Why Authenticity Matters Part 1 | For Brands
First of all, I hate the word “authenticity.” It is a word that has largely been co-opted over the past decade by many who thoughtlessly drop it into sentences with intentions that are anything but authentic. When someone claims to be authentic by literally spelling it out — Authentic Since 2000 — I usually find them to be masking their own realization that they have an authenticity problem.
Nevertheless, when it comes to describing brands, there really is no other word that captures the comprehensive meaning of the word authentic. A truly authentic brand is one where the promises made match the experiences that follow. A natural part of brand building is to communicate promises — directly and indirectly, verbally and visually — and when those promises match the experiences you encounter, you feel drawn closer to those authentic brands because they delivered what they promised.
For a brand to be for-real authentic — and by extension, for the people behind that brand to be for-real authentic — there are some essential requirements that must be met:
- They are consistent.
- They are disciplined.
- They are vulnerable.
It wasn’t that long ago that companies could say whatever they liked without harm — the Mad Men era, as I have previously called it. There was no accountability simply because there was no platform for such accountability to be meaningful — that is, until the internet. We now have information at our fingertips, and even at our voice commands, with plenty of opportunity for reviews and opinions galore. We also have more choice than ever in a time when the runway to building and launching a brand is a fraction of a fraction of what it once was. And with this new dynamic has come a new algorithm for loyalty.
Loyalty is the holy grail of any business venture, but to win over a consumer’s loyalty, first you have to prove that you’re worthy of their allegiance, and that process begins with establishing a consistent expectation. It is through consistency — across every word, every image, and every presentation of your brand — that the initial stages of trust are developed. If all of the details from experiences A, B, C, D, and E are all communicating the same thing, then consumers can begin to trust that experiences F, G, and H are going to fall in line as well. Consistency builds a reputation. A positive reputation earns trust. And trust wins loyalty.
In the context of a brand, consistency must be experienced in everything a consumer sees, but it also must carry through to the deepest internal reaches of the brand, which consumers don’t see. If your brand boasts a message of quality, then let that quality be true all the way back into the depths of the organization, guiding every decision you make about the way you treat employees, the way you throw a birthday party, the way in which you answer the phone. For-real authentic brands have a consistent thread that runs clear through, from the deepest internal decisions out to the furthest customer interactions.
It can be really, really difficult to build a company, with shareholders and market pressures, and allow your decisions to be described as disciplined. Turning down opportunities that will provide growth can be really tough, and yet this discipline is an essential ingredient of any authentic brand.
I once toured a company that sold hand-hammered metal kitchen goods. They walked me through the rows of artisans literally hammering these metal measuring cups and utensils, transforming them from raw goods to finished products — even the packaging was assembled by hand at the end. There was, however, one more room at the end of the tour that we did not enter, and when I pressed to learn what took place in that room, I was eventually told that it was the room where cheap imitations of the same products were boxed and shipped under the same branded label to stores who could not afford the artisan goods.
Now, I am all for understanding the cost of business and recognizing opportunities to grow through tiered product strategies — but you can’t do so at the cost of the brand’s DNA. I encouraged the owners to separate the imitation goods and sell them under a different label, and when they didn’t see that as a necessary part of building the artisan brand, which we were being asked to do, I saw no choice but to walk away. It is imperative to the building of any authentic brand that the way the business is run is authentically in alignment with all of the promises it makes. Sometimes, it requires a great amount of discipline to walk away from the quick win in the short term for the reputation win in the long term.
Consumers don’t want perfection, they want real — realness in a very human sense, on display in all of the highs and lows. One of the more surprising attributes that we find when conducting consumer research is how incredibly forgiving people actually are as consumers. There is a low consumer tolerance for brands that are consistently inconsistent, but when mistakes are occasional, and when brands own those mistakes and do right by consumers, that process can significantly deepen a consumer’s loyalty to a brand.
There are plenty of articles to back up how transparency and vulnerability win customer loyalty (HBR, Forbes, Fast Company), but at the heart of these various explanations is a desire for connection, for a relationship with something that is real, something honest, something genuine — something, we might say, that feels very natural and authentic.
We humans are complex beings, and how we evaluate whether something is or is not authentic isn’t always linear and obvious. We often measure authenticity in our gut, making tacit judgments throughout our many experiences with a brand, deciding along the way how honest and genuine those interactions feel. And the easiest way for brands to affirm those positive gut-level feelings is to truly be honest, genuine, and transparent in how they go about their business. The more real brands can be during consumer engagements, the more naturally they will be experienced as real on that tacit, gut level.
Our name, Drawn, comes from the desire to design authentic brand experiences to which people are naturally drawn, rather than chase for attention and continually shift to be whatever is en vogue. The philosophy that drawing in is better than chasing and converting can be challenging in the short term, but in the long term, we’ve found that it begins to win trust and loyalty, which leads to a lot of efficiency and momentum for brands that are willing to be truly authentic.
To read more about this efficiency and momentum, read Part 2 here.