The truth about truth and authenticity – why some brands get it and others don’t

Spend an hour at any marketing conference and you’re sure to hear the word ‘authenticity’ used multiple times in keynotes and panel discussions. Authenticity has become one of the biggest buzzwords in brand, but does it mean the same as truth? Fiona Killackey investigates.

This article originally appeared in The Truth Issue, our October/November 2018 print edition of Marketing magazine.

Fiona KillackeyEvery marketer knows that consumers pass through three key stages when building loyalty with a brand:

  1. know
  2. like, and
  3. trust.

It’s this last stage that’s the hardest to cultivate and the easiest to destroy. We have all witnessed brands we once loved fall by the wayside when a lack of trust dislodged their once stable ground. Likewise, we have seen brands we didn’t immediately notice rise to a place of prominence by being continually true to their word, even when financial pressures could have led them in other directions.

But what actually makes a brand trustworthy and is an authentic brand one you can always trust? Does authenticity equate to trustworthiness or are the two completely different brand traits?

Truth Issue cover 200The word authentic has been used perhaps more than any other word in the last decade, when it comes to ways for marketers to explain their brand message or ideal connection with customers. ‘We always strive to be authentic’ is as overused as ‘We know our customers seek authenticity so that’s what we’re delivering’. But what does authenticity really mean? The textbook definition for authentic is to be “of undisputed origin and not a copy; genuine”, but also to be “representing one’s true nature or beliefs”. It’s with this latter definition that marketing can get muddy. In the last decade we have witnessed a backlash against brands that appear inauthentic, as well as a surge of brands eager to show the people and processes behind the business as a way of appearing genuine and relatable.

In February 2018, while speaking at the Consumer Analyst Group New York (CAGNY) industry conference, Emmanuel Faber, CEO of Danone said, “Consumers are looking to pierce the corporate veil… to look at what’s behind the brand… The guys responsible for this are the Millennials.”

 

Why do Millennials care?

Millennials, those born between the 1980s and early 2000s are now one of the most powerful consumer groups in the world. They are also living their lives in ways not seen before – choosing to forego career-long employment at one firm to travel and work for themselves, marrying later (if at all) and putting off large purchases (homes and cars etc) in place of experiences (travelling and working abroad, launching a business).

According to Smart Insights, Millennials are also one of the most health conscious generations ever witnessed and the most environmentally aware consumers, eager to understand what’s in their products. In 2017, Nielsen Consumer and Media View research showed that 54% of Millennials said they had consumed alcohol in the past month, compared with 65% of Generation X and 72% of Baby Boomers. In a 2017 study by CBD Marketing, Millennials were shown to want ‘healthy, natural food’, which they buy from “environmentally conscious manufacturers and purveyors; [they] want transparency”.

It’s no surprise then, that they’re also seeking a deeper connection with the brands they choose to support. According to a study conducted by Forbes and Elite Daily in 2015, 75% of Millennials say it’s ‘fairly’ or ‘very’ important that a company gives back to society instead of just making a profit.

In Australia, brands like Thank You and Who Gives a Crap have done incredibly well in awareness and sales, largely due to uptake from younger consumers who enjoy the giving back element of these businesses, as well as the fact their founders are relatively young. In the US, brands like Warby Parker and TOMS have been exceeding all expectations due to transparency and a willingness to make their business work better for the world at large.

All four are also examples of brands that have strong digital marketing and social media strategies, with little spent on traditional advertising mediums. This way of marketing is not lost on Millennials; according to the Forbes report, only 1% said that a compelling advertisement would make them trust a brand more and that, for the most part, “Millennials believe that advertising is all spin and not authentic”.

 

What happens when truth impacts authenticity?

Even brands that appear to be giving back, genuine and ‘free of undisputed origin’ have been threatened by what happens when the truth challenges their marketing efforts. Jessica Alba’s The Honest Company – an eco-friendly baby, laundry and home products company valued at US$1 billion (December 2017) – has been hit with numerous lawsuits in the last three years over claims its products include chemicals and toxins that go against the company’s promise of all natural ingredients. In June 2017, the company agreed to pay damages in the millions for “dishonest advertising”. Talking to CNN Business about the allegations against The Honest Company, Denise Lee Yohn, a consumer brand expert suggested, “Every time [an allegation] happens, it’s a nick… And then a nick becomes a cut and a cut becomes a wound.”

So how can brands ensure they present both authentically and truthfully? By staying true to their brand values, admitting when they’re at fault and treating their audience with the respect and recognition they deserve.

 

Marketing in a post-truth era

We’re living in an era where people are questioning everything – and with good reason. Apps like Lyrebird allow AI to mimic your voice in seconds, while Deepfake technology makes it possible to create fake video of someone else. In 2019 misinformation is easy to create and even easier to share. All of this leaves marketers needing to be more transparent and open when relaying their brand’s stories than ever before. In a 2018 study by McCann Worldgroup’s Truth Central global intelligence unit entitled ‘Truth About Global Brands 2: Powered by the Streets’, truth was seen as “the most valued currency”.

According to the study, 72% of people believe “it’s more important to put the truth before other factors in all situations” (up from 61% in 2015). They also believe that they need to read five different sources to get to the truth. In a press release, Suzanne Powers, global chief strategy officer of McCann Worldgroup, said that the “key takeaway about people’s attitudes on a global basis is that consumers still believe in the power of brands and companies to act in a positive way – and they in fact trust global brands and corporations more than institutions, political bodies or other organisations”.

To ensure this trust endures, marketers must be absolutely clear on their brand values and beliefs, and share these (and stay true to them!) with their audiences. They must also invest in building strong communities through experience marketing efforts, local engagement and social impact. While in the McCann study, there was “a rise in trust for local brands”, 81% of people believe that “global brands have the power to make the world better”. Being an authentic brand can extend to being a truthful one, if brands accept this new era of marketing and live up to the promises they so eagerly push out to their ideal clients and customers.

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Image credit: USA Today