Today, it’s rare that a top corporation doesn’t find a way to tout some authentic element of its brand. We're accustomed to seeing language like “since 1895” or “proud craftsmanship.” This language is authenticity as point of origin.
But there is another side of authenticity. As consumers evolve, they desire truth in an increasingly contrived and calculated world. Calling a brand authentic (or artisan or original) may help, but it doesn't mean anything if a company’s actions don't support its words.
The experience economy
Today, consumers consider whether the offerings you provide match what you say about yourself (think Chipotle and its honesty about its suppliers). It’s about lifestyle. Joseph Pine calls it the experience economy – where feelings and engagement, rather than products, are the predominant economic offerings. This is the new buying criteria in which consumers choose if and when they are going to buy. And in the experience economy, rendering authenticity is critical.
Behind this shift, however, is a harsh reality: Authenticity requires risk.
To truly be authentic, you have to relinquish some control. Authenticity in this sense requires brands to hold their objective loosely and let real narratives surface. Consumers are craving this approac , and the brands who have taken it have soared. For example, Mercedes-Benz gave control to guest photojournalists and asked them to document their adventures in a Mercedes CLA. The campaign played out in real time over Instagram, and it was a wild success.
But it could have been a colossal failure – and that is where leaders struggle.
Why leaders struggle with brand authenticity
Relinquishing control over the end result is incredibly hard for people to do. And it’s especially difficult for leaders of companies who are responsible for reputation and the bottom line. Authenticity requires honesty – owning both the positives and the negatives about your industry. In today’s age of user-generated content, real time customer comments, and journalistic brand publishing, authenticity can feel a bit like throwing your company at the mercy of the crowd. For executive boards, CEOs, and legal teams representing those brands, authenticity in the way consumers value it feels risky and unfamiliar.
But when “authenticity” becomes overly managed, it has the opposite intent. It feels staged and unnatural. It is as authentic as “safe” allows – and consumers can see right through it.
A new filter
In a filtered world, brands must learn the art of picking the right filter. Authenticity is a lens, and it requires talented storytellers who can capture the small, intimate moments where truth aligns with brand values. When you give storytellers the microphone, you are placing a lot of trust in their ability to understand brand values. Building smart teams – whether you call them content teams, brand engagement teams or storytellers – is critical. There is an art in knowing when to hold back and when to be transparent. For instance, outdoor and sporting goods retailer, REI, just announced it is cancelling Black Friday to encourage people to get outside. On paper, the #OptOutside campaign seems like a risky sales move, but it’s aimed at sending a more authentic message to consumers, something President and CEO Stritzke has acknowledged. Leaders can make these decisions when they know they have brand managers they can trust.
The shift also means content and brand engagement teams have to become great at measuring authenticity. Understanding how authenticity drives customer engagement and loyalty is paramount for success, and it’s critical for buy-in from the C-suite. Weighing risk and reward isn’t a new strategy, but figuring out risk and reward in today’s experience economy is. The teams that support companies who embrace authenticity need to show how it improves customer advocacy.
Authenticity is a multidimensional construct. It works today because people believe they aren’t just buying a product, but rather they are investing in a set of values or a way of life. Truth sells, and organizations that can confront the truths of their industry – both good and bad – will win.