Authenticity: Not Just Beards and Fancy Air Plants
In 2013, the Boston Consulting Group surveyed 2,500 American consumers and found that “being authentic” was one of the main qualities they said would attract them to a brand. For millennials, authenticity was particularly important. Millennials said that a brand’s authenticity attracted them more than any other quality besides loyalty discounts.
Why has authenticity become so important? One clear answer is the Internet: we live in an age when consumers can instantly learn about any product they are planning to purchase — and spread the truth of that message to their social networks. Another answer relates to the distrust consumers carry for conventional advertising.
A recent study by the global communications firm Cohn & Wolfe surveyed 12,000 consumers in 14 markets, and found that 9 out of 10 consumers are willing to take action to reward a brand for its authenticity — actions like recommending the brand to others, pledging loyalty to the brand, and even putting money on the table to invest in an authentic brand. But the same study found that, among consumers, cynicism is skyrocketing. Less than 25% of American consumers called brands “open and honest.” In Western Europe, that number was less than 10%.
According to Cohn & Wolfe, the relationship between brands and consumers is broken.
An Authentic Hit to the Bottom Line
Cohn & Wolfe calls this growing gap between consumer demand and brand performance an “Authenticity Deficit.” Recent studies corroborate that the Authenticity Deficit negatively affects the value of a brand. For example, of the top 100 consumer packaged-goods brands in America, 90 lost market share in 2015, according to Catalina, a marketing firm. In the financial markets, the value investors put on brands is declining as well.
According to the Economist, “the price (of brands), as a percentage of deals’ total value, have dropped since 2003…The strength of their brands is becoming a smaller share of their overall worth.”
For many brands, the problem is not a lack of effort. Instead, brands face a more complicated problem: they don’t know how to define what authenticity is. In an effort to portray themselves as authentic, many brands are inventing stories that purport to be authentic out of thin air.
Doing so might make them even more vulnerable to consumer scorn. Cohn & Wolfe names three key drivers of authenticity: Reliable, Respectful and Real. Of these three, brands are most broadly challenged to be Real. Why? Because brands that try to be real and fail are widely condemned by their audiences.
Last year, BIC, the ballpoint pen company, was skewered on social media after posting a tasteless message intending to “celebrate” International Women’s Day. Volkswagen is still reeling from its $14.7 billion settlement over cheating on its emissions testing. And Wells Fargo’s callous response to the public’s discovery of fraud led to the humiliation and ouster of its CEO.
Declining brand values and increasing consumer demand for authenticity is putting pressure on brand storytellers — pressure that has real financial implications for brands like BIC.
How can you avoid this trap in your own brand storytelling? First, start by defining what an authentic brand story is.
Five Clear Criteria for Authenticity: A Brand Storyteller’s Checklist
In using the below checklist, I recommend against evaluating the brand in general. Instead, choose one recent, prominent piece of brand communications. You’ll get more tangible insights by applying the following criteria to one storytelling piece, rather than an arbitrary sense of the brand.
1. It Must Be True
This much should seem obvious: for most of us, authenticity means something akin to honesty. Stick with the facts. Everything in your story should be verifiably true by someone with a reasonable perspective for it to feel authentic.
2. It Must Be Novel
In this context, “novel” means something like “new.” Another way of describing it might be “creative” — as in, is this something that a computer could have made, or did this arise from a spark of human insight that we associate with an individual’s belief? What you say doesn’t need to be radically different. It does need to feel connected to the people behind the brand and spoken with conviction.
3. It Must Agree With the Values of a Target Audience
Authenticity is a subjective experience. What feels authentic to me might come off as cliche or kitschy to you. But when something clicks authentically, we feel a deep connection — a sense of being understood and valued for our preferences, and a corresponding sense of hope for a more connected future. Your authentic story should clearly express what you value in a way that your market research corroborates will connect with your target audience.
4. It Must Carry An Appropriate Emotional Resonance
Authenticity is more than the cold hard facts. An authentic story does more than telling your audience the truth. An authentic story tells people why they should care. Here, your story shifts into the intimate landscape of emotions — a terrain that is often difficult for brands to penetrate. Use yourself as a reference point. How does this story feel to you? How would you respond to it, if it popped up on your feed? Altering the emotional resonance — by changing the way you structure your story, for example — improves comprehension and memorability. Ultimately we remember how things feel much more than what they actually say.
5. It Must Meaningfully Improve How the Audience Comprehends Its Own Identity in Relationship to the Brand
The stories that consistently outperform on social media are those where the audience is cast as the hero of the story, and the brand acts as the guide, helping the hero attain some kind of knowledge, wisdom or power that was previously inaccessible. The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty is a great example — one that has been copied by Always, among others.
It’s not enough to entertain your audience. Your story should help your audience become more than they already are. Sports teams and fundraising campaigns like the ALS Ice Bucket challenge provide outside the box examples of authentic stories that have been constructed so that the audience gets personal benefits that stretch beyond the product sold by the brand.
Get There By Defining Authenticity as a Relationship Between Your Audience and Your Brand
In my work as a Strategic Storytelling consultant and as a Storytelling trainer for sales teams, I often explain to clients that authenticity isn’t a data point. Instead, authenticity is a relationship between a brand and its audience. In order to function effectively, the relationship must feel free and nurturing, as opposed to contractually restrictive.
To make your story feel more authentic, focus more on feelings consumers experience as opposed to facts consumers learn. Rather than stating a fact like “our mission statement says…”, give your audience an experience of your underlying values. For example, if you value honesty and trustworthiness, tell stories about how you deliver on your promises or treat your customers well. If you want to demonstrate commitment to a particular community, sponsor their events and develop offline relationships that get reinforced in the online world.
Storytellers like to say show, don’t tell. Creating experiences for consumers enables them to tell your story for you.
To take a more significant step, address your underlying vision/mission/values framework. These strategic frameworks mushroomed in the late 20th century when mass marketing compelled brands to articulate what they stood for. Today, in a much more dynamic business environment, vision and mission statements can feel as restricted and dated as a five year old website.
Rather than setting a factual course for where your organization is headed, create feelings-based experiences that heighten consumer understanding of your brand.
Steve Jobs was a master of translating a brand vision into tangible, felt experiences. Many brands are copying his keynote address and One More Thing model as a way to announce new products and demonstrate their creative dynamism.
One final note on authenticity: like all other relationships, it always changes over time. Even if you’re struggling with your authenticity, there’s good news. There will always be another chance to get back in step.
Need help crafting an authentic brand story? Jordan Bower offers Strategic Storytelling Consulting and Strategic Storytelling Training for Executives and Sales Teams. He’s worked with clients in business, government, not-for-profit, tourism and tech, and lectured for audiences all over North America. His website is jordanbower.com.