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The Age of Authenticity: Why Brands Need to Get Real

Updated 1 month ago

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. And 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.

Your brand’s authenticity is more important than ever. 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.

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.

Millennials Are Looking for Real & 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.”

They’re why Dove’s 2004 Campaign for Real Beauty, which used real women instead of models, became so successful and was named the Best U.S. Campaign of the Past 20 Years.

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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.’”

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.

Examples of Authentic Brands

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.

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Aerie also became the “first national retailer to sponsor the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA).”

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.

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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.”

More recently, Nike took another purpose-driven stand four days after the death of George Floyd. It posted a text-only video, this time with the message, “For once, Don’t Do It.”

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“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

Outdoor apparel brand Patagonia says it’s in business “to save our home 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.

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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 & Your Bottom Line

As successful brands like Nike, 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.

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

Oskar Duberg

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