The Age of Authenticity

I’m not going to pretend to be a political commentator or an election expert. However, I do find it interesting what seems to be happening in politics on a global scale, and it reminds me of what is happening in branding. In politics, we are seeing a rise of candidates whose only contribution is being perceived as “real” or authentic if you will. Donald Trump is at the moment the front runner for the Republican party in the US primaries. In fact, some polls put him ahead of Hillary Clinton in a head-to-head match-up. He’ll (probably) never win, but it is interesting to see why he is popular amongst American voters.

It would be easy to dismiss Trump as a populist without substance, but he is more than that. To some extent, he is popular because of his controversial views on immigration, on taxes, and on government etc. And he is popular because he is a “self made billionaire” (which of course is not entirely true, he had a very rich father). But mostly, he is popular because he dares tell the “truth”. He speaks his mind. As celebrity billionaire Mark Cuban puts it “I don’t care if he says the wrong thing. He says what’s on his mind. He gives honest answers rather than prepared answers. This is more important than anything any candidate has done in years.”

People love to listen to someone like Trump who doesn’t care about being politically correct or what others may think. They like him and respect him for being true to his own beliefs. Most people outside the US cannot fathom how a brash and seemingly rambling man can lead in the polls, but many Republicans see it differently. They like straight shooters, whatever the consequences.

Now, if we want to take away something from that in a marketing perspective, it has to be that authenticity is becoming the biggest driver for brand preference. Long gone are the days of “fake it ’til you make it”. At least in marketing. Today is all about understanding who you are as a brand, who your consumers are, and how they perceive any message (paid or unpaid) that you put out there. When mothers all over the world are outraged over Bugaboo’s images of a bikini-clad model Ymre Stiekema running with her baby, it is not because they don’t think it’s ok for Stiekema to run in her bikini. Anyone is free to run as they please. It is because it’s not a real option for 99.5% of mothers out there. Mothers in general don’t look like supermodels. And they don’t appreciate being presented with a “fake” reality. Whether it is a natural look for the model or not doesn’t matter, the lack of true understanding of how mothers in general interact with the brand is astounding – and makes the brand look unauthentic.

Someone who gets is Aerie, American Eagle’s lingerie brand. They are currently having huge success with their ads with unretouched women. These women are still not average looking by any definition, but they look real. And consumers find that refreshing. Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty is another, perhaps more famous one.

To find this authenticity, there are really two questions brands need to ask themselves: “Does this feel authentic for our brand?” and “Will this feel truly relatable and believeable for our potential customers?”. If you check those two boxes, you may be on the right path. The key is to understand that this is just as important as more traditional corporate guidelines.

In fact, brand and corporate guidelines should always focus on authenticity as a core brand value. Authenticity is not just about brand history and being true to the category. It’s about finding your own unique brand voice, that resonates with the audience. It’s about being honest about who the brand is, what the company stands for, and which values it puts at the top of the list. It has to go through everything you do, from marketing, to customer service and sponsorships.

A tobacco company may have good reasons to sponsor a cancer clinic, but would have very little credibility doing so. Sport apparel brand Under Armour did very well choosing to be involved with the Friday Night Lights TV show, not only because the American Football theme of the show matched their category, but more so because the brand is (or at least was) an underdog, and the values of the show (“Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose”) was a good fit for the brand.

Bridging a desire to promote a brand with a need to stay authentic, can be difficult. The old ways of the advertising industry was to push brand awareness, but with little focus on helping the consumers understand the brand’s values. And the attitude of “any publicity is good publicity”, made it easy to brush off any errors. In this day of full transparency, that doesn’t work. Any mistake will be picked up in social media. McDonald’s realised that too late with their #McDStories campaign, where people didn’t follow instructions, and told their Mac’s horror stories instead. So you really have to embrace the culture around the brand. Be aware of everything your brand is about, what you can truthfully say, and what you know people will agree with you on. Then, and only then are you ready for life in this age of authenticity.


Erik Ingvoldstad is the Managing Director of Acoustic.
Follow Erik on Twitter @ingvoldSTAR, follow Acoustic at @AcousticAgency
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[Main photo by Gage Skidmore, under CC]




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