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What Does Authenticity Really Mean to Millennials?

Utilizing the Power of Symbolics™ for Deriving Deep Meaning on a Quant. Scale

by Jean McDonnell

Authenticity has become the “it” word for marketers attempting to connect with Millennial consumers. Hundreds of thousands of articles have been written on this topic. Many different traits (such as honesty, integrity, and transparency) have been used to define the quality of authenticity that Millennials seek. An even greater number of “top 5” lists have been created for guiding brands on how to be and be seen as authentic.

Yet, with all this information swirling about, why is it still so difficult for marketers to “crack” the authenticity code in a way that delivers real impact with Millennials? Why are companies and brands still asking, with increasing frequency and volume ...

“How can we authentically connect with today’s Millennials?"


There is too much misguided and misaligned interpretation happening.


Ask Millennials what “authenticity” means, using a quantifiable metaphor elicitation method — Symbolics™.

At Sylver, client requests for answers to the elusive “authenticity” question have been getting stronger and louder in recent years. We decided it was time to put this question directly to Millennials themselves. We felt confident that we could get to the true, underlying meaning of the word because we have a unique and proprietary method that is designed specifically for that purpose.

This methodology is called Symbolics™. Symbolics™ is an online collage — or “expression” making tool — that’s been designed according to the principles of Behavioral Economics (Systems 1 thinking) and Semiotics (the study of symbols and meaning). It is a hybrid qual./quant. method that taps into the instinctual “gut” response that people have to a brand or subject matter question through the creation of individual expressions (the qual. data set). It then captures and analyzes the associative relationships between the stimuli elements that are used over time, via a series of distinctive composite “maps” (the quant. data set) that are further decoded and parsed for rich and nuanced meanings of the subject matter.

So what did we learn from this research?

At the highest level we learned that Millennials define “authenticity” as an interconnected set of five qualities – each one representing a different but critical aspect of the mental construct.

And, with regard to these five qualities, we learned that hierarchy does matter:

At the top are two key “driver” qualities that represent the core foundational meaning of “authenticity.” Think of these as the King and Queen of a royal dynasty or the mom and dad of a family.

These are the qualities of being . . .

  • True/Real
  • Genuine/Sincere

The three other qualities are also essential, but act as support elements to complete the construct.

Think of these as the royal members of the court or the kids of the family.

These are the qualities of . . .

  • Being Unique and Original
  • Having Integrity/Grit
  • Being Human

Within each of these five qualities, three to four nuanced “aspects” of meaning emerge. For example on the quality of being true/real, the aspects of meaning are:

  • Being true to oneself; being and acting natural, living in accordance with who one is by nature; the inner self or quality that cannot be manufactured.
  • Being legitimate and credible; above reproach; consistently supporting one’s claims by way of verifiable and authorized proof or evidence.
  • Being transparent; being open and honest; having nothing to hide; willing to share fully with others. A truth that is laid open and shared; it’s observable, noticeable, and recognizable to others.
  • Being pure; not marred or affected by worldly influences; acting in accordance with the innocence and openness we were born into.
  • At the gender level, we also learned that the meaning of “authenticity” is NOT fully equal in definition among Millennial women and men.

What’s the same?

Women and men agree on the qualities or “tenants” that define authenticity. That is, all five qualities are present for each group. This tells us that men and women are in basic agreement that these five qualities (true/real, genuine/sincere, unique and original, integrity/grit, and human) are, indeed, the essential elements that make up or define “authenticity.”

What’s different?

What’s different is the prioritization and interpretation of the five qualities according to women vs. men. For example:

Women place greater emphasis on one particular aspect of being true/real (e.g. being true to one’s inner self) over others and on the quality of being human (let me know you have a heart) compared to men.

Men place more emphasis on the legitimacy and credibility aspect of being true/real and on the quality of integrity/grit – in other words, prove to me that you’re authentic, don’t just tell me you are.

This confirms that the levers to be pulled in demonstrating and articulating authenticity to Millennials will need to be different when women are the intended audience compared to the messaging levers used when men are the intended audience.

For a deeper look into our findings, you can download the full Millennial Authenticity White Paper here.

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