Can a Brand Be "Authentic"? — Guest Post by Lippe Taylor and ShopPR President Jim Joseph
Whether communicating textually or visually, we need to choose our words carefully. No offense to any brand manager, CMO, or company President … especially those who are my clients. But I was in a planning session just recently, and yet again the most overused branding word of the moment kept coming up over and over again: authentic. If only I had a dollar for every time “authentic” comes up in a branding discussion. It’s definitely the marketing word du jour. It seems that every brand wants to say that it’s “authentic.”
I understand why. Consumer distrust since the economic fall out after 9/11 and the endless subsequent “scandals” has left consumers doubting what companies and brands say. Consumer skepticism of brands remains at an all time sustained high, and brands are trying desperately to overcome it. So every brand under the sun is claiming to be “authentic” or “real” or “trustworthy.” It makes it hard for the ones that really are.
Hence my frustration. Here we were brainstorming marketing platforms for a brand that really and truly is “authentic” (in virtually every sense of the word) and we can’t use the word. The word is losing its uniqueness for sure, but it’s also losing its believability, credibility, and well, authenticity. So we just can’t say it. It’s almost like saying you’re “authentic” means that you’re not. Like having to say you are “cool” really means that you’re trying too hard and therefore are far from it.
Some of the events of the last few weeks have not helped much.
Enter Paula Deen – a beloved brand by many with a clearly expressed brand experience. The brand (and yes, she is a brand) “suddenly” announces a health condition that she’s known for years that completely negates her brand values. And by the way, she is simultaneously announcing a deal with a pharmaceutical company linked with her health condition. The result? Paula Deen’s authenticity meter drops like a stone.
We’ve also got poor Barbie. The fifty-year old brand has had an active few years digitally where she has added a new career in computer engineering and even got back with Ken, thanks to her loyal social media following. Now a group of what I suspect are rather innocent moms lobbied online to have Mattel make a bald Barbie so that their little girls who are suffering through health crises could have something to identify and play with.
Seemed rather pure in the moment, but then the adults kicked in with all sorts of brand perceptions about Barbie, charity, and “pink” and it all went haywire. Issues of authenticity hijacked the debate as emotions ran high.
It’s sad because in a time where there is so much hype and media attention on the Kim Kardashians of the world, consumers really are searching for the truth-tellers and the ones who “do what they say.” Actions speak so much louder than words, but we still need to find the words!
Look at the brand o.b. Back in December, the brand apologized in social media, rather creatively, to great accolades. I’m not sure that many people even knew why the brand was apologizing, and I’m not sure that it mattered. They simply said that they were sorry. People like to be apologized to – they like to be acknowledged on some level. A little honesty, with some creativity thrown in, and the brand scored (without the word “authentic” anywhere to be seen).
So what’s a brand to do in order to be authentic?
First of all, be true to yourself. Know what you are and what you’re capable of – and state it clearly and consistently. Nothing more, nothing less, and skip all the buzzwords. Brands get themselves in trouble when they stretch outside of their skill set. If you have to stretch the truth, you can’t possibly be authentic with your actions.
Get to know your consumer. It’s imperative to understand the issues that make them tick, and what ticks them off. Stay within your areas of expertise and in areas that they consider to be acceptable – then you won’t have as many landmines to navigate.
Be honest. No brand or business is perfect and it’s impossible to be squeaky clean in every area of our business. It’s completely appropriate, especially in this era, to admit where you are still working to make progress. Honesty is the best policy, and will earn major authenticity points. It’s even better when you can map out a plan of action for how you are going to improve.
In the online video age, the commentary spreads even faster, making it even harder to be and stay authentic. So at the end of the day, is it possible for a brand to be authentic? Absolutely. But in actions, not words. And, of course, the most effective way to demonstrate or document those actions is with video. Just choose your words carefully, and remember that it’s a journey, not an end result.
About the Author: Jim Joseph, President of Lippe Taylor Brand Communications and ShopPR
Jim Joseph is an award winning marketing professional who has specialized in building consumer brands and agency businesses for over twenty years. He is the author of the award winning book The Experience Effect and most recently The Experience Effect for Small Business. He is a graduate of Cornell University and also holds an MBA from Columbia University. Jim has been featured in various broadcast and print publications including KYW-TV, the CW in Philadelphia and BrandWeek. He is currently the President and Partner of Lippe Taylor Brand Communications in New York City, an agency dedicated to marketing to women, and teaches two marketing classes at New York University. Clients include IKEA, David’s Bridal, Nestle, and Merck. He is also President of sister agency ShopPR. Prior to this, Jim worked his marketing magic transforming brands at Publicis Groupe and Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness. Prior clients include Kellogg’s, Kraft, Nestle, Cadillac, Tylenol, Clean & Clear, Aveeno, AFLAC, Ambien, and Walmart.