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‘Authentic’ and ‘rizz’ are the words of the year. What do they mean for marketers?

Two street signs on one pole forming an 'x.' The top says 'authentic' and the bottom says 'rizz.'

Illustration by Robyn Phelps / Shutterstock / The Current

Merriam-Webster and Oxford University Press chose “authentic” and “rizz” — slang for charisma — as their respective words of the year. Each term is a window into the zeitgeist and offers valuable insights for marketers heading into 2024.

But beware of linguistic bandwagons: Some marketing experts who spoke with The Current point out that ad circles discuss authenticity so much, it’s losing its meaning, and brands shouldn’t rush to use a word like “rizz” just because it's on trend.

Reid Litman, global consulting director at Ogilvy, urges brands to go deeper to connect with culture. “The best marketers are able to answer three questions,” he says. “Which communities or cohorts within Gen Z do I actually care about? What are their values and priority concerns or areas of passion? And how are we tapping into their desire for creative expression to create impact with, not for, them?”

Behind the meaning

Merriam-Webster defines “authentic” as “not false or imitation” and “true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character.” It also notes that authenticity is “what brands, social media influencers, and celebrities aspire to be.” For some, that aspiration is part of the problem: When brands bend over backward to be authentic, they cease to be.

“Authentic” has “become a filler word void of tangible advice,” says Litman.

Brendan Gahan, a former chief social officer at a creative agency, says that authenticity has “transformed from a beacon of genuineness to a hollow buzzword.” Kate Winick, a social media strategy consultant and former senior director of social and editorial at Peloton, says that it’s “no wonder the term feels like it’s losing meaning,” because marketers increasingly “treat it like a moving target.”

Meanwhile, Oxford University Press put a different spin on 2023 with “rizz”, describing it as “style, charm, or attractiveness” and a shortened version of “charisma.” It’s most associated with Gen Z and gained popularity on TikTok.

How are ‘authentic’ and ‘rizz’ connected?

Marketing experts who spoke with The Current had differing views on how “authentic” and “rizz” relate to one another.

Winick says that they are “two sides of the same coin.”

“Rizz is all about how you talk to someone; how you’re able to shift a conversation and charm someone, which is very much what marketers should be great at,” she says. “And in my experience, the most attractive and exciting brands, ideas, and people are deeply authentic.”

Litman has a different perspective, saying that “Webster took the ‘cultural imperative,’ and Oxford took the ‘culture.’” In other words, the former represents a word that marketers think is critical for connecting with younger consumers, he says, while the latter is a word derived from youth culture.

But they both agreed that the biggest lesson for marketers to remember when it comes to “rizz” is that it’s OK to avoid terms that don’t apply to their brand. Marketers shouldn’t force themselves to work it into marketing copy, or they risk being inauthentic.

“This is a great example of a trend to not take so literally,” Winick says. “First, look for ways to actually showcase charisma and note where your brand can engage in the [charismatic] acts, not for excuses to use slang you’re encountering for the first time.”

So how can brands really connect with younger people? Well, it comes back to authenticity — just not how some marketers have approached it.

“As Generative AI makes experimenting and reacting to trends so much faster and easier, it’s more important than ever to, dare I say, be authentic,” Litman says. “Be true to your brand and the people that support it.”

Merriam-Webster notes that one reason it chose “authentic” is that with the rise of artificial intelligence, “the line between ‘real’ and ‘fake’ has become increasingly blurred.”

Other terms that defined the year for marketers

“Authentic” and “rizz” weren’t the only words of the year. Dictionary.com chose “hallucinate” because it “best represents, at this moment, AI’s many profound ramifications for the future of language and life.” In the context of AI, Dictionary.com defines it like this: “To produce false information contrary to the intent of the user and present it as if true and factual.”

Winick says this is the word that best describes the shifting role of marketing in 2023 and beyond.

“Not only is the advent of easily accessible AI tools the beginning of an entirely new way of producing marketing, I believe it’s also the beginning of a new relationship between consumer and information,” she says.

She adds, “Information isn’t just being shared, it’s being created and hallucinated in real time, and marketers are competing in an environment rife with misinformation and that’s never had more competition for attention.”

Gahan and Litman have their own picks, but ones that also reflect the rapid sharing of information, and the ever-changing nature of technology and marketing today.

“‘Context’ would be my word of the year; it underscores our era’s tendency to consume content in fragmented, bite-size pieces, often leading to superficial judgments without a deeper grasp of the whole picture,” Gahan says. “It reflects the critical need to understand the broader narrative and nuances behind sound bites and one-sided stances. We’re ignoring the value of depth and comprehensive perspectives in an age of instant information and polarized views.”

Litman chose “malleable.”

“This year, more than ever, I’ve seen processes and things that were once taken for granted in the industry break down and become flexible in a way that I didn’t think would happen before,” he says. “Whether it be the creator economy or new ways of marketing via AI, we’re realizing that the way a brand comes to life, or even the opportunities to market in the world, are super malleable.”