It’s never been easier to launch a brand than today. Find a product that someone else makes, slap a customized logo on it, put together a site and start running campaigns on social networks that are optimized for conversion and then it’s just a question of finding the right balance of profitability. All you really need to think about to hook people to trying a product is to create stories, and stories are a lot easier to create than products! Brands are made up of stories.

Hark back ye brand marketer

Storytelling and branding go hand in hand all the way back since the beginning of capitalism. Brands were a stamp of approval, a sign of trust in a world of uncertainty (sound familiar?) so that people knew the product they were buying. Look back to advertisements from the first half of last century and the common theme of all brands is “it works.” As brands built up trust in the court of public opinion, they could start to charge a premium on their products. The era of brand equity was born.

Strike a match to the gas of profit-generating brands and competition flares up. As the markets become awash with copy cats and alternative brands – all of which function more or less the same thanks to standardization of production (in Chinese factories or textile mills in Bangladesh) – functionality is no longer a differentiator.

In order to stand out brands had to create other dimensions of connections with their customers to fend off people switching to competitors based solely on price. It is the necessary enrichment of brand equity from when awareness and trust in a brand were the only measuring sticks. Brand equity today has waded into the murky waters of appeal, affinity, and perceived value.

Enter storytelling, or what a brand does to express itself along different dimensions other than product performance. For many brands this is talking about the company’s mission, its founders and what motivates them, but what happens when you are an established brand in a big multinational company? Get your ad agency to whip up some videos and share them online?

Authenticity was the 2010’s buzzword

But we’re now in the 2020s and we need to face reality. Having gone to a slew of marketing events in the 2010s all around the world there was one word that you could find discussed at every single event: authenticity. Authenticity is the key for marketers, for creating connections with customers, for inspiring and enriching the lives of others.

The logic goes that we want relationships with authentic people. Fake people who say what they don’t mean and who behave unexpectedly don’t stand the test of time. Why shouldn’t the same thinking apply to brands?

The short answer is that it should apply to brands but it should not be called authenticity. Authenticity is defined as being true to oneself. If brands are bending their messaging to fit with what they think their customer base wants, isn’t that the exact opposite of authenticity? 

I propose clearing up some confusion around the bucket term authenticity, since too many concepts get labelled under it.

Founders are authentic when they are uncompromising about their message

People like when others take a stand. Being authentic means stating your position and sticking to it, no matter if someone else likes that position or not. “We are X and we stand for X.” In order for this message to be authentic it has to be divisive. Either you agree or you don’t. If you agree you respect that brand for being authentic, if you disagree, you don’t have to like that brand but you cannot say that it is not authentic. Is it as risky as trying to please everyone? Hard to tell.

For startup brands, founders putting themselves in the spotlight goes a long way towards establishing what many would call “authenticity.” The founders don’t make decisions in board rooms, they probably don’t wear suits, and so they look more like most of their consumers. This is not authenticity, founders of small brands do not make more “authentic” decisions than the CEO of a Fortune 100 company, they just look more connected and closer to the visions of “authenticity” in the minds of their customers.

Founders of startup brands can be incredibly unauthentic too, chasing any hook that will get customers to buy, shifting between communication approaches until they find something that sticks. It is clear then that for certain brands who comprimise what they believe in search of profits, they are not being “authentic” although they can clean up their message before gaining enough notoriety before it becomes hard to flip flop.

Pandering is not authenticity

When large multinational brands try to be authentic, it means pandering to the masses, often by leveraging social causes. Appealing to everyone means appealing to no one, and in no way is that authentic.

Nike’s oft-cited example of using Colin Kaepernick for their ad campaign after he got axed from the NFL for taking a knee during the national anthem to protest civil injustice was a good example of a brand taking a stand that was divisive. Nike was saying very clearly who they stand with. Do old white men wear Nike sneakers? Sure but clearly old white men are not the future of Nike’s business model.

Was Nike pandering to a targeted mass, or do they really stand with Mr. Kaepernick? Hard to tell. They got a lot of PR out of that. But if they stay on the course that they have set, there can be said to have made an “authentic” decision.

Blatant pandering can backfire. Calling attention to environmental efforts can bring on extra-close scrutiny. Woke-washing can be called out by social medias infinite mouthpieces. That’s the trouble with brands in big companies. Even one person, one aspect, one part of a greater business that is not in line with a new message can reveal a hypocrisy that is much more viral than authenticity.

That doesn’t mean you can’t move towards taking a stand, it’s just that you need to walk the walk for a while before opening your mouth about it.

A shaky, emotional video with your logo at the end is not authenticity

How many examples have I lived through of brands creating short films that make us all cry and at the end reveal that it was their brand the whole time making this emotion possible? Far too many. This has become the modern way to talk about branding, and particularly the missions behind brands.

Too many marketers believe that communicating a brand’s mission, the why the brand exists, is key to winning customer trust and respect. Brands that work towards something bigger should be seen as being more authentic than just a mechanism to provide a functionality in exchange for profit.

The problem is that too many of these missions, or visions, or whatever you want to call them, are not authentic. They are slapped on to the business presentations by the latest Harvard MBA who has taken the reigns of the company and wants to instill a new culture and purpose because management books say that’s the new bonus. “Our purpose, truly, is to make the lives of our customers better.”

A message like that smacks of lies! Nothing is more unauthentic than trying to make something out to be something that it is not. Then having the audacity to communicate about that message like the brand was some kind of messiah… All of that has the opposite effect: people see right through bullshit and this authenticity-washing is about as bad as it gets.

To be authentic, you have to be true to yourself

In today’s world of millenial socialism and video storytelling, it’s true that people want to see brands be engaged, involved, part of the solution and not part of the problem. But giving money to a charity in order to appear a certain way is just a marketing budget!

Authenticity is about consistency. It’s about creating a consistent experience across all of the places and times that people connect with your brand. Authenticity is not conforming to some sort of temporary modern ideal, it is keeping your brand in the place where it should belong.

Being true to yourself might also mean that you don’t have a corporate social responsibility department, you don’t donate money to charity, you don’t have a mission to make everyone’s lives better. You might just be a brand who makes nice products, treats their employees right so they can live fulfilled lives, and that’s it. Don’t be ashamed of that! If that is what you authentically are, then changing that could be detrimental to your business objectives.

Let’s not forget that even though we prefer to be friends with people we trust (who are not fake, undependable, etc) we also love watching reality TV and celebrities who do not share those same characteristics. We are fascinated by those personal brands, and they are also authentic to themselves even if that means judging them by a different scale.

Give the people a choice

A brand can only participate in half of the battle, the other half has to come from the customer. A customer has to have the self-agency to deem your brand authentic. If you are trying to make the choice for them, by conforming to a common message or making a shaky emotional video, you’re not leaving them with that choice. You will often be rejected as a fraud.

The key takeaway here is that authenticity is a choice that the consumer has – either to believe you or not, and the more believable you are, in your consistency, your respect for customers, the more likely you are to gain this valuable aspect of brand equity.

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