Content Strategy

What Do Consumers Really Want When They Ask for Authenticity from Brands?

By Kyle Harper on March 1, 2018

I often struggle to come up with an effective analogy for authentic versus inauthentic marketing, largely because I don't think many (if any) brands land entirely in one camp or another. The least authentic brands have something true to tell about themselves, while the most genuine brands still exist, at some level, to drive a transactional relationship. But within this spectrum, there is a huge amount of variation that can be hard to organize.

It's a complex relationship that reminds me of visiting two of my friends growing up. The first lived in a typical suburban home, raised by a mother who loved to collect ornate chinaware. Their kitchen, living room, and hallways were lined with shelves and hutches that displayed immaculate pieces from various periods and styles. Impressive to be sure, beautiful to look at, but always at a distance. I still love to join them for meals, and I enjoy reliving the funny feeling of my childhood that came from eating off regular dishes while surrounded by some of the finest dishware money can buy.

My other friend lived in the country, in a large colonial house with his Japanese grandparents. The first time I stayed overnight, they offered me cereal the next morning. As I ate and the milk level slowly fell, it revealed large cracks throughout the bowl that were filled with a dull yellow hue, almost like caulk. I asked if my bowl was broken.

"It was," my friend's grandmother explained, "so we fixed it with gold. It's how we turn broken things into art. But we still like to use them."

I'd come to find out years later that the practice was called kintsukuroi, or "golden repair," and it presented a dynamic that was wholly new to me. Rather than protecting expensive dishes, this family found ways to turn their broken dishes into their most prized, only to keep using them. It was a small thing that made me feel closer to them, trusted by them, even if only for breakfast.

A bowl repaired using Kintsugi.

What It Means to Be Authentic

These same dynamics happen, I think, when audiences engage with brands over time. Some brands place themselves behind glass, keeping their audiences at a distance that allows them to admire, but not to touch. It seeks above all to hide the cracks, to put forward its best face at all times. Meanwhile, other brands seek to put themselves into their audiences' hands, to create interactions rather than displays. They don't hide their cracks but rather seek to turn them into something beautiful. It is the difference between a brand telling others about themselves and brand storytelling that welcomes audiences into an experience.

This is a key difference that has become defining for so many content marketing teams today. Many of the institutions that people used to hold as trustworthy-particularly media and governmental institutions-have lost the faith of the public. So much so, in fact, that the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer Global Report found that brands are now considered nearly as trustworthy as NGOs and markedly more authentic in their communication than media and governmental agencies.

This presents a huge opportunity for brands, but one that also comes with a measure of risk. It's no longer enough to simply tell people what your brand is-in fact, direct avenues like advertising are seen by many consumers to come off as arrogant and harmful for brand trust. If your brand is going to successfully build any real, authentic relationship with customers in today's trust landscape, it's going to require an honest effort. Anything else leaves your brand open to repercussion and distrust from your target audience.

Achieving Authenticity

There is no single formula for authentic brand presentation. Every company will have different needs and goals based on the type of work they do and the sort of relationship they want to have with their audience. That said, however, there are guiding principles that can help your content marketing team think from an overall brand storytelling perspective and set your brand up for success.

Ask Yourself, "Is This Exploitive, or Can It Be Perceived as Exploitive?"

When you get down to it, trust versus distrust with brands comes down to whether your audience feels like you're trying to have a conversation with them or are simply trying to manipulate them into buying. This is why traditional advertising media are starting to see pushback today-it's hard to start or support a meaningful conversation in the span of thirty seconds.

I like to think of this relationship as a tale of two jams, or specifically Smucker's and Welch's. Both companies come from a vibrant history of family businesses with long-lasting relationships with their farmers and growers. It should be simple enough for both brands to translate these stories into a feeling of authenticity and quality for what they produce.

But each company's approach to authentic marketing was a bit different. Smucker's has a long history of running television spots that move quickly from family values to product, a sort of standard, sentimental format for direct advertising that today comes off more saccharine than anything else. It's truly a shame, because their website already has a style and format that would be perfect for expanded content experiences, but these opportunities have largely been relegated to one-paragraph summaries for now.

Welch's is also no stranger to the simple ad format. But these traditional tactics are also backed up by a lively content hub on their website that seeks to back up their claims by introducing visitors to Welch's farmers, and the co-ops that they operate. It creates a sense of trust and authenticity, partially by involving real people (rather than just speaking as a brand) but also by backing up any simple statements with a fuller experience. It's easy to find the substance behind Welch's marketing, while Smucker's seems to have some gaps where their history could be more actively explored.

A row of grapevines in a vineyard.

Image attribution: Mali Maeder

Consistency Over Timeliness

Timeliness is often considered a paramount attribute for quality content, but this is an idea that I want to push back on a bit. Timeliness and relevance are both important, but if in pursuit of timeliness your brand creates content that isn't within its normal wheelhouse, you're more likely to come across as opportunistic rather than authentic. It is better to establish an overall guiding content strategy and develop it over a long period, than to constantly restart your brand's content presence to try and reorient with the latest topics of the day.

This is a place where Welch's approach is also seen to have more strength and flexibility. Because their content has been built around longer-form stories of their farmers, it gives them room to explore and pivot between timely topics like sustainability, healthy eating, and simple living, because these topics appear naturally in their pieces.

Embrace Your Brand "Cracks"

Lastly, authenticity means being vulnerable as a brand, both with strengths and with failings. Knowing how to successfully turn a company hiccup into a growing experience, rather than relying on diversionary tactics, is an essential component of establishing long-term, authentic relationships with your audience.

For this approach to work, it often requires that your content team has a standing relationship with your company's PR team. This not only improves coordination but also encourages your brand to think about your public responses and releases as a longer-term matter, rather than a short-term effort. Brand storytelling isn't effectively achieved overnight but rather takes time, which means that for your brand to authentically speak mistakes will require a combined PR and content marketing effort.

Remaining Authentic Into the Future

Brand authenticity isn't a passé tactic; it is a fundamental way of thinking about your marketing in relation to your audience. Thankfully for content marketers, embracing useful content that tells a story is already a natural practice. But taking the extra step to talk about your brand even when it's hard to, or working to tell your brand's story over a long period even when it costs effort-this is where truly authentic brands will be able to stand out among the crowd, and win over lasting audiences.

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Featured image attribution: Benjamin Davies


Kyle Harper

Kyle Harper is a writer, editor, and marketer who is passionate about creative projects and the industries that support them. He is a human who writes things. He also writes about things, around things, for things, and because of things. He's worked with brands like Hasbro, Spotify, Tostitos, and the Wall Street Journal, as well as a bunch of cool startups. The hardest job he's ever taken was the best man speech for his brother's wedding. No challenge is too great or too small. No word is unimportant. Behind every project is a story. What's yours?