We want it to feel authentic.

That’s the number one request I hear from developers when starting a new project. They want a multifamily, mixed-use, or office brand that conveys an authentic connection to the city or neighborhood. A brand that feels like it belongs.

There’s nothing unusual or unreasonable about that. After all, authenticity is a hallmark of most of the world’s great brands. Nike knows exactly who it is and what it stands for, and it makes sure that everything it says, does, or produces reflects those core values.

The thing that makes this a little trickier in the real estate world is that when we talk about authenticity, it means creating a new development that feels like it belongs to an existing place. And unlike Nike – which has almost total control of its story and underlying values – we can’t control long-held opinions about what makes a neighborhood or city special.

That means that before we can think about creating an “authentic” brand position for a new project, we need to understand what authentic really means in the context of that community.

The default is often to go with what we see on the surface. The iconic architecture, businesses, and characters that longtime residents recognize and love.

But is that authenticity or nostalgia?

Because authentic and nostalgic aren’t the same thing. Nostalgia is tied to the past and resistant to change. Authenticity accommodates change while striving to make sure that change reflects the ideals that make a community special. And it’s worth noting that avoiding change rarely makes a community great. Places that never change, after all, tend to slowly but steadily fade into obscurity.

In fact, most of the places and activities that people are nostalgic for today came about during times of great change. Change creates room for new ideas and the freedom for new generations to express themselves in ways that may be influenced by the past, but that are far from tethered to it. In Austin, for example, the new generation doesn’t pine for the Soap Creek Saloon any more than the hippy cowboys of the 70s wanted to go to their grandparents’ polka clubs.

That’s why “authentic” development should celebrate the past while laying the groundwork for the future. It should accommodate transformation and growth, and the ebb and flow of cultural tides, while still acknowledging the history of the community.

And branding can play a big role in that.

Branding, in its fullest form, isn’t just about aesthetics or catchy slogans. It’s about stories. The stories that people share and that tie communities together. In the same way that Nike’s swoosh invokes movement and the story of the winged Goddess Nike, our buildings and their branding should tell the story of their surroundings.

To do this, we begin a project with a dive into the history of the neighborhood or community. We take time to appreciate the unique rhythms of the place and observe the traditions that give it character.

Then we take it a step further.

We challenge ourselves to not just tell the story of a place’s past but to contribute to the narrative of its future. We strive to tell a story that reflects the surrounding community but also carries within it the seeds of change – a story that provides continuity, while also spurring progress.

Authenticity is about being genuine, real, and sincere. And in the world of large-scale real estate development, that means being part of a collective memory and a shared future. It’s about honoring the past while also embracing transformation.

Nostalgia is a longing for the “good old days.” Authenticity, on the other hand, can propel us forward. Authenticity allows us to reimagine and reinvent, to create urban landscapes that are deeply rooted in tradition yet moving toward tomorrow.

To use the Austin example again, just as the cosmic cowboys of the 70s redefined their cultural landscape, a new, multicultural generation is now making their own mark on society. They aren’t looking backward to an imagined golden era they didn’t experience. They are focused on creating a better world for themselves and their community today. Our role as branding and real estate professionals is to create and define the places where this can happen. To create venues for future generations to tell their own stories.

The key here is remembering that while an “authentic” place can reflect elements of the past, it’s more important that it focus on creating a canvas for what’s to come. Authenticity, after all, isn’t about recreating what once was. It’s about courageously shaping what can be.