Brand Authenticity: What We Get Wrong & How to Get it Right
In a world awash with targeted advertising, influencer marketing, and fake news, we are starved for sincerity. We are disillusioned with the pervasive blur of fantasy and reality, spin and honest solutions, and as a result, consumers are increasingly distrustful of brands and businesses. According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, only 48% of consumers today trust companies (down from 58% in 2017), and according to Gallup’s annual trust poll only 23% of Americans trust big business.
We distrust with good reason. Traditional marketing is inherently insincere. It co-opts trends, capitalizes on breaking news, mimics popular vernacular, and glamorizes the mundane to make us believe that products can solve our problems. But in today’s cultural context, these slick and sensational tactics don’t work. Consumers are demanding that businesses define their purpose, take a stand, and operate with transparency. Consumers are demanding that businesses be authentic. A global study by Cohn & Wolf shows that 90% of consumers are willing to reward a brand for authenticity, while 52% would recommend the brand and 49% who would pledge loyalty.
But there’s a problem. When business owners come to me with branding needs, they know or assume they need strategy in shaping, broadcasting, and delivering an authentic brand, but they have a number of resistances. One, they do not equate “authenticity” with “professional.” Two, they misunderstand “authenticity” as meaning something like “Just be yourself” or “Express yourself.” That framing of authenticity for branding is both incomplete and misleading.
Unfortunately, authenticity is one of those words that has been so overused it has lost meaning. Like “natural” or “artisanal,” to label a brand or product “authentic” causes you to question the very claim. What makes an apple juice “unnatural”? What kind of artisans pre-cut cheddar for a Safeway plastic-wrapped cheese plate? What does “authentic” even mean, and how can a brand be authentic?
I work with executives, professionals, entrepreneurs, and companies from the inside-out. That is, we examine many issues of personal identity in relation to brand identity – whether it is a business brand or personal brand. So, it’s important to parse out what authenticity is and is not on a personal level and in the context of your branding and marketing.
Authenticity and Authority
The word “authenticity” is thought to be derived from the Greek “authentes,” which loosely translates to “one acting on one’s own authority.” In other words, authenticity is when one’s thoughts, beliefs, and actions are in accordance. But there are conflicting interpretations of how authenticity is enacted in branding and marketing, and whether being authentic all the time is in our best interest.
Authenticity is not the same as raw or unapologetic self expression, but the search for an elusive core brand identity can hold back our business from successful growth. Recent research shows that when people believe that their identity and abilities are predetermined, they are more likely to experience anxiety, disappointment, and inevitable burnout. The pursuit of an authentic self can imply a singular path toward a singular self, which only discourages and frustrates the seeker the longer they look without finding it.
Your “self” isn’t assigned; you construct it based on your personal experiences, beliefs, and values. You act on your own authority to determine the kind of person you want to be and respond to the world in ways that align with that ever-evolving self. To be authentic is to be honest with yourself and others, acknowledge the dimensions of your “self” (past, present and future) that constitute your identity, and act with integrity to reflect your core values. Authenticity is not static but dynamic.
What, then, does it mean for brands and businesses to be authentic?
How to Practice Authenticity in Brand Marketing
Authenticity sells more beer. A 2014 study in the Journal of Consumer Psychology found that brand authenticity significantly increased perceived value and brand trust within the craft beer market. The authors defined brand authenticity as “the extent to which consumers perceive a brand to be faithful towards itself, true to its consumers, motivated by caring and responsibility, and able to support consumers in being true to themselves.” In this study (as in many others) a brand must demonstrate three characteristics to be considered “authentic:” individuality, consistency, and continuity.
Individuality can be determined by product, provenance, or purpose (or some combination of the three). The product or service itself can be unique, as can its origin. One study showed that consumers ascribe higher value to products that come from an original factory, and origin stories lend a personal and experiential element to goods that evokes authenticity. Purpose distinguishes a brand by defining its distinct role in the marketplace. While it is increasingly important for brands to stand up for their beliefs, a brand’s purpose is not its social responsibility but rather the consumer needs it fills, and the reasons a consumer would choose it over competitors. All the better if purpose aligns with a relevant social concern, but these associations should never be forced.
Be sure your messages align with your business actions. At Tracking Wonder, we develop branding strategies according to the 4 Pillars of Integral Branding. The first pillar is Integrity. Assure your brand story messaging and persona align with the founder’s or team’s core DNA of character, virtues, genius, and values. The second pillar is Consistency. Consistency of messaging and actions is key to gaining consumer trust. With the internet and social media granting us greater access to information than ever before, brands are under constant scrutiny and consumers are quick to condemn brands they feel are dishonest, insincere, or inconsistent.
On the other hand, 2016 study revealed that 94% of consumers are loyal to transparent brands, and 73% will pay more for transparency.
As Patagonia has shown, brands can successfully tap into this trend to engage their audiences and build a loyal following. The Footprint Chronicles allows anyone to trace any Patagonia product to its source, and learn about the company’s environmental efforts around the globe. The project shows that Patagonia is truly practicing what it preaches. Although some people have complained about how the company could do better, the project has cultivated deep trust amongst consumers. After all, if Patagonia is willing to show the bad and be honest about areas for improvement, we are more inclined to trust the good. Authentic brands define meaningful values and deliver on them by improving their products and messaging in ways that resonate with their perceived value.
Continuity sounds simple. It’s just continuing to uphold your brand’s principles and serve your audience, right? But in the midst of rapidly changing cultural attitudes and trends that prove to be no more than a flash in the pan, staying the course is harder than it looks, especially if your brand has staked a claim in a controversial issue. Take, for example, the backlash when Netflix backed out of its support for net neutrality after it became clear that it would affect their profitability. Or, the controversy around American Apparel refusing to recognize a contest winner in their Next BIG Thing plus-size model campaign because she didn’t “fit their image.” Pivoting, failing to follow through, and frequent re-branding all damage consumer trust in a brand, sometimes irreparably. By checking in with your core values and basing your strategy upon them, even when the going gets rough, you can stay true to your brand purpose.
Find Your Brand’s Authenticity
When you develop marketing strategies in our current marketplace, I suggest you walk a fine line between expressing a brand’s point of view and being forthright about its purpose: to sell goods or services to audiences that can benefit from them. Brand authenticity paves the way for businesses to do both in harmony. It is the overlap between a brand’s purpose and consumers’ needs. It is when a brand transcends profit to empower consumers with knowledge and principles they can support through their purchasing power.
Finding a way to be authentic in business starts with discovering what drives your brand, honestly assessing how it fits in the marketplace, and committing to values that will guide your business decisions. The rest is learning how to communicate your purpose and values with consumers in ways that align with their needs while also delivering on your brand’s promises.
Walking the authentic path isn’t easy but it can be immensely rewarding, both personally and professionally. By branding with integrity, you can work in a way that reflects your core beliefs and in so doing, develop a loyal following that supports you standing in your own authority.