The Brand Authenticity Challenge
These days, most branding and marketing discussions will include the concept of brand authenticity. The buzzword is a staple in coverage of Gen Z and millennial consumers, symbolizing younger generations’ demand for transparency and consistency in an organization’s policies, practices, and behaviors.
In response, brands have scrambled to adopt authenticity as one of their brand attributes, or as we prefer to refer to them, their Core Values. But as I sit here trying to name authentic brands off the top of my head, I come up short. Cool, innovative, inspirational—such traits are much easier to associate with a brand. Authenticity, on the other hand, is much more difficult to claim and embody.
The burning spotlight placed on “brand authenticity” has made companies and organizations of all sizes adopt the term without truly considering its significance.
And yet, it is undeniably a characteristic that brands are expected to exhibit. Unfortunately, perhaps similar to the way a word can lose or change its meaning when overused, I believe the burning spotlight placed on “brand authenticity” has made companies and organizations of all sizes adopt the term without truly considering its significance.
To understand that more deeply, let’s take a good look at what it really means for an organization to be authentic and why living up to that trait is so difficult.
The expectations for brand authenticity
If we look at one of the definitions by Merriam-Webster, being authentic is to be “true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character,” as well as “not false or imitation.”
For brands, this has manifested into an expectation for their actions to accurately reflect their brand promise. In other words, it’s talking the talk, walking the walk, and gaining customers’ trust by doing so.
Of course, brand authenticity has always been important, but the expectation of it has gotten stricter and even unforgiving in recent years. Likely exasperated by a world where corrupt companies are regularly exposed for their shameful practices, consumers have grown skeptical of brands and are prone to doling out criticism quickly.
For brands, being authentic is a need-to-have trait that could make or break their customers’ trust.
It’s why Barbie received backlash when its Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 collection highlighting “inclusivity and innovation” appeared to omit an Asian doll. It’s why terms like “rainbow washing” exist, with brands being slammed for their use of images and symbols tied to the fight for LGBTQ+ equality despite showing minimal support and, in some cases, even opposition to the community.
For brands, being authentic isn’t merely a nice compliment. It’s a need-to-have trait that could make or break their customers’ trust. But too often, companies neglect the act of truly proving it. Plainly, the point of being authentic is not claiming that you are, but rather showing it.
Why it’s hard for brands to claim authenticity
It’s a bit ironic: the act of declaring that you are authentic tends to suggest that you aren’t. Being transparent and consistent may protect you from criticism, but it typically isn’t a competitive advantage in and of itself, since it’s seen as table stakes.
This is why efforts to tout authenticity as a brand attribute are rarely successful. Doing so tells consumers nothing about your brand’s identity in the same way that declaring yourself a genuine person tells others very little about your personality—and might actually raise suspicion.
Brand attributes or Core Values are the stand-out traits and guiding principles you want your brand to be associated with, and which you want to cultivate at every touchpoint of your organization, both internally and externally. In contrast, authenticity should be an underlying foundation that ensures those attributes or Values are consistently present in your actions.
How organizational alignment comes into play
At the same time, the complexity of a brand, organization, company, etc. makes it difficult to prove or maintain authenticity. If it can be challenging for individuals to truly be themselves, imagine how hard it is for an entity made up of countless moving parts to be authentic.
It makes sense, then, that so many issues of inauthenticity are due to organizational misalignment. For example, when a brand’s marketing department highlights empowerment in their campaigns while another division of employees notably works with little autonomy, then there is a clear disconnect within the organization.
By ensuring that a brand operates consistently in all angles, a brand is able to live in a state of authenticity successfully.
No matter how difficult it may be to keep all parts of a company on the same page, though, consumers will still hold you accountable. With a diverse range of incriminating information available, from CEOs’ donation records to tweets by mistreated employees, organizational alignment is an incomparable tool that works alongside efforts to be authentic, a process that Tronvig has honed and mastered over the years.
By ensuring that a brand operates consistently in all angles, a brand is able to live in a state of authenticity much more successfully.
Brand authenticity: internal words to external actions
Ultimately, authenticity is an ongoing commitment that brands have to make in order to earn and keep the trust of their customers. It’s not a final end goal or ultimate brand trait, but a foundational characteristic that is proven through the actions of the organization as a whole. It starts internally, with an understanding of the organization’s brand attributes or Core Values, and is most successfully expressed to the world when a brand is aligned and can stand by its operational policies, practices, and behaviors.
Photo by Vadim Bogulov