MIND OVER MATTER
This month’s theme: Authenticity
This month, we’re unpacking what some might call the conscious buzzword of the day: authenticity.
Many brands, in an ongoing effort to more genuinely connect (and sell to) consumers are lifting it up as their new communications strategy, a byproduct of a fatigued consumer who increasingly tunes out anything less. But how do we, the public, know who is walking the walk, and accountable to the talk? Should authenticity be a strategy… or a core value? Most would agree that authenticity can’t be manufactured, which means that for it to manifest with any sincerity or impact, it starts long before messaging reaches consumers. It starts on the inside of an organization, and is part of the same DNA that creates process, policy and generates profits. So what does authenticity look like today? Who’s doing it well?
To go deeper, I sat down with We First author and brand consultant Simon Mainwaring who not only lives and breathes authenticity through his own agency and messages, but helps brands understand the context through which to find – and share – their own. Here’s what he said.
Why does authenticity matter today more than ever?
Authenticity is so critical to brands today because they now find themselves operating in an increasingly purposeful marketplace where companies are being very clear about why they exist, what their values are, and the difference they want to make in the world. Purpose, in that sense, is a double-edged sword because, while it endears your brand to employees and consumers, it also invites scrutiny and accountability as to whether you’re actually living out your stated values. As such, brands need to demonstrate their authenticity, transparency, and accountability as clearly and consistently as possible to avoid being accused of cause-washing or purpose-washing. Consumers and the media have countless examples of brands delivering on their stated values, but also many companies being called out for disingenuous advertising or tactics that defy their stated purpose. As the social crises we face increasingly impact our lives, the pressure on brands to be authentic, in terms of their stated purpose and values, will only increase.
What brands are doing a good job communicating an authentic message + what does that look like?
The brands that are doing a good job of communicating their authenticity, are demonstrating it on several levels. First, leadership, where rather than hide behind the boardroom door or press releases, CEOs and CMOs are serving as spokespeople for the brands purpose and their authentic commitment to bringing it to life. Second, they’re activating their authenticity within their own companies in terms of how they treat their employees, which includes everything from onboarding, to culture-building, to inspiring employees to become advocates for the brand on the strength of that authenticity. Third, they’re demonstrating their authenticity in their marketing, which is as much about advocacy and activism as it is about promoting their products. And finally, on a fourth level, they are demonstrating an authentic commitment to cultural leadership. This means that they are setting an example and providing guidance for how consumers can adjust their thinking and behavior to work with a brand to have a positive impact on everybody’s life. Brands that come to mind that are doing this well include leaders like Patagonia, who has always led the way in terms of authenticity; Airbnb, which has brought their core message of ‘Belong Anywhere’ to life through actions like their support of refugees; and brands like Starbucks, who under their message of ‘Shared Planet’, have addressed multiple cultural issues through the lens of inclusion, such as same-sex marriage, post-traumatic stress disorder, and online education for veterans.
Why are consumers so sensitive when someone is disingenuous?
Consumers are so sensitive to disingenuous behavior for two reasons. First, the growing majority of consumers have grown up with social media and intuitive technology, which has allowed them to see countless examples of brands behaving poorly, so their trust level is low from the outset. Secondly, any inauthentic behavior is a breach of trust and, more importantly, a breach of the values which the consumer and the brand arguably share. Consumers demand that brands play an increasingly important role in improving our lives and any inauthentic behavior is experienced by consumers as a deliberate attempt to compromise their well-being. This is especially true with Millennials and Gen Z who, as research shows, come to the world with a unique mindset where they prefer to work for companies that doing good, and only buy and promote companies whose products have a positive social and environmental impact. In that context, inauthentic behavior is an affront to their worldview and their way of being in the world.
What do you think is the difference between ‘personal’ & ‘private’ when is comes to being an individual expressing a message?
[Meaning, everyone is their own ‘brand’ nowadays, even just as a ‘personality’ [everyone has a platform through social media, etc], so, how do you reconcile that in terms of what you keep private vs. your outward ‘personality’? where do you draw the line between private and personal?]
Social media is a curious activity as it puts media in the hands of individuals in a way that simply wasn’t possible before. As such, consciously or not, every individual is curating their own life in terms of what they choose to share with their friends, family, colleagues, and a growing number of strangers. They also face the challenge of using social media to connect at an intimate level with those that are viewing their content. To do that, it is often most effective to share content that is personal in the sense that it truly reveals something true about themselves or a unique aspect of their lives. That said, it’s not surprising that human beings are reluctant to share the negative side of their lives in public. More often than not they only share the positive side which means that the challenges we face as human beings, as parents, as colleagues, as citizens of this planet remain private. So, the distinction between what is personal and what is private, begs the question as to what is authentic to that person. And, at the risk of oversimplifying a conclusion, one might say that the personal content that people share is authentic, but the overall image that we all present of our lives is inauthentic because it only shows one side of the story.
What is 1 piece of advice you’d give to any and every organization/brand IN ONE SENTENCE?
In terms of authenticity, the one piece of advice I would give is that every brand must maintain control of the narrative around their company by not only pointing to what they’re doing well, but also by volunteering their shortcomings and what they’re doing to address them. That way brands can avoid misunderstanding or misinformation filling an information vacuum they have created that can be very damaging to the brand. So to truly be authentic, share both sides of the story. It will create greater intimacy with your audiences, it will mitigate the risk of consumer or media activism, and it will leverage the most powerful aspect of social media, which is its ability to connect people at a human level in ways that inspires engagement, advocacy, and collaboration to achieve a positive impact in the world.
To learn more about Simon Mainwaring and We First, visit wefirstbranding.com
Amy Swift Crosby is a brand strategist and copy writer, and the voice behind SMARTY, a blog about the human side of creativity and business.
To read more on humanity at work, find Amy’s work and learn more about her at www.smartypeople.com