What is brand authenticity (and how do you build it)?
Consumers are losing brand trust – they're searching for authenticity, but are coming up short. Here's how to win back their hearts by getting real.
Consumers are losing faith in brands. Research shows brand trust is at an all-time low, largely due to a new generation of consumers — Gen Z and Millennials — who demand brand authenticity; something that’s not all that common today. When your customers don’t trust you, they start looking for brands they can. But it is possible to win back your place in consumers’ hearts. In an age of skepticism, consumers are seeking brand authenticity and purpose. They want to make the world better, and they’ll give their trust and brand loyalty to companies that help them do it.
What is brand authenticity?
Brand authenticity refers to the degree to which a brand's marketing and messaging align with the reality of its products, values, and actions.
An authentic brand is transparent, consistent, and genuine in its communication and behavior, which helps build trust and loyalty with its customers. It involves creating a brand image that is rooted in reality rather than in idealized or aspirational marketing.
What makes a brand authentic?
When it comes to building a successful brand, authenticity is one of the most critical factors. Authenticity is what sets a brand apart from its competitors and creates a strong connection with its customers. But what exactly makes a brand authentic? In this article section, we will discuss some key elements that contribute to the authenticity of a brand.
Consistency: A brand that is consistent in its messaging, values, and visuals is more likely to be seen as authentic. Customers appreciate brands that stay true to their identity and don't try to be something they're not. Whether it's through social media, advertising, or other marketing efforts, a consistent brand image helps to build trust and credibility.
Transparency: Customers appreciate honesty and transparency from the brands they support. Brands that are open about their practices, values, and shortcomings are more likely to be seen as authentic. Whether it's admitting to mistakes or sharing behind-the-scenes glimpses into the brand's operations, transparency helps to build trust and credibility.
Customer-centricity: Brands that prioritize their customers' needs and desires are more likely to be seen as authentic. By actively listening to and responding to customer feedback, brands can build strong relationships with their audience. When a brand puts its customers first, it creates a sense of authenticity and trust that can lead to long-term loyalty.
Storytelling: Authentic brands often have a compelling story to tell. Whether it's the story of how the brand was founded or the journey it has taken to get where it is today, storytelling can create an emotional connection with customers. When a brand shares its story in an honest and authentic way, it can help to build trust and credibility.
Purpose: Brands that have a clear purpose or mission beyond just selling products or services are more likely to be seen as authentic. When a brand is driven by a higher purpose, such as making a positive impact on the world or helping to solve a problem, it can create a sense of authenticity and meaning that resonates with customers.
Quality: An authentic brand must deliver quality products or services. Customers expect brands to live up to their promises and provide high-quality experiences. When a brand consistently delivers quality, it can create a sense of authenticity and trust that can lead to long-term loyalty.
Differentiation: All of the above-mentioned topics are part of making your brand unique. They’re all differentiators, helping your audience (or target audience) spot you in the crowd. Brand differentiation also allows you to become, and stay, recognizable. And since no one trusts a copy, brand differentiation often goes hand in hand with brand authenticity.
There are several key elements that contribute to the authenticity of a brand. Consistency, transparency, customer-centricity, storytelling, purpose, quality, and differentiation are all important factors that can help to build trust and credibility with customers. By focusing on these elements, brands can create a strong sense of authenticity that sets them apart from their competitors and creates long-term loyalty with their audience.
But it’s still important to remember that these keys to brand authenticity also need to be just that; authentic. It’s easy to get carried away, chasing an “authentic expression” which is actually just internally perceived, or not at all true; simply wishful thinking or projections. Selective, or faux, authenticity can be just as harmful as not investing time in authenticity at all. Because just like with branding as a whole; if you just cherry pick positives, forgetting about what makes your brand human, you could end up looking fake. And that leads to trust issues from both employees and consumers alike.
Why is brand authenticity important?
Ninety percent of consumers said they’re looking for authenticity when deciding what brands they’ll support. They want brands to have real conversations about what’s happening in the world, but the same report shows that consumers believe less than half are doing it. And it’s having an impact.
The latest Gustavson Brand Trust study found trust had declined for almost all brands. It discovered, “while trust in key institutions has been eroding significantly over the past few years, the average brand trust scores for all brands surveyed in 2020 are at an all-time low.” And it’s making consumers more conscious about what they buy and from whom.
Building brand trust used to mean making a good product at a reasonable price. But now, people want more. Edelman’s Trust Barometer 2020 found 64% of today’s customers are belief-driven buyers. They think brands “can be a powerful force for change,” and they use their wallets like votes to support the ones willing to take a stand.
Consumers need brand authenticity not just for trust, but for community — a way to identify themselves with a problem or a cause, whether global or local, and have real impact through the brands that fight for it. This is why it’s not just in brands’ best interest — from a customer loyalty POV — to maintain an authentic brand: it’s also a huge competitive advantage for companies looking to build connections and a bigger audience.
In short: For marketers who want to win today's consumers' votes, it's time to get real about where you stand.
Younger generations demand brand authenticity
Millennials and Gen Z are an army of 139 million people who want authentic brands that support their values. In the last few years, with the rise of these younger generations, we’ve seen a change in what brands mean to people.
At Paradigms 2022, Brian Collins of COLLINS talked about this exact shift. Declaring that, ”nowadays, brands now need to constantly ask themselves two questions; how are we authentic and true to ourselves, and how are we relevant?”
Millennials are looking for real and organic
When did making a good product and creating an aspirational ad campaign stop being the magic formula for success? The tide started turning for brands with Millennials. Born between 1981 and 1996, they are the largest generation, and they don’t really trust anyone.
Millennials pursued higher education because it was supposed to be a path to a good life. But what they got instead was crushing student loan debt. So, while they’re the “most educated and productive” generation, wages haven’t budged in 44 years, but their living expenses have increased. The result: They’re worse off than their parents, and it’s made them skeptical of institutions and brands.
This means Millennials aren’t buying. They’re searching. Like Agent Fox 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 want “real and organic,” not “perfect and packaged.”
In a more recent campaign, Dove also made an incredible nod to brand authenticity in a user-generated content campaign under the hashtag #ShowUs. They looked to their audience of women and non-binary individuals to share their own imagery over social media to help “redefine beauty on their own terms” — and the impact was huge; collecting 5,000 photographs of 179 people, from 39 countries.
When it comes to marketing to Millennials, 83% want companies to have the same values as they do, 76% want CEOs to speak out on issues they care about, “and 62% favor products that show off their political and social beliefs” in their messaging.
Gen Z is the “true gen”
For Generation Z, brand authenticity matters even more. There are 67 million in this generation, born between 1997 and 2012. By 2026, they will outnumber Millennials, and their behaviors revolve around their search for truth.
As a recent McKinsey report found:
Gen Zers value individual expression and avoid labels. They mobilize themselves for a variety of causes. They believe profoundly in the efficacy of dialogue to solve conflicts and improve the world. Finally, they make decisions and relate to institutions in a highly analytical and pragmatic way. That is why, for us, Gen Z is ‘True Gen.’
It’s also the first true digital generation. But however many brands around the world like to pat themselves on the back, saying they’re now “fully digitized,” is often just true in the eyes of earlier generations. Gen Z expects digitalization in a whole new way; they even see their identity (as well as brands’ identities) directly linked to their digital world. This means that brands are not just expected to deliver a fully digital experience, but one that also communicates their human, purpose-driven brand through that digital channel, too.
When it comes to marketing to True Gen, they “prefer brands that are authentic.” They say they trust brands that use real people in their advertising and are more likely to buy from those that support social causes. They’re also quick to stop buying brands they think are racist, homophobic, or macho.
The rise of generational branding: Marketing that outlives recessions
This generation’s take on consumerism, looking for authenticity and a brand promise when making their buying decisions, has an almost democratic effect on business. It doesn’t just open up opportunities for Fortune 500 companies, with massive resources and deep pockets; this is also a massive opportunity for smaller companies that rely almost exclusively on their brand, and word of mouth, to be noticed. Because successful branding — if done right — is free.
If a brand is able to deliver on a promise, big or small, that helps build consumer trust. For a generation that makes their buying decisions based on just that — trust — this means everything. If companies are able to spend their resources on building brand trust, they’ll see an incredible ROI compared to traditional marketing. In an economic downturn as expected after years of pandemic and war in Europe, where marketing dollars are subsequently low (as well as the consumers’ buying power) this generational approach to marketing, pushing an authentic brand instead, could be the difference between a business staying afloat or going under.
Examples of brand authenticity
So, which brands are offering the authentic branding these purpose-driven consumers are seeking?
Aerie gets real about body positivity
American Eagle Outfitters is a global clothing, accessories, and personal care retailer. Its brand purpose is to “show the world that there’s REAL power in the optimism of youth.” Brand leaders knew if they wanted to grow Aerie, its intimate apparel sub-brand, it needed to get real — very real.
The answer was #AerieREAL, a campaign that launched in 2014 with the promise to start using real women instead of supermodels and to stop digitally altering models and promote body positivity and inclusivity. Aerie’s models come in different shapes, sizes, and skin colors and are shown with beauty marks and tattoos.
This focus on realness is paying off for Aerie. As reported in early 2020, the brand had “announced its 28th consecutive quarter of double-digit sales growth.”
Meanwhile, its main competitor, Victoria’s Secret, a brand known for marketing supermodels with intense diet and exercise programs, is declining. This May, the company announced it would close a quarter of its stores.
Nike shows the value of believing in something
After six years with the San Francisco 49ers, Colin Kaepernick’s NFL career ended in 2016. It resulted from the controversy around his kneeling during the national anthem to protest “police shootings of African-American men and other social injustices faced by black people in the United States.”
Then, two years later, on the 30th anniversary of the “Just Do It” tagline, he sent a tweet that said, “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything. #JustDoIt” Shortly after, Nike dropped the full commercial.
Fast Company said it “lit up the cultural discourse” like no other ad.
“People loved it. People hated it. People bought Nikes. People burned Nikes. People talked about it at home, at work, on the news. Everywhere.”
It touched on America’s biggest fault lines of “race, patriotism, sports, and business.” And as a marketing piece, “it helped galvanize those who had been preaching the word ‘purpose’ already for years. That in a post-2016 world, brands—and subsequently their advertising—can’t afford to be neutral.”
Nike’s founder Phil Knight says, sometimes you have to take a stand because “It doesn’t matter how many people hate your brand as long as enough people love it.”
It must have made an authentic connection with consumers because the brand got “$163 million in earned media, a $6 billion brand value increase, and a 31% boost in sales.”
Don't pretend there's not a problem in America. Don't turn your back on racism. Don't accept innocent lives being taken from us. Don't make any more excuses. Don't think this doesn't affect you. Don't sit back and be silent. Don't think you can't be part of the change. Let's all be part of the change.
Data on the ad showed consumers “16-49, found the spot Empowering (more Empowering than 98% of all ads).”
Patagonia gets political for the planet
When Yvon Chouinard founded his outdoor apparel company Patagonia in 1973, he wanted to build a business for people who shared his interest in protecting nature. In 1986, he committed 1% of sales or 10% of profits to environmental activism, and in 1996, the brand switched to organic cotton.
In recent years, the company began improving its sustainability by developing its recycled cotton, down, and cashmere since “we are not going to have a virgin supply chain forever because we are running out of resources.” It also started a venture fund to support eco-friendly startups, launched a food company to support organic regenerative agriculture, and set a goal to be carbon neutral by 2025.
It’s even had some interesting marketing tactics, like running an ad leading up to Christmas with the message “Don’t Buy This Jacket.” The intent was to “help consumers change their behavior for the better by encouraging them to make more considered purchases” and get them to sign up for The Common Threads Initiative, a program that asks people to only buy what they need.
In the past couple of years, Patagonia has ramped up its environmental efforts by wading into politics. It supported two U.S. Senate candidates, Jacky Rosen and incumbent Senator Jon Tester, who both won their 2018 midterm elections. It has also donated over $100 million to grassroots environmental activists.
Patagonia CEO Rose Marcario said she understands some brands might be “kind of nervous to step out there” when it comes to big issues, but she also found that companies that take a stance “consistent with their values are rewarded for doing it.”
And Fast Company says the brand grows “every time it amplifies its social mission.”
The last decade has been the best for Patagonia’s business. The company has quadrupled its revenue. Marcario says Patagonia’s environmental stance has drawn more young people to the brand because “they recognize the climate crisis in a much different way.”
How to create authentic branding
If you're looking to build your brand with purpose, here are some steps to get you started creating more authentic branding.
- Be genuine. Building a better bottom line might compel you to take a stand but don’t do it just for the sake of a marketing message. That’s inauthenticity, and if consumers don’t think you’re living up to your stance, you’ll lose their trust and might not get it back. While we understand the desire to be bold and avoid vanilla positioning, it’s better to be neutral than disingenuous.
- Include your employees. If you aren’t sure what values to build your brand on, poll your employees. Ask them what value systems are important to them and what core values they think the company operates on. Build these values into your brand story. After you’ve set your values, hire employees who support them. For example, Patagonia works hard to hire people who support its mission of saving the Earth.
- Get your CEO involved. Edelman's Trust Barometer found 92% of people think their company's CEO must lead and speak out on issues, including diversity, income inequality, climate change, and immigration.
- Be prepared for controversy. Taking a stand can build brand love, but it can also create brand hate. After all, while they weren’t its target audience, some people burned Nike shoes after the Colin Kaepernick ad. And when Gillette tried to take a stand against toxic masculinity, it got backlash and boycotts.
- Feature user-generated content. A study of U.S., UK, and Australian consumers found they’re “2.4x more likely to say UGC is most authentic, when compared to brand-created content.” And Aerie has won with UGC on social media by sharing un-retouched user-generated photos from influencers and people who include #AerieReal.
- Be consistent. If you take a stand, stick to it. Authentic brands are clear about what they stand for and uncompromising in their convictions. They aren’t swayed by petty insecurities, fickle public opinion, or fleeting fads. Make your values part of your brand identity and your brand promise. Be consistent because brand consistency leads to growth.
Brand authenticity and your bottom line
As successful brands like Nike, Dove, Aerie, and Patagonia show, taking a stand and having values built into your marketing strategies can benefit your bottom line. It helps build consumer trust, and when consumers fully trust a brand, they’re “more likely to buy from them first, stay loyal, become advocates and defend the brand.” Meanwhile, lost trust causes lost revenue. Accenture found 54% of companies they studied that lost trust stood to lose at least $180 billion.
Today, the world's biggest brands use brand management software to stay on top of the game. Look at companies like Uber, KIA, and Vacasa to see how they build brand authenticity at scale. So, when it comes to authenticity, brands should follow Nike’s advice and, well, just do it.