scape, perform this activity the next time you go for an extended drive: Say aloud the color of each automobile passing in the opposite direction. Nearly eighty percent of the traffic encountered will be black, silver, gray, or white. Sprinkled in the mix, an occasional red (“Road kill!”). If a blue or green car drives by, it’s likely to be one embarrassed to be blue or green. Truly arresting colors are rarely seen on the road today.

Or try this experiment: Go to a major city auto show, the kind held annually in large exhibition halls, where nearly every make and model of vehicle can be found on display under one roof. Enter each brand’s exhibit, and when staff approaches to see if they can be of any assistance, respond by asking, “What colors do you have?” You’ll be met with blank stares, for car salespeople seldom encounter someone shopping color.

Henry Ford is dead; long live Henry Ford. Today’s consumers can have practically any color they want; yet three out of four still pick black, the color of death, or some near-death alternative.

This predilection toward black in the marketplace is by no means confined to automobiles. Consider luggage. Observe the baggage carrousel at any airport: the percentage of black on the belt exceeds that of cars on the highway. Nearly every suitcase and wheeled roller is found in one of fifty shades of—black. In other product categories, if any color dares compete for marketshare, it must always do so on the basis of being “the new black.”

Before going any further, let’s establish some context.


A fundamental shift is occurring in the very fabric of advanced economies. Experiences have emerged as a distinct form of economic output, as distinct from services as services are from goods. Experiences represent a new genre of economic output. We’ve shifted over the last two centuries from an agrarian economy based on extracting commodities, to an industrial economy based on manufacturing goods, then to a service economy based on delivering services, and now to an experience economy based on staging events.

Some distinctions are in order. Commodities are natural materials, extracted from the earth and stored in bulk. Manufactured goods (made from commodities) are tangible things, and once made are placed into inventory awaiting purchase. Delivered services (using goods) are intangible activities, performed only in response to actual demand. Staged experiences (laid atop services) are memorable events that unfold over a duration of time. These days, people spend incrementally less time and money on commodities, goods, and services, while simultaneously spending more time and money on experiences that engage them in a personal way. Increasingly, consumers are shifting their lives into the realm of experiences.

carsLet’s illustrate this progression with a few examples. Take birthdays. Fifty years ago, my mother made my birthday cakes from scratch, actually touching commodities―flour, sugar, eggs, cocoa (‘tis bizarre behavior in the twenty-first century). But, like many other moms, she one day stopped making cakes from scratch and instead started buying boxed cake mixes. Later, parents stopped making cakes from these packaged goods and instead called the grocery store, or bakery, to have a cake made on their behalf. Today, parents not only outsource the cake-making service, but the entire birthday party―to Chuck E. Cheese’s, a laser tag arcade, a local pottery studio, or any number of other party-staging venues.

Or consider coffee. Growing up, my father would buy whole beans and grind them in a small wooden box that had an ornate cast-iron handle mounted on top. My parents one day abandoned this self-grinding practice and instead bought ground coffee in a large can. Folgers! When I entered the workplace, I never brewed my own coffee (a whole pot was too much for a single man in a rush to work each morning), but instead bought a cup each day from the food service vendor at the office. Today, I consume most of my coffee in the muted backdrop of Starbucks or my local Phoenix Coffee, where I saddle in to do work, read my newspapers, or sit with friends in the ambiance of a coffee-drinking experience.

In each example, one can see the shift in consumption―from commodities, to goods, to services, and then to experiences. An abundance of other experiences fill today’s economic landscape. Parents smother their kids with experiences: building plush animals at Build-A-Bear Workshop, making pilgrimages to American Girl Place, visiting Disney or other theme parks, paying for sports camps, music lessons, academic challenges, and dance competitions, and equipping the home and car with movie screens and video-game devices. Adults pamper themselves at spas, when not pushing themselves at fitness centers. Some tackle Tough Mudder. Others treat themselves to relaxing weekend getaways at luxury resorts or boutique hotels. Restaurants offer myriad new dining experiences and gastronomic adventures. New forms of tourism abound: wine tourism, film tourism, eco-tourism, disaster tourism, volunteer tourism, and so forth.

With this shift to experiences emerges a new consumer sensibility, or the primary reason for making a purchase, the dominant reason to buy.

If we look back at the days of the agrarian economy, we see that the main criterion for making a purchase was availability (price had not yet emerged as the dominant sensibility). Folks went to the market―then a physical place―to buy five dollars’ worth of some commodity, say turnips. While the price per pound might have varied by day, consumers had little concern for the cost, unless the price was to spike; and the price would only spike if turnips were in short supply, less available.

It was with the rise of the industrial economy that cost emerged as the dominant consumer sensibility. What mass production did was bring down the cost of goods to the point that nearly everyone could afford to buy items in most every product category they wished. People made purchases because (and when) they could afford to do so. We forget how our grandparents (or great-grandparents, for you Millennials) made their first ever purchases of dress clothes and formal shoes, radios and televisions, vacuum cleaners and dishwashers. The world is today saturated with goods because this cost reduction enabled such a great accumulation of possessions.

suitcasesWith the service economy emerged the next sensibility, for quality. When activities which had been performed by oneself (mowing the lawn, ironing shirts, cooking meals, changing motor oil, coloring one’s nails, and so forth) were instead done by others (landscapers, dry cleaners, restaurateurs, beauticians, etc.), buyers of these services focused on the quality of the activity being done on their behalf. And this concern for quality performance not only applied to the purchase of services, but trickled down to purchases of commodities and goods as well.

Enter the experience economy―with a Starbucks café seemingly at every corner, arcade-held birthday parties every day (and every year), Geek Squad computer technicians (in Geekmobiles!), Jumbotrons and light shows at sporting events, Blue Man Group and Cirque du Soleil extravaganzas, the Burning Man Festival, “virtual reality” and “augmented reality,” and a mobile app for every experience under the sun. This increasingly mediated, intentionally staged, multi-sensory, technologically enabled, and commercially driven reality―all the time, everywhere, and with everything―gave rise to the desire for authenticity. Consumers now want “the real” from an artisan purveyor of genuine wares, making purchases on the basis of how authentic they perceive any particular offering to be. (Often attached to this new consumer sensibility is an aversion to even being perceived as a consumer, of course while all the time consuming!)

These four successively dominant consumer sensibilities can be defined as follows:

Availability:purchasing on the basis of accessing a reliable supply

Cost: purchasing on the basis of obtaining an affordable price

Quality: purchasing on the basis of excelling in product performance

Authenticity: purchasing on the basis of conforming to self-image.

No longer satisfied with just accessible, affordable and excellent offerings, consumers now make commercial purchases (and non-commercial decisions) on the basis of how well these purchases (and decisions) conform to their own self-image.

In her book, The Substance of Style, Virginia Postrel captures this sentiment with a most concise construct: “I like that. I am like that.” Regina Benedict in In Search of Authenticity elaborates: “Authenticity… is generated not from the bounded classification of an Other, but from the probing comparison between self and Other, as well as between external and internal states of being. Invocations of authenticity are admissions of vulnerability, filtering the self’s longings into the shaping of the subject.” People view as authentic those “Others”―anything outside of the self―that conform in both depiction and perception to their self-image, their perceived state of being. They make choices about what to buy and what to refrain from buying based on their view of how authentic or inauthentic they perceive something to be. At the same time, their purchases (and non-purchases) come to reflect the selfsame self-image to which these decisions conform.

HmmI buy the color palette of cement. I am the color palette of cement?

(To continue reading, visit the magazine’s page here.)

Purchase The Mockingbird Summer 2014 Issue here!