June 5, 2016 kirstycooke

What does it mean for a brand to be authentic?

When a person or brand is ‘authentic’, what does that ACTUALLY MEAN? Does anyone know? And why do we keep talking about it? This is a mammoth topic, so wish me luck and buckle up for a bit of a voyage of discovery. Let’s start, as any sub-par essay ought to, with some definitions:

Dictionary: “Authentic: Of undisputed origin and not a copy; genuine.”

Marketing legend Seth Godin: “Authenticity, for me, is doing what you promise, not “being who you are”.”

TED talker Simon Sinek: “Authenticity is about imperfection. And authenticity is a very human quality. To be authentic is to be at peace with your imperfections.” “It means that the things we say and the things we do are things we ACTUALLY believe.”

My bezzie, Jean-Paul Sartre: “Authenticity, it is almost needless to say, consists in having a true and lucid consciousness of the situation, in assuming the responsibilities and risks it involves, in accepting it … sometimes in horror and hate.”

Authenticity, then, describes not just a state, but an ideal – it’s something to strive towards. And it’s not just people. Businesses often follow the notion – and I don’t think they are wrong – that more people will buy stuff from them if they appear to be ‘authentic’.

Just as humans prefer humans who are authentic, shoppers like (and we all know LIKING is important in marketing*) brands who do what they say they will do, in a way that is CONSISTENT (another important way to influence people) with what we thought we knew about the brand beforehand.

The interesting thing about being authentic, as Mother Teresa noted, was that it makes you vulnerable. Whether you are a person or a brand dabbling your toes in the water of authenticity, you’ll quickly realise that some people don’t like your true self. As a marketer, that is a bitter pill to swallow. But because the cult of authenticity is so powerful, they try to become ‘authentic’ without alienating people – by using the shortcut methods below.

How Marketers Think They Can Be More Authentic

1. Using the word ‘authentic’

Antico blends its old-fashioned authenticity with a fresh approach making it a perfect fit for the contemporary palate.” Here we see the very shortest of all the shortcuts – just use the word! Like using “innovative”, “creative” or “quality” in your product descriptions, it doesn’t mean much to just shove the word in and hope for the best (and, like the others, is used so much as to become meaningless).

2. Being funny

A quirky tone of voice (something I do adore, naturally) is thought to be a shortcut to authenticity. Make the ingredients sound like the bottle is reading them out! Post a picture of our product in some crazy location! This isn’t wrong, but it only makes sense if your company is actually full to the brim with jokers. Which many are not. Being conversational, or colloquial, is pretty nice, but people can usually spot when it’s being forced.


Image: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/wordofmouth/2014/mar/25/wackaging-trend-food-packaging-innocent-language 

3. Using social media

Simply being present on Facebook and Twitter doesn’t make you a brand of the people. Even answering questions and ‘engaging with the community’ won’t work. Using humour (see above) isn’t the same as being real. I’m not saying your CEO has to run the social accounts, but if he or she couldn’t take it over for a day without people noticing, you maybe haven’t quite nailed ‘authenticity’.

4. Admitting mistakes

Definitely worth doing, but not the same as being authentic. As much as I love to see a good WE ARE SORRY AND NOTHING WE CAN SAY WILL MAKE IT BETTER THERE ARE NO EXCUSES heartfelt apology from a brand, too many of them give themselves a massive PR-shaped pat on the back afterwards and instantly forget the whole thing. Actions, louder, words, etc.

5. Personalising communications

This sounds super dull but the point is strong: you don’t need EVERYONE to like you. Once you embrace your real self, ideally it’s your ACTUAL TARGET AUDIENCE who will ‘get it’. Oh, you don’t just make camping gear, you’re actually totally and utterly geeky about the great outdoors? ME TOO! Let’s be bezzies. Of course, just talking like your customers do isn’t enough. It’ll work for a while, sure, but eventually you need to get in the bloody tent and be your customer.


Simon Sinek puts it nicely when he says: “Authenticity doesn’t mean listening to people and parroting back what we hear. It means telling people what we believe and then waiting to see who is attracted by what we espouse and who isn’t.” This, he claims, is why authentic brands are leaders – they decide what THEY believe and then the people who believe the same are drawn to them and really trust them.

6. Avoiding the hard sell

“Customers love it when we just share stuff and don’t try to sell them stuff.” Eh, yeah, they’d love it even more if you gave away all your products for free but then where would we be? Yes, pushy sales tactics are awful. But of course your ‘content’ is there to eventually persuade someone that they want to part with their hard-earned cash to be part of your club.

Being genuine is actually quite liberating, because you can say stuff like “We do want to make a profit” or “If it seems expensive, that’s because it’s bloody good and I need to feed my family, you brat.” Or something. Here is part of Lush’s mission statement:

“We believe our products are good value, that we should make a profit and that the customer is always right.”


7. Sharing stuff

Sharing ‘secrets’ is a good way to make people think you are authentic (true for brands and for people). Behind-the-scenes videos are a good start, but I love bolder choices, like Brewdog putting the recipes for all its beers online.

I read once that you shouldn’t share too many secrets when you first meet someone because they will think “WOW if they happily give away all this up front WHAT OTHER SKELETONS ARE LURKING IN THEIR CLOSET?!” But frankly I live and die by the “if you have nothing to be ashamed of, you can share everything” mantra. Social media has brought this into the light: people are panicking about their privacy settings in case a future employer sees the picture of them snorting coke off a hooker and it makes me think, stop snorting coke off hookers, you plank.

Disclaimer: no, I don’t want to live in a dystopian world of surveillance just because “I have nothing to hide”, but I do like the idea that I can take ownership – not necessarily feel pride for – the things that I have done in my life. Yeah, that was me getting drunk at Uni. Ja, I did wear that outfit in the past. Oui, I did love the Spice Girls and FRANKLY I STILL DO.

8. Not lying

This is a pretty major one. This isn’t just the big things – this contains 100% beef, or whatever – but those little things that people get pretty tired of and wise to. Half-price sales. Only chance to buy. There are a million people looking at this product right now. Best price.

Of course, there’s a difference between NOT LYING and ALWAYS BEING HONEST and it’s kind of a grey area. I don’t need you to overshare (it can be harmful and risky, actually, as above). But if you cause harm by omission (“Eh yeah it’s made by tiny children in Burma but I didn’t say it wasn’t DID I!?”) then you aren’t the kind of “authentic” brand I want to spend my moolah with.

These things seem like a cool way to make consumers like you, because you seem authentic. But is it the same as ACTUALLY BEING AUTHENTIC? No.

How Marketers Can Really Be More Authentic

Sorry! Can’t help you here. If you TRULY think your brand (that is, the people who work for your company, particularly the people who run it) is AWESOME and what you do (the thing you sell and why you sell it) is also AWESOME, then the authentic part comes totally naturally.

I emailed Innocent recently to find out where their brand tone of voice came from. This was the terrific reply:

“The way we sound has just naturally evolved over time as it was the way we would talk to our friends and family and we found that our drinkers responded well to it.  I think because we are how we sound, which we accept isn’t to everyone’s taste, gives us an authenticity which many companies seem desperate to achieve but don’t understand that you have to be that certain way in order for it to sound real. You can’t fake it ’til you make it, when it comes to tone of voice. You have to actually mean it.”

Screen Shot 2016-06-05 at 17.55.02

When consumers think, yeah, that sounds like a real person talking – and I like what they are saying – then you have a quick win. Long-term success then rests on (what is also my life philosophy, and the first rule of improv, and the best rule of life) this mantra: Don’t be a dick. Do what you say you’re going to do. Find your voice from within, not from a book. Let your customers be your biggest fans, and don’t panic about the people who will never need your stuff. Be a nice guy… and then be authentic when you tell people you’re a nice guy.

*Consistency and Liking are two of Robert Cialdini’s principles of persuasion – read his book ‘Influence’ to learn more