Oh, Mary

Authenticity? Let’s Get Real

September 9, 2019
Melanie Wilhoite

For years the big brand buzzword we’ve been hearing is “authenticity.”  “Authenticity” means genuine, real, or true.  But what is “real and true” when your brand is a thing?  I have a fairly sensitive B.S. detector and I think most consumers do too.  So let’s get real.  By definition an invented brand story cannot be authentic.  Unless your brand – and that goes for your personal brand, too – is genuinely and truly whatever you say it is, it can’t be authentic no matter how hard marketing tries to sell it.  Sometimes brands don’t need to try so hard to be “authentic,” they just need to tell a great product story.

There are plenty of examples of companies and brands marketing from a place of authenticity and doing well by it. I like knowing that Starbucks is committed to increasing diversity in its workforce and is taking concrete steps to do so in its locations around the world.  I like that Coca-Cola is committed to reducing the carbon emissions of its distribution operation and is investing in electric vehicles to deliver beverages.  And when I remove my mascara with Johnson & Johnson Q-tips, I’m happy knowing that the company has a huge focus on reducing their impact on the planet. 

Knowing that these companies are doing right by issues I care about might not make me buy more coffee, soda, or Q-tips than I otherwise might, but it certainly keeps me from buying less.  Cracker Barrel officially ended its policy against hiring LGBT people in 1991, and I still won’t set foot in a Cracker Barrel restaurant.  It’s a trust thing. 

The authenticity term became fashionable in marketing as consumers grew to see advertising as self-promotion designed to manipulate product perception. In the wake of oil spills (Exxon), arctic drilling , fraud (Enron), corporate bailouts (Chrysler), sub-prime lending (Washington Mutual, Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns), corporate anti-choice/anti-LGBTQ discrimination (MillerCoors), etc. etc., businesses came to be seen by many as villains out to enrich themselves at the expense of people and planet. Trust went down the tubes. Companies decided to play the caring card, some genuine and others arguably not, as a way to curry favor toward company and brand. 

Creating and marketing a brand story around genuine ideals is not something to do lightly, and while it may fall to the marketing department to tell that story, it won’t be as successful as possible without leadership buy-in and commitment to aligning company actions around it.  There are many automobile manufacturers around the world but some, like Ford for instance, can legitimately tell a story of global sustainability because they are actively developing fuel efficient or alternative energy powered vehicles. That takes a great deal of leadership and employee commitment that reaches far beyond marketing.

If your company or product doesn’t strive to live up to authentic ideals or have the understanding or wherewithal to commit to living that kind of story every day, that’s ok.  Focus on building a sound business.  Offer great products and services at fair prices.  Do no harm.  Have a conscience. Be on the right side of history.  Tell those stories.  Your customers will purchase your offer because it’s good.  They’ll keep coming back because the company is.