Brand Authenticity: What it Means and How to Build it
We all know trust and loyalty are the cornerstones of any successful brand, and authenticity makes those cornerstones strong. But did you know the reality is that brands disillusion many people because of how many have failed to do right by society? A Social Sprout survey found that 70% of consumers feel that brands' values and actions do not align. Accenture found that 47% of consumers are disappointed with brands due to broken promises or false representations. When there's a disconnect between perception and reality, trust stands on shaky ground. When companies fail to align with the decisions their audience desires or would make themselves, the trust they have painstakingly built begins to erode. For social purpose organizations, failing to recognize and adequately respond to these conditions can mean something profound: fewer people are less likely to invest in change and adjust their behaviour.
So, what does authenticity mean, and how can organizations working towards sustainability and equity build and maintain authenticity over time?
Define Your Brand Authenticity
Brand authenticity is about being honest about who you are, what you can and cannot do, what you stand for, and why you do what you do. It's about staying true to your purpose, practicing your values, and communicating with clarity and transparency with all stakeholders, from customers and employees to partners and investors. If you're doing it right, you won't be striving for perfection. Consider Patagonia (a favourite of ours at WOKE):
With a steadfast commitment to environmental sustainability and ethical practices, Patagonia takes action that leaves little to question. The company goes above and beyond by transparently sharing information about their entire supply chain, empowering customers with knowledge. But their dedication doesn't stop there. They actively champion environmental causes, lending their voice to protect the planet we call home and disrupt ideas of who they are actionable to; recently making Earth their only shareholder. Embracing a "repair, reuse, and reduce" mindset, Patagonia encourages customers to extend the lifespan of their products, rather than rushing to buy new ones. It's this harmonious marriage between their values and actions that has proven to the world that they know who they are, understand their purpose and are clear on what they could and should do. As a result, Patagonia has become a trusted brand.
Know Why Brand Authenticity Matters
Have you ever had a friend show up to meet you one day, and you have a hard time connecting with them because you feel like there is an invisible wall between you? You're not sure they can see you, or if they can even hear you. You're both there, but not together. Authenticity matters because people–you and us included–expect more from the institutions and people that want a slice of our mindshare. Each of us wants to know that the organizations and people we support share our values, understand our challenges, see our pain, and hear our aspirations. Authenticity matters because it creates space for deeper human connection, a growing desire in a world that is getting harder to understand and where the noise is not easily silenced. Anything short of that feels like disrespect and time wasted. Research in psychology also tells that authenticity matters because it puts people at ease. Inauthenticity causes anxiety. It's an important action because it has an even more important emotional outcome.
Set Practices for Building Brand Authenticity
Authenticity demands being courageous when few others are, and vulnerability when putting down the armour might be seen as a sign of weakness not strength. A ton of advice is available for how brands can be authentic, and much of that advice is good. We want to build on that list:
Put People First.
If you are about to say something contradictory to what your community has shared with you, what your employees have signalled to you, or even to the air and vibrations permeating your office and across Zoom calls, don't.
In 2020, many companies made statements supporting the Black Lives Matter movement without addressing their systemic racism or lack of diversity within their organizations. This led to accusations of "performative allyship" and backlash from consumers and employees who expected more than words. Earlier this year, Chief, an executive women's network with a clear DEI mandate, was called out by women of colour in their network for having "a race problem," revealing how non-white women were being excluded and not given equal opportunities for networking and advancement as white women. In fashion, many brands promoted themselves as "sustainable" and "ethical" without truly changing their practices or supply chains. Similarly, this tone-deaf messaging and marketing were met with loud accusations of greenwashing and a drop in customer loyalty and revenue.
Focus on the long-term.
Overpromising to win people over or compromising on values to achieve short-term goals or momentary attention can be tempting. But don't let a quick potential and short-lived win derail you from achieving lasting impact or implicate you in pushing people to lose trust in brands. As an organization, if you are attempting to address sustainability, equity, and inclusion, go beyond the fractioned individual actions you can take, such as reducing energy consumption or promoting diversity and inclusion in hiring. While these individual efforts are important, they make it harder to see the interconnectedness of social and environmental issues and efficiently use resources to be more sustainable and create spaces that are equitable and inclusive.
Create measures of accountability.
Accountability is a lived practice and way of maintaining brand authenticity. People, both internal and external to an organization, play a crucial role in holding brands accountable for their promises and actions. Creating accountability mechanisms, such as consumer feedback loops or employee/partner engagement programs, can help brands stay true to their purpose and values over time.
For social purpose organizations, engaging with community and deeply listening to their perspectives and experiences helps ground communication in reality. It can also support collaborations and partnerships with peer organizations, policymakers, and civil society to affect systemic changes, such as regulatory reform or new business practices.
Building and maintaining brand authenticity takes a lot of intentional work every day. It requires someone to take charge, understand how every business function connects to the public, and see the gaps that can erode trust and feel performative. Who is best positioned to help brands live bravely in their authenticity? Communication leaders. We have an eagle-eye lens into organizational activity and a deep understanding of brand messaging, storytelling, and audience engagement, uniquely positioning us to guide brands toward building human connection and trust. If you're lacking this type of talent and expertise, we'd love to see how WOKE can help you.