6 Ways to Build Brand Authenticity
Back in the height of the “Mad Men” era of the sixties and early seventies, brands relied on creativity to grow their audiences. They used eye-catching magazine spreads, catchy jingles, and novelty to draw consumers in and keep them hooked. Nowadays, it takes a lot more than a sensational ad campaign to build and retain an audience. Today, what people care about most from brands isn’t necessarily tangible, but rather, a gut feeling. It’s all about authenticity.
What is brand authenticity? Geoff Beattie, regional executive vp, operations at BCW Global, states when people think of an authentic brand they think of “a brand that has values and morals and stands by them no matter what while honestly divulging its practices, flaws and all.” He continued, “In fact, the thing people most wanted was open and honest communications about products and services. And that finding was consistent around the world.”
Over the past several years, people have begun to place a premium on these attributes, with many making the choice to only support brands that they feel are the most authentic.
So what can brand teams do to cultivate this sense of genuine humanity within their own brand? While true brand authenticity looks different for everyone, there are several key themes and practices that emerge when we look at how other companies have set themselves apart in this way.
Why authenticity is more important than ever
People today expect more than ever from their favorite brands. And when brands don’t live up to those expectations, trust falls off. Canada’s Gustavson Brand Trust study found that Canadians’ trust in brands in 2020 fell to an all-time low. It’s not a stretch to apply that same sentiment to the United States when you consider the myriad of brand blunders that characterized the first half of 2020.
Thankfully, many companies are learning from these mistakes and taking the time to craft brand strategies that better align with these expectations.
And for good reason. Brand authenticity isn’t just about doing the right thing. Today, the idea of ‘authenticity’ has an incredibly strong business case behind it. Especially for younger consumers, the more transparent and purpose-driven a brand is, the more likely they are to support them.
A 2021 survey conducted by the Org found that 84 percent of millennials say they would be more loyal to a brand that is transparent. What’s more, 60 percent of Gen-Z women think the brands they buy from should support causes that are important to them. (Source: “Transparency Matters in Business and It’s all About Trust” by Christian Wylonis, thehrdirector.com, April 15, 2021)
The key takeaway here is that crafting a resilient, successful brand today means wholeheartedly embracing authenticity. And like we mentioned before, authenticity can look different from brand to brand. Just like how individual people have an infinite number of ways to express themselves, so too do brands. Ultimately though, authenticity can be broken down into three core tenets that strategies can fall under.
The 3 tenets of authenticity
Bridging the gap between what people expect from your brand and their actual experience with your brand means considering how your strategies can touch on one or more of these core components.
(Image by Fleishman-Hillard)
People today are more in control of the brands they shop with than ever before. Of course, this means expectations are higher than ever. And one expectation brands sometimes overlook is trust. People don’t do business with brands they don’t trust, and with an increasingly competitive market, brands who don’t actively earn consumers’ trust can’t expect to stay in business for long.
Trust starts with transparency. Transparency is about being open and honest with things like your pricing, products, business practices, values, and more. It’s also about owning up to mistakes when they inevitably happen. People understand that brands are made up of human beings, and they want to see the human side come out more often.
A great example of a brand that has built a reputation through its transparent practices is Patagonia. The company isn’t afraid to show consumers the good and bad about their products and manufacturing processes. What’s more, they welcome feedback from customers on how they can improve upon those processes.
When thinking about transparency within your brand, don’t be afraid to be 100 percent honest, and even vulnerable. People will remember your brand as one they can trust.
Another big part of brand authenticity is how well you go about building a sense of community between your brand and your audience. With social media, it’s easier than ever to interact with an audience, but the most successful brands feel like genuine, human presences on those platforms. These brands do this by posting user-generated content, showing diversity, asking for feedback, and more.
Cultivating community goes beyond the digital realm as well. For some brands, organizing in-person events and pop-ups can be a great way to meet your audience, start conversations, and even contribute to causes. At the end of the day, building an authentic community means ensuring your brand is an active and vocal voice in the communities in which it inhabits, whether those are digital, IRL, or both.
Perhaps one of the most important elements of brand authenticity today is how well your brand adheres to its mission or purpose. All brands have a purpose for existing, yet many go one step further, advocating for a specific cause (or set of causes) that align with that purpose. For example, shoe company TOMS, which pioneered in the social impact space through its one-for-one giving model, in which one pair of shoes is donated to children in need for every pair purchased.
Strengthening your brand authenticity could mean leaning more heavily into an already established brand purpose or mission, or it could mean establishing new initiatives. As the climate crisis becomes more relevant to consumers, many brands are embracing new sustainability initiatives to cut down on their carbon footprint. Some brands also champion certain political or social causes that resonate with their audiences through donations, activism, or volunteering.
6 ways to build brand authenticity
Here are our top, actionable recommendations on how to create an authentic brand.
1. Practice radical transparency.
The time is over for brands to hold their cards close to their chest. A 2017 study from Label Insight found that 94% of people were more likely to be loyal to a brand that practiced transparency, with 73% willing to pay more for a product that offered complete transparency. Today, a lot of businesses are starting to embrace transparency in some shape or form, but your brand can go further by embracing a mindset of radical transparency. (Source: “How Transparency Became a Top Priority for Businesses, and Why You Should Care” by Larry Alton, Entrepreneur.com, June 14, 2017)
Radical transparency is all about embracing honesty at every level. It could look like breaking down the cost of your product and explaining your markup. Some brands like Lush Cosmetics take a humanized approach to transparency, by incorporating a sticker featuring the name and a portrait of the person who made each product onto packaging. Ultimately, radical transparency is about giving people the information they need to know whether or not your brand aligns with their values on things like ethics, diversity, sustainability, and more.
2. Leverage user-generated content.
One of the simplest ways to build brand authenticity, especially on your social channels, is by publishing user-generated content. UGC can come in the form of photos, videos, written testimonials, and more – and when used right, they can be an incredible asset.
In fact, in a survey conducted by commerce experience platform Notso, 60 percent of people see UGC as the most authentic form of content a brand can publish.
When you give your community a platform to express their ideas and values, you’re letting your audience know that you see them and hear them.
Consider going above and beyond in how you utilize UGC by highlighting the actual people you’re publishing, like how Warby Parker features a person’s career, passions, and other interesting facts.
3. Tell real stories.
Stories are at the heart of every successful brand, and great stories go beyond marketing gimmicks to actually help people connect with your brand and your values. Did you face incredible challenges to build your brand? Was there a defining moment that moved your founder to act? What have you learned since building your brand? All of these questions and more can provide jumping-off points for crafting stories that resonate.
Great stories go back to trust and authenticity by showing the people behind your brand and what they care about. They can also be used to establish your brand as a leader in your field, by educating your audience on topics that matter to you both.
4. Listen to your audience.
If you want to be seen as authentic, it’s important to listen more than you speak as a brand. Open up channels where your audience can share their ideas, thoughts, concerns, and feedback on your products and processes, and work to thoughtfully respond to and implement those ideas when appropriate. Especially after a potential mishap or mistake, taking the time to listen to what people have to say can set your brand apart from others who might want to simply brush it under the rug.
5. Put your money where your values are.
Now more than ever, people expect brands to share the wealth. What’s more, it’s not necessarily the dollar amount that people care about, but the proportion of donations to overall profit that makes people see your brand as generous. A great example is this finding from Harvard researchers Elizabeth Keenan and Leslie John where they found in 2015 Walmart donated $301 million, or 2 percent, of its profits, compared with Target’s $111.5 million, or 5 percent. Unsurprisingly, people saw Target as being more generous. (Source: “Giving Back: Consumers Care More About How Companies Donate Than How Much” by Pamela Reynolds, hbswk.hbs.edu, April 7, 2022)
While you don’t have to become a nonprofit, it’s important to choose one or a few causes that align with your mission and purpose to lift up with your donations. It can also be a great idea to donate to causes that your audience cares about. For example, during Earth Month, you could donate time and resources to organizations fighting climate change.
6. Keep your promises.
Lastly, one of the most important parts of building brand authenticity is following up on your promises as a brand. Whether you promise to change lives and bring about a better world, or simply promise to provide a great product, make sure you’re able to follow through on that. And if along the way a mistake is made, be comfortable owning up to it and trying again.
While authenticity means everything to consumers, at the end of the day, it can mean a lot of different things to different brands. Working with a brand agency can help you define exactly what authenticity means to your company and team, and what it looks like in practice. Learn more about how we help brands find their authentic voice here.
Parting thought for the day…
“Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It’s about the choice to show up and be real.” —Brené Brown