As one of the more common buzzwords that seems to rear its head in all things marketing, communications and engagement, “authenticity” has been on my mind considerably more in recent weeks. My conundrum is this: shouldn’t the need and desire to strive for true authenticity in all we do have been a key focus for decades past anyway?
Was everything a little less than true and somehow acceptable in that regard? Or is the increasing observation and demonstration of a need for more deliberate and transparent authenticity a necessity because of how prevalent fake news, “imposters” and other seeming threats to a healthy status quo are? And last but not least, if we self-profess our authenticity, then how authentic is it in reality?
I would argue the latter is perhaps closer to reality for now, though in itself stands to have a bit more context. The desire or indeed demand to see more authenticity from the brands we consume, regard and look up to may not be as much about their efforts to deliver authenticity as much as it is our evolution as consumers. Trust has always been key, and yet our demand for it now more voracious as ever. Our increased education and social activism for issues that matter to us is becoming more intense with time, and we have become more resilient, demanding and even stubborn in our ask for increased (and sustainable) social consciousness from brands. The brands we pay our money to can no longer afford to stay silent on issues that matter to us, or to sit on the proverbial sidelines of global and local issues.
According to the Ipsos Mori ‘Global Trends 2020 Understanding Complexity’ report, "Authenticity is king" in the year 2020. Brands that understand this and communicate on purposeful issues which go beyond their immediate business interests are, the publication argues, better placed to succeed: “Discerning consumption is on the rise. Some 78% of consumers globally believe it is possible for a brand to support a good cause and make money at the same time, and there are now significantly more people willing to spend more on brands that act responsibly (59%) than on brands that have an image that appeals to them (45%).”
Perhaps we ought to agree on as common a definition as possible in this context, that authenticity is the embodiment and deliverance of key attributes and behaviours, largely around integrity, honesty and transparency. The Journal of Consumer Psychology defines authenticity as, “The extent to which consumers perceive a brand to be faithful toward itself, true to its consumers, motivated by caring and responsibility, and able to support consumers in being true to themselves.” Similarly, Neil Patel, proffers that being authentic means “staying true to who you are, what you do, and who you serve.” It is an inherent humanness that sees one “continually creates value, benefits your customers and improves your business.” Patel’s view does not come from a mere whim, but from decades as a social influencer, marketer, and a New York Times best-selling author. Further, Patel notes that companies and/or leaders need to first define core values, goals, and beliefs and then work to effectively prove that this exists at the core of their business and/or philosophy.
There’s an intersection, therefore, with clarity of purpose, and indeed purposefulness, beyond the bottom line. Profits matter yes, but truly authentic brands and businesses have one key thing in common: they also work to create better societies and drive sustainable impact, albeit to varying degrees, and some in fact prioritising this over profits entirely. We are, as increasingly discerning consumers, more attracted to brands who factor in giving-back to their community as part of their strategic purpose, and whose social conscience is apparent for all to see in action, as well as in proven results.
On issues of poverty, racism, lack of diversity and inclusion, and even gender equality, some of the most future-forward brands are stepping up to the fore with a blatant disregard for a sub-standard status quo. Fueled by their own values and purpose, they are bandied on by loyal consumers who value the importance of taking a stand and showing support where it is needed most – steer clear of brands who have shown insensitivity or event blatant disregard to race (remember the H&M money sweatshirt?), cultural appropriation (Versace’s “Native American Tribute”), dishonesty (Volkswagen lied for years about the real-world environmental impact of their diesel automobiles), or even a lack of inclusiveness (Victoria’s Secret is no stranger to accusations of misogyny and lack of embracing plus-sized or “real” female bodies). Of course, these are just some examples.
Others, it would appear, are much more firmly focused on a more socially conscious approach not simply for marketing’s sake, but as inherently interwoven into their brand DNA. And it’s paying off. Shoe company, Toms, arguably pioneered the social-enterprise-in-fashion model with every purchased pair of shoes seeing a resultant free pair going to a school child in need – a direct paid for free system. Reebok has released a number of shoe lines made from recycled plastic and even corn-based materials to fight the negative impact previous sneaker production has on the environment. Dove has been incredibly strong in its push for redefining beauty in a more inclusive and racially aware manner. And last but certainly not least, Nike has reframed brand purpose, and there is no better example than the brand’s 30th Anniversary ‘Just Do It’ campaign featuring former NFL star and #BlackLivesMatter campaigner, Colin Kaepernick.
As Author and TEDTalk speaker Simon Sinek notes, “We are authentic when we say and do the things we actually believe,” and “people seek authenticity even if they can’t easily define it.” Similarly, “It’s ‘stand for something or stand for nothing’ and hopefully, we all work for brands that at least know what they are,” said Dan Mazei, Head of Global Newsroom at Reebok. As brands now work to do away with traditional sales and marketing approaches, it is becoming apparent for all that those who embody and exercise increasing social consciousness in their values, purpose and practices are not only more well-liked, but seemingly more successful. They lead in authenticity as well as sustainability, and in a growing culture of authentic leadership.
Authentic brands and individuals are real on a myriad of levels; they have purpose and passion, and their cause goes beyond shareholder monetary gain. Though in the business of selling a product or service, they in fact lead with selling us their role in the bigger picture, and it is this that we are often more likely to open our wallets for. They are authentically authentic, rather than masquerading for a cause, and therein lies their true value to the socially conscious consumer.
To be more authentic: discover and define your purpose, share what you believe, and how all that you do serves to support this. Be transparent, engaging and open. Above all, seek progress towards your ambition, harnessing support from others as needed because the greater social good has no silver bullet or single superhero to credit, nor does it seek to. Prioritise ethics and morality over making a quick buck, and love your values in all that you do, rather than them being simply being something you say. Seek and earn the trust of your consumers and your stakeholders just as you seek their loyalty and give them a reason to fight for you. And on the flipside, know that consumers too have a role to play.
So, how are we as consumers demanding more from the brands we consume on a daily basis? And how do we inculcate a greater culture of authentic authenticity and consciousness rising? It’s no coincidence that the both the Customer and Authenticity are “King” – logic would dictate the power to demand change may well reside (at least largely) in the hands of us consumers, as well as that of leaders and marketers.
Sinek argues extensively that “The reason companies like Southwest Airlines, Apple and Whole Foods have such a loyal following of customers and employees is because they tell us what THEY believe. They didn’t wait to find out which way the wind was blowing. Those who believe the same things are not only drawn to them, they trust them. […]Ultimately, this is why authentic companies lead. Because leaders are the ones willing to go first instead of waiting to see where others are heading.”
And if we become more demanding of the brands we consume beyond product and service spec, then perhaps we stand a stronger chance of playing our parts to cultivate a more socially conscious market. This might well question the very elements that make consumer culture consumer culture, but is this not the point of evolution? Change, grow and evolve into the more socially conscious brand or leader for the very survival and sustainability of all that you do.
Conscious consciousness may feel new, but it’s already stronger than ever and we better learn to keep up or fall behind. Do it with purpose, or not at all, in my humble view.