The question of authentic authenticity

6 August 2020

Marketing Strategy

What is ‘authenticity’, especially in the today's digital world? And how do we judge something as authentic?

Sharing with us insights from her marketing PhD thesis, our Consumer Strategist Maree Lockie dives into the topic of authenticity; asking the important question of "how is authenticity won and lost by brands in today's online world?".

From Maree Lockie's PhD thesis “In Vlogs We Trust: Consumer Trust in Blog and Vlog Content”.

Authenticity is one of those words thrown around so much that the word itself is becoming disingenuous. It's overused at a superficial level, and often not fully understood; its importance is noted by many consumers, but it's often difficult to verbalise. What is ‘authenticity’, especially in an online environment and how do consumers perceive that something is authentic? It all falls into a blurry space that makes it both necessary and somewhat difficult to understand.

Authenticity is a perception of reality

For brands and organisations, authenticity is a subtle art of demonstrating that your purpose and promise are tangible, real and genuine – and in a world increasingly fragmented and intangible, this is increasingly important. Authenticity is built on identifiable uniqueness, scarcity and consistency, as well as showing you have a history or can stand the test of time. Today, this creates rarity and stability in a brand. 

When people perceive authenticity, they are accepting what is presented and communicated as real; it is not just a feeling of attachment. But it's because authenticity is a perception of reality, brands can and often do come unstuck – intentionally or not, brands selling inauthentic authenticity are set up for a fall.

Your authenticity is co-created with consumers

We all see the world through our own eyes, so reality is in fact just our own personal reality; we all have different likes and dislikes, tastes, and preferences. So, perceptions of authenticity work the same way; what may be seen to be authentic to one person may not be to another. Authenticity is only as real as it is perceived to be – and this is important as this makes our consumers co-creators of authenticity. What your customers perceive as authentic may be very different to your competitor's customers.

In a world that increasingly demands and expects genuineness, where the goalposts for authenticity are constantly shifting and elevating, the pressure for brands to be perceived as authentic can in fact become a springboard for inauthentic behaviour. We may fear our brand's authentic self is becoming unpopular, so we attempt to add new layers to our narrative. We may identify a new target customer with different needs, creating new brand narratives to drive appeal. Or, in a quest to maintain relevance, we may evolve our brand narrative completely and abandon long-held stories; all at the risk of alienating our loyal customers. Simply put, chasing authenticity can quickly lead to perceived insincerity and inauthentic behaviour. Perhaps the most famous recent example of this is the Pepsi Kendall Jenner advertisement in 2017...

Charles M. Blow boycott Pepsi tweet

The rewards of authenticity are worth the costs

We see time and again, the consequences of being found to be disingenuous are dire – as illustrated by today’s “cancel culture”. Trust can be destroyed if discovered to be inauthentic – and destroying trust is a lot easier than building it. Although remaining authentic to a brand's truths, history and customers does not come without challenges, it allows for a stance to be taken and name to be made. A truly authentic image can be slow to build, become expensive to deliver, or even limit appeal to some customers; its consuming and requires effort and resources to show consumers that we are just like them – human. It comes at a cost.

But the benefits of building true authenticity can be reaped for long after it is built – e.g. Patagonia, AllBirds, Ben & Jerry's and Warby Parker - all live their purpose driven roots. In NZ, Whittaker’s remained steadfast to their product quality values and grew in the face of competitors cutting price. Globally, KFC has held the line on indulgence despite the obvious temptation to appease the wellbeing trend.

Authenticity is key to online success

Online, social influencers illustrate authenticity well. They build their authentic image through self-disclosure; often offering up parts of their deeply personal lives (families, homes, struggles), all to show their audiences that they too are human. 

Influencers have thrived off of it – whether it is true authenticity, or just a well-presented image of it; but it’s the latter that has seen eroding relevance of influencers today. Their authenticity is illustrated and built from their environment and content. From filming a video for YouTube in their lounge (…a lounge just like their audience has), to snapping a photo for Instagram in their kitchen (…a kitchen just like their audience has). The importance of authenticity, in a marketing sense, can be seen in the immense trust consumers have (or had) for these social influencers. In a world that is increasingly fake, authenticity and realness are key to grabbing consumer attention.

Content brought to consumers from a real, relatable environment helps to break the fourth wall - making consumers feel the influencer is talking directly to them, and bringing the real into what is normally fictitious.

Influencers build their authentic image through self-disclosure
Influencers build their authentic image through self-disclosure

Trying and doing are very different things

Authenticity is a key link to building a relationship with our consumers and gaining their trust. it shows an acknowledgement for the power that consumers now hold, whilst playing to their emotional needs for understanding and relatability. And being deemed inauthentic is becoming a smoking gun in the eyes of the mass market.

In the case of influencers, not using the products they pitch, not disclosing payment for recommendation, or failing to deliver on your charitable purpose are all too familiar in online conversations today. Authenticity is about practising what you preach, living your word even if it comes at a cost – and brands can to learn from this.Trying to be authentic and actually being authentic are two very different things; trying to please everyone or adapt to new emerging values that you don’t actually stand for is a dangerous place to be. It is so tempting to just jump on the bandwagon; and some brands do this. We accept that it may be tempting, or even seen as necessary to have a point of view in a current conversation. Its about picking the right bandwagon for your brand. One that lines up with your brand authenticity truths.  

Always be authentic when it comes to authenticity

When it comes to authenticity, find your values and stick to them; take a stand. Accept that it is usually impossible to please everyone and that you may polarise some in your quest to be authentic to the values of your brand and your core customers. 

The consequences of inauthenticity can be catastrophic. Sure, in taking a stand and living by your values you may lose a few customers along the way, but this is better than losing many if you are found to be inauthentic. Even better still, pause to reflect before leaping in the search of authenticity. Find the genuine sweet spot where your brand values and consumers' desired brand values overlap and highlight those – to be what consumers want you to be, but only where it aligns with your own, authentic, brand values. 

Being real in an increasingly fake world is a point of difference; genuine authenticity allows you to stand out and gain the trust and respect of consumers. Sometimes taking a stand is the true path to loyalty.

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Tags: Communications strategy, Social Media, Culture, Leadership, Authenticity