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The Age of Authenticity: Why Brands Need to Get Real

Updated 4 years ago by Roger Dudler

In an era where consumer trust has plummeted across all industries, honesty and authenticity have emerged as the attributes that matter most. Consumers, more than ever before, are holding brands to a higher standard. They are looking for more than price, quality and convenience. Sure, they want value for their money. But they also want values.

The consumer landscape is undergoing a seismic shift and, for brands, things are about to get real.

Very real.

An international survey by Cohn & Wolfe found that 87% of global consumers felt that it was important for brands to “act with integrity at all times,” ranking authenticity above innovation (72%) and product uniqueness (71%) when asked what they valued most in a brand.

So how do we explain this shift in the consumer psyche? In a word: Millennials.

In Pursuit of Reality: The Millennial Mandate

With $200 billion in annual spending power, and representing nearly a quarter of the American population, Millennials are fast-becoming the most powerful and influential consumer sector. They set buying trends across all industries, and have great influence over older generation consumers. Brands who are either unable, or uninterested in connecting with Millennials should just take a seat on the bench now. If you’re not reaching Millennials, you’re not in the game.

And the first thing that brand managers need to understand is that traditional advertising does not impact Millennials. At all.

Let that sink in for a minute.

To reiterate: Consumer studies show that less than 1% of Millennials respond to or are influenced by traditional advertising.

Hyper-connected, socially-informed and knowledge-driven, Millennials are deeply suspicious of being sold to. Gone are the days when image was everything. Now ‘image’ is suspect: photo-shopped, filtered. Messaging is crafted, scripted and spun into fool’s gold.

And Millennials aren’t buying.

They’re searching.

Like Mulder and his search for truth; like Indy and his search for the Lost Ark, Millennials are relentless and obsessive in their quest for authenticity. They are all about pulling back the curtain, going backstage, hanging out in the green room, viewing the raw footage. They want to hear what’s said when the tape stops rolling.

In other words, they want the real story.

And smart brands are giving it to them.

Take for example is Olay’s Behind the Beauty campaign which feature behind-the-scenes footage and candid interviews with celebrities before they are ‘made-up and camera-ready’—just real people talking about their daily skin care routine.

But it is not enough for brands to be candid. They must also be good citizens.

Millennials may be voracious consumers but they are not shallow. Nor are they selfish. In fact market research indicates that Millennials are 50% more likely to purchase from a company that supports a cause. And they LOVE brands that stand for more than the bottom line.

Just ask Patagonia. The company’s public advocacy and support for ecological sustainability earned it LOTS of brand love—to the tune of $600 million in revenue.

On the flip-side, Volkswagen’s betrayal of their environmentally-conscious customer base will likely end up costing that company around $30 billion. (Whether they ever regain customer trust and loyalty remains to be seen.)

For brands, it’s a “put-up-or-shut-up” moment of reckoning. Millennials are calling everyone’s bluff. And they have the social influence, information, and buying power to do it. The message to brands is clear: If you’re going to talk the talk, you better walk the walk.

So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that, in a recent survey by ad agency Moosylvania, Millennials voted Nike--with its ‘Just do it’ tagline--as their #1 Favourite Brand.

Traits of Authenticity

So what is authenticity? Honesty? Transparency? Integrity?

Yes. Yes. And yes.

But it is more than that. Brand Authenticity is greater than the sum of its parts. It is a package of core values, yes—but it is also the degree to which a company internalizes those values, and integrates them into its mission, vision and daily operations.

Here are some trademark traits of an authentic brand:

  • Honesty
  • Integrity
  • Transparency
  • Consistency/Reliability
  • Vision
  • Individuality/Uniqueness
  • Expertise
  • Passion
  • Empathy/Social Awareness

An authentic brand knows what it stands for, and why it exists. It knows where it came from, and where it is going. It has clarity of vision, and a driving passion. From a brand management standpoint, building an authentic brand may seem like a monumental task, but it can be broken down into manageable tasks and a few key strategies.

Five Strategies for Building an Authentic Brand

#1. Take time to build relationships. Consumer trust doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time. Building brand authenticity is about playing the long game. Cultivate relationships. Grow your story. Let people get to know you—and put in the effort to get to know them. Find your place in the community—and become part of it. Get involved. Become culturally relevant. Give back. And demonstrate to your customers that you’re in this together, for the long haul--and you’re not going to let them down.

#2. Be Consistent. Make sure your brand story, values, and actions are aligned at every level and across every platform. Any significant change or deviation from the ‘core story’ –especially if it occurs without warning or precedent—can seriously damage your brand’s authenticity and shake consumer trust. Identify and consolidate your brand guidelines in a Style Guide, and use it as a road-map for all messaging, strategy, and actions.

#3 Have a conversation. Authentic brands don’t just talk about themselves, and they don’t just broadcast messages. They listen and engage. They invite input, share interesting and useful information, respond to questions, acknowledge advice, are generous with their time, and personal in their outreach. It is worth noting that 83% of consumers say they like it when a brand responds to them on social media. So keep the conversation going. (And remember: a sales pitch is not a conversation.)

#4. Stay true to your values. When it comes to their moral, social and corporate values, authentic brands hold the bar high. They are very clear about what they stand for and uncompromising in their convictions. They are not swayed by petty insecurities, fickle public opinion or fleeting fads. They are the champions of their cause and the standard in their category. They are the pillar of the influence and integrity that other brands aspire to.

#5. Be honest and transparent. Never before have brands—and people—faced such intense public scrutiny as they do today. There is no hiding from the collective eye. In such times—and as it has always been—honesty is the best policy. Authentic brands are those brave enough to own their mistakes, and make amends when necessary. This sort of transparency is crucial to building brand authenticity, from a customer perspective. Jill Dumain, Patagonia’s Director of Environmental Strategy, explains it this way:

“[Consumers think] ‘I trust what you tell me about the good, because you’re willing to tell me about the bad.”

Authenticity and the Bottom Line

To sum up, authenticity is a quality that no brand can afford to ignore. Even apart from its intrinsic moral value, authenticity

  • Delivers a huge ROI
  • Drives consumer loyalty
  • Creates brand ambassadors and fans
  • Increases profit margins
  • Generates organic reach, positive buzz and shareable content
  • Boosts customer spending

All of which is to say, that when it comes to authenticity, brands should follow Nike’s advice and just do it.

Does ‘brand authenticity’ matter to you? Do you have a favourite ‘authentic brand’? Share your thoughts with us in the comment section below.

Roger Dudler

Founder & CEO

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