You can’t enter a marketing meeting or industry conference today without hearing “authenticity” touted as the thing we all need to be strategizing, building, and designing for. But what is authentic marketing? What do authentic brands look like, and how do they achieve this coveted characteristic?
I conducted a quick poll of my friends to see what brands they thought were authentic and why. Unsurprisingly, I got a wide range of responses. People were hesitant and uncertain, tossing out examples from Porsche to Patagonia to Five Guys.
The characteristics that define authenticity were as wide-ranging as the brand examples. One person valued product quality, history, heritage, and loyalty. Another valued strong alignment with their target audience and a “lifestyle” orientation. And another friend valued small, family-owned, minimally marketed, and imperfect brands. Some people gave answers and then retracted them, wavering on how they’d define authenticity even for themselves. One person said it would depend on the context.
The poll generated a lot of disagreement and even more frustration about how too many brands are pandering to be viewed as symbols of authenticity—and in the end, achieving the exact opposite.
Image attribution: Christina Boemio
It turns out that building authentic brands is not as easy as applying a formula to your marketing efforts. Research indicates that brands need to understand how and when audiences’ perceptions of authenticity differ and change.
A study published in the Journal of Consumer Research found that individuals differ on what they consider authentic characteristics of a brand, ultimately judging a brand’s authenticity based on what the researchers called consumer identity goals.
Consumer identity goals are people’s idealized images of themselves. According to the researchers, people have three primary identity goals:
Depending on which of these goals they’re pursuing, individuals choose different brands. One brand that may be viewed as authentic when pursuing a desire for connection may seem inauthentic in the eyes of that same person when they are pursuing a desire for control. So not only do people differ in what they consider authentic, their opinions are also context dependent. Therefore, a single person may change their mind depending on what their current identity goal looks like at a particular moment in time.
No wonder it’s so difficult to figure out a single authenticity model—there isn’t one.
This study challenged my own assumptions about what makes a brand authentic. Participants found authenticity in unlikely sources, from fast food companies to cigarette manufacturers. Even self-described environmentalists seemed to be able to find authenticity in automobile brands selling SUVs when evaluating them in the right context.
According to the authors, “Authenticity is not necessarily an objective feature of an object, or conferred to things by authorities or based on the passing of time. Nor is it applicable only to small or anti-establishment brands, such as Ben and Jerry’s or Snapple. Instead, authenticity is generated by the consumer, often in highly creative and unexpected ways.”
Image attribution: Rian Adi
While in some ways these findings open up more questions than answers, there are several important takeaways for brands from this broadening discussion on authenticity.
Rather than assume you know what qualities your audience will find authentic, ask them specifically. Conduct focus groups where you can dig into the complexities behind questions like: In what contexts are you looking for these particular characteristics from a brand? What goals are you hoping brands may help you accomplish? What characteristics would you consider most authentic from our brand?
Narrow down your focus to one specific consumer identity goal: control, connection, or virtue. The research found that these three goals when viewed together don’t always produce congruent opinions of authenticity. Sticking to a single focus in your marketing will help strengthen perceptions of your authentic message.
Image attribution: Harry Quan
In his opening keynote from Skyword’s Forward 2018 conference, Paul Alexander, chief marketing officer of Eastern Bank, explained that you should aim to live your values rather than trying to please every single person who encounters your brand.
Eastern Bank’s recent “Join Us for Good” campaign, focused on social justice in local communities, received largely positive responses—but some 20 percent, Alexander estimated, disliked the campaign for pushing an openly progressive message. Rather than apologize or alter the campaign to please this disgruntled segment, Alexander instead chose to view these results as a success.
You can’t please everyone all the time, so don’t try to be perfect. Building and strengthening authenticity is about sticking to your guns and being true to your brand’s values over time.
We already know that our audiences are highly suspicious of marketing tactics. So if you’re seeking to build authenticity, you have to go about it authentically. If you want to emphasize that you’re a local brand that’s all about people, use real people instead of actors in your marketing campaigns. If you want to reflect real people’s opinions, have them express those opinions in a natural way. Wealthsimple successfully used this unscripted approach when creating 50 short films for their “Investing for Humans” campaign.
Authenticity looks very different for different brands. If you’re a big, well-established company, emphasizing authenticity via your heritage and product quality may ring truer for your audience than trying to appeal to mom-and-pop family-owned values. Recognize that there are certain appeals to authenticity that aren’t appropriate for your brand or the context in which you operate.
Since perceptions of authenticity vary so much with individual and situational factors, we need to move away from the idea that authenticity is a single concept that can be defined and applied to all kinds of marketing. Authenticity is more like an operational roadmap that asks us to reflect on our brands’ core values and move forward on our own individual paths.
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Featured image attribution: William Stitt