Brand authenticity — Keeping it real, honest, genuine and true.

by John Furgurson on April 28, 2010

I hate buzzwords. Every time a new marketing term shows up on the cover of a book I find myself having to translate the jargon into something meaningful for ordinary, busy business people.

Lately, it’s “Authenticity.” Seems “keeping it real” has become a household term. And a branding imperative.

In The New Marketing Manifesto John Grant says “Authenticity is the benchmark against which all brands are now judged.”

If that’s the case, we better have a damn good definition of what we’re talking about.

“Authentic” is derived from the Greek authentikós, which means “original.” But just being an original doesn’t mean your brand will be perceived as authentic. You could be an original phoney.

trust and brand authenticityMost definitions used in branding circles also include the words “genuine” and or “trustworthy.” In The Authentic Brand it’s defined this way: “Worthy of belief and trust, and neither false nor unoriginal — in short, genuine and original.”

I think it’s also useful to look at the philosophical definition of the word… “being faithful to internal rather than external ideas.”  In philosophy of art, “authenticity” describes the perception of art as faithful to the artist’s self, rather than conforming to external values such as historical tradition, or commercial worth.

The same holds true for brands.

The authentic ones are faithful to something other than just profits. They have a higher purpose, and they don’t compromise their core values in order to turn a quick buck.  They are the exception to the corporate rule.

The Brand Authenticity Index says, “At its heart, authenticity is about practicing what you preach; being totally clear about who you are and what you do best.” When a brand’s rhetoric gets out of sync with customers’ actual experiences, the brand’s integrity and future persuasiveness suffers.”

I think the general public believes that marketing — by definition— is not authentic. Guilty until proven innocent!  And if someone sniffs even a hint of corporate BS they’ll blog about it, post negative reviews and announce it to all 7,694 Facebook Friends.

Ouch.

In a 2004 Fast Company article, Bill Breen said “Consumers believe, until they’re shown otherwise, that every brand is governed by an ulterior motive: to sell something. But if a brand can convincingly argue that its profit-making is only a by-product of a larger purpose, authenticity sets in.”

Nobody ever starts a company with the goal of becoming an authentic brand. Think back to when Amazon, Starbucks, Nike and Apple were just startups.  They were all authentic in the beginning. Each had a core group of genuinely passionate people dead-set on changing the world in some little way. And that esprit de core set the tone for the brand to be.

Patrick Ohlin, on the Chief Marketer Blog, says “Brand authenticity is itself an outcome—the result of continuous, clear, and consistent efforts to deliver truth in every touch point.”

It’s a by-product of doing things well. Treating people right. Staying focused. And not getting too greedy.

“Companies are under pressure to prove that what they stand for is something more than better, faster, newer, more,” said Lisa Tischler in Fast Company. “A company that can demonstrate it’s doing good — think Ben & Jerry’s, or Aveda — will find its brand image enhanced. But consumers must sense that the actions are sincere and not a PR stunt.”

Add the word “sincerity” to the definition. Sincerely try to do something that proves you’re not just another greedy, Goldman Sax.

In the age of corporate scandals and government bailouts, not all authentic brands are honest. If your brand values revolve around one thing — getting rich — it’s pretty tough build a genuinely trustworthy brand in the eyes of the world.

Amway, for instance.

Amway has an army of “independent sales associates” out there luring people to meetings under pretense and spreading a message that says, essentially, “Who cares if you have no friends left. If you’re rich enough it won’t matter. We’ll be your friends.”

The front-line culture seems to revolve around wealth at any cost. Then there’s the corporate office trying to put a positive spin on the brand by running fluffy, product-oriented, slice-of-life commercials.

It’s a disconnect of epic proportions. But I digress.

Let’s assume you have a brand with a pretty good reputation for authenticity. How can you manage to maintain that reputation even when you’re growing at an astronomical rate?

Be clear about what you stand for. Communicate!

Your brand values need to be spelled out, on paper.  After all, your employees are your best brand champions and you can’t expect them to stay true to something they don’t even understand.

That’s one of the key services at my firm… we research and write the book on your brand. We craft the message and then help you communicate it internally, so all your managers, front-line employees and business partners are on the same page. Literally. It’s a tremendously helpful tool.

Underpromise and overdeliver.

Now here’s a concept CEOs can get a handle on. If you consistently exceed expectations, consumers will believe that your’re sincere and trust your brand. It’s a fundamental tenet of brand authenticity.  If you’re constantly disappointing people, it’s going to be tough.

Don’t try to be something you’re not.

Being authentic means staying focused and saying no once in a while. The more you diversify, extend your product line or tackle new target audiences, the better chance you have of alienating people.

In a down economy it’s always tempting for small businesses to branch out. You take on projects that are beyond your core competencies, because you can. People trust you. Then if things go south you lose some credibility. And without credibility there can be little authenticity.

Align your marketing messages with your brand.

You sacrifice authenticity when your marketing messages are not true to the company, its mission, culture and purpose.  You can’t be saying one thing, and doing something else.

Alignment starts with understanding. Understanding starts with communication. So figure out your core brand values, and then hammer those continuously with your marketing team. Every time they trot out a new slogan or campaign you can hold up that brand strategy document and ask, is this in line with our brand?

Be consistent.

Another way you lose that sense of brand integrity or authenticity is when you change directions too frequently. I’ve seen this in start-ups that have new technology, but no clear path to market. The company just blows with the wind, changing directions with every new investor who’s dumb enough to put up capital. There’s no brand there at all, much less an authentic one.

Lead by example

 

One of the best CEO clients I ever had was a master of management-by-walking-around. His authentic, soft-spoken demeanor worked wonders with his people. He was out there everyday, rallying the troops and reinforcing the brand values of the company.

So if you’re in charge, stay connected with your teams and don’t ask them to do something you wouldn’t do yourself. When sales, or  marketing or R & D starts working in a vacuum, you often end up with an authenticity drain.

Hire good PR people

Like it or not, the public’s sense of your brand authenticity often comes from what the press says.  For instance, BMW’s claim of being “the ultimate driving machine” is constantly reinforced by the automotive press in head-to-head comparisons with Audi and Mercedes. According to those authoritative sources, it’s not a bullshit line.

Which really is the bottom line on brand authenticity. Don’t BS people.

Tiny URL for this post:
 

{ 2 trackbacks }

Are You Branding Like It’s 1992? | Freeex Blog
August 25, 2012 at 12:55 am
Truth, Lies, and Advertising Honesty.
November 8, 2012 at 2:41 am

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Jill April 29, 2010 at 3:36 am

Great! Loved it! Can’t wait for more!

Andrew F Stewart May 11, 2010 at 2:54 pm

Great Article. We agree that a brand must be authenticity to be successful these days.
Our approach to branding creates brands that are authentic, simple, social and scalable.

We look forward to reading more.

http://www.distility.com/rebranding-branding/

http://twitter.com/1day1brand/

Chris Wren May 18, 2010 at 11:34 pm

What a wonderful article. I’m pleased to see you included the PR component would even extend that to include testimonials from customers and application/user stories.

Imad June 13, 2010 at 2:37 pm

that was nice end :
”Which really is the bottom line on brand authenticity. Don’t BS people.”

Dimas A.S. Mardjono June 16, 2010 at 8:33 am

Very nice article.

Those 7 points are surely impeccable. Especially, the first point “Be clear about what you stand for. Communicate!” Just forget the rest of the points if we cannot implement the very first one. But how do we do this?

I believe we could form sort of an organizing body, consisting of selected people within the company from each division, who can deliver a company’s brand strategy (vision, core value, core purpose, brand promise, etc) to Finance, HR, Sales, Marketing, After Sales, Communications, Purchasing, and any other divisions you may have.

Well that’s it. It’s a very nice to know about your perspective toward brand. Once again. Thank you for your nice article.

Kevin July 1, 2010 at 8:20 pm

Great post John-
The Bill Breen demi-quote, “profit-making is only a by-product of a larger purpose” is a great point.
I have shared this advice with my clients for years. Those who care about their relationships naturally convey their purpose; authenticity bleeds through and I believe they see a difference in their bottom lines as a result.
Thanks for taking such a tactical look at success through authenticity.

Megan Kent September 27, 2010 at 12:48 am

For millions of years, our brains have been hard-wired to detect suspicious behavior – which means that today, we’re expert at seeking out the credible and true. Humans are naturally drawn to authenticity in people and brands. Today’s expert brands will use their innate authenticity to fuel their brand offerings and behaviors to create an intuitively more credible and satisfying brand experience for their customers. I am focusing more and more on this notion of brand authenticity when consulting my clients.

Ronald c. Pruett, Jr. November 4, 2010 at 10:31 pm

I’ve just learned about your blog and found this article refreshing. Your now bookmarked!

Thaddeus George February 7, 2011 at 3:55 am

It is very interesting to have an insight into a logo designers universe. I have been attempting to establish my own brand and I am lucky enough to be working with a great Sydney based graphic design company, DPM Creative Group, and the experience has been great. Thanks for the information and the post, will definitely read more of what you got going on.

-thaddeus

Beanstalk October 20, 2011 at 2:10 pm

Thanks for this post. It is certainly important that a brand retain its true identity and remain authentic, especially when undertaking a new brand extension. Brand identities, however, do not emerge spontaneously, even when a company has a great product and internal culture–in order to foster a dynamic brand presence, great brand consulting is needed.

Rachel October 22, 2011 at 5:12 am

Who knew being authentic too so much work?

Tori November 29, 2011 at 7:58 pm

Thank you for the excellent article! This article has provided very valuable information regarding how to remain authentic, or sincere while constructing a brand. I also enjoy how this article is applicable not only to company brands but also to personal brands.

Rachel December 31, 2011 at 4:36 am

Excellent. I cannot agree enough. Brand authenticity may be the only thing that ensures brand longevity.

jay November 28, 2013 at 6:22 am

Excelent

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: