Social Media

Don’t Fake it, Make It: Authenticity as a Core Value for Brands

January 31, 2013

Among my more athletic friends, few people are more reviled than the hordes of New Year’s resolvers that lined up at the nation’s gyms over the past few weeks. The disdain heaped upon these people was intense, and it came for one simple reason: however well intentioned, their commitment to fitness was inauthentic, and they were not genuine participants in the culture of the gym.

And as brands become more like people, the same standards are applied to marketers: cutting a check once a year to a charitable organization doesn’t make your brand altruistic, hiring an athletic spokesman doesn’t make you healthy, and planting a few trees doesn’t make you green.

It’s worth asking why brands should care about being authentic in the first place. There are real business consequences to authenticity and inauthenticity. The 2012 goodpurpose study noted that 53 percent of consumers surveyed claimed that a brand’s purpose was the most important purchase consideration when price and quality are equal.

The trends driving this consumer opinion are the issues already top-of-mind for many marketers. First, the 24/7 communications cycle means brands and the claims they make are under constant scrutiny. Second, the democratization of media means a consumer wanting to counter a brand’s claims can have an equal voice to that brand if the complaint is shared by the right people. And third, the rise of content marketing requires brands to not just have a single iteration of their message; marketers are now responsible for a 365-day editorial calendar that serves up daily material that’s fresh and new, but still faithful to the brand.

In practical terms, there are lots of brands claiming to be “extreme” from tortilla chips to alcohol to energy drinks. Some of them get some credit for sponsoring athletes. But only one of them sent a man into space to skydive 120,000 feet. And that brand, Red Bull, happens to be far and away the most successful, both in terms of share and in terms of equity.

Another great example of brand authenticity in action is Converse. By being the official shoe of the creative counterculture, Converse needs to walk a very fine line between leveraging that brand identity to move a product – not “selling out” and losing its coveted place on the feet of rock stars all over the world. To deliver on its commitment to creativity, Converse launched its “Rubber Tracks” program, which moves the brand from being music-adjacent to being an actual music producer.

For brands that want to build authenticity, here are a few guidelines to think about:

Build a purpose for the brand beyond selling: Without this, there’s no path to authenticity at all. Think about why your company sells what it sells. Are you obsessed with organizing information like Google? Do you have a motto similar to that of Nike’s, “If you have a body, you’re an athlete?” What can every employee at the company get behind?

Serve that purpose, independent of your advertising: Now that your brand has a purpose to serve, find ways to further that purpose in the real world. Build something, make something beautiful, do some research, or help somebody in need – and then share it with the world.

Don’t stop: Like the New Year’s resolvers at the gym, it’s easy to get started but hard to keep it up; and if you don’t keep it up, at best people will ignore you, and at worst you’ll get called out by a consumer who’s found your commitment to your purpose wanting. Plan how you’ll maintain your commitment year-round and reserve enough budget to make it realistic.

So at the end of the day, the test of a truly authentic brand is to ask whether or not you as a marketer believe in what it stands for. Or is it simply faking it to seemingly make it?

Cover photo via Flickr