Building Brand Authenticity

So what is brand authenticity?

Well, it is part of a brand’s equity. It’s worth.

Brand equity is the set of assets and liabilities linked to a brand name or logo.  These assets and liabilities add or subtract value in the brand for the firm or in the mind of consumers.

Brands that have strong equity tend to have strong name awareness, strong associations attached to the brand, a perception of quality and high levels of customer loyalty.

Brand authenticity is drawn from the elements of brand equity that derive from consumer’s perceptions and attitude.  Authenticity is perceptual; it is the features of a brand that allow consumers to buy into its identity and story.  In short, authentic brands appear more real in the minds of consumers.

It could be argued that authenticity is the opposite of marketing in consumer’s minds.  Marketing implies a manufactured image; the use of ‘perceptual photoshop’.  For example Starbucks has been criticised recently on two fronts, the effect they have had on local independent cafes and their corporate tax avoidance.  Many see the company’s attempts to copy the culture of independent retailers; e.g. the use of soft furnishings and free newspapers; as a veneer to cover corporate greed.  It is almost as if Starbucks is trying too hard to say, “I’m authentic” and the result in the minds of consumers is the opposite connotation; that the company’s marketing mix is a cover for the company’s true nature.

The issue is often a perception of commercial motivation being hidden behind false authenticity.

So if direct attempts to state ‘Authentic’ may be perceived as hype or propaganda, how do you create authenticity in the minds of consumers.  Here are six potential strategies:

  1. Become Part of a Community – For example, the much missed book retailer Borders tried to build a community spirit in their stores by opening them in the evening for things like language and music lessons.  Many bookshops allow regular customers space and time to read in their stores, giving a library-like feel whilst not overly pressurising people to pay.  The strategy in such stores is the longer people stay in the store, the more they purchase.
  2. Challenge Conventions – In the late 1970’s Punk and New wave took the music industry by storm.  Punk music challenged the conventions of the big music brands who were trying to sell a mixture of progressive and glam rock.  Punk and New Wave challenged the convention of what popular music was.  Prog and Glam were decadent, overblown and manufactured.  Punk was gritty and real.  Dyson challenge the convention that vacuum cleaners are more efficient with a dust bag.  Macdonald’s are currently running a campaign challenging the convention that they produce fast ‘junk’ food.  The campaign highlights that McDonald’s fries are made from real potatoes, sourced from UK farms, and that they only use UK bred beef.
  3. Stick to your Roots – Sometimes it is not appropriate to bend to market of customer demands.  For example, Morgan Cars, the traditional British sports car brand could have gone over to automated manufacture to fill waiting lists for their products.  Instead, they retained coach work and the hand-built ethos.  Customers would have to wait for cars which to this day are built by hand.  However, Morgan have imported modern Japanese quality assurance procedures.
  4. Love of Craft – For example, Ralph Lauren, the fashion designer, used to visit stores unannounced to inspect how his clothing was being displayed and sold.  This highlighted his attention to detail and pursuit of quality.  Led Zeppelin refused to release singles.  In fact, when their record company tried to release a single to promote the bands first album, the band ordered any copies distributed to be collected and melted down.  Singles were for teenyboppers and bubble gum pop acts.  Led Zeppelin were ‘serious’ musicians only fit for long play.  Of course, to get Zeppelin’s music fans had to buy albums at significantly more profit to both the record company and the band.
  5. Business Amateurism – A brand may be seen by consumers as amateurish or produced by people with no business acumen.  However, this is often a carefully crafted story.  Behind the scenes, cutting edge technology and business practices are used.  Let’s go back to Punk and probably the most famous punk band, The Sex Pistols.  To many in the media and the record business, the band were the height of amateurism.  A band that deliberately went out to disrupt, destroy and offend.  In truth, Malcolm McLaren, the band’s manager deliberately ramped up the chaos to draw attention to the band.  He deliberately used offence to drive column inches and debate; increasing the band’s profile.  The Sex Pistols may have gone through three record company’s in as many weeks but when their provocatively named album was released, it sold like hot cakes.
  6. “We Ignore Consumers” – Harry Selfridge, creator of Selfridge’s department stores was a proponent of “The customer is always right”.  Wrong.  The customer is often very, very wrong.  That does not mean that customers should not be treated with respect, just that their view should be gauged with caution.  For many years, Hollywood studios used viewer response cards at film previews to judge the appropriate marketing strategy for a product.  Movies with positive audience response figures had the full weight of the studio’s PR machine placed behind them.  Poor response figures may result in a film being re-cut or even dropped from release into the straight to home video market.   This process is shown in the film Singin’ in the Rain where the talkie version of The Duelling Cavalier bombs and Gene Kelly’s character, fearing the end of his movie career reshoots the film as a musical, dubbing the voice of the star actress.  This process often produced dramatic results.  For example the thriller Fatal Attraction had its ending changed.  In the book and the original version of Fatal Attraction, Glenn Close’s bunny boiler psychopath commits suicide.  This was felt by preview audiences to be a cop out of an ending.  It was changed so that Close’s character was killed by the wife of Michael Douglas’s character.  This was out of character for Close’s character and later, when the original ending was re-instated, most critics saw it as a better film.  At one audience preview Goodfellas, Martin Scorcese’s classic gangster film flopped.  If the studio had taken the views of the audience as gospel, a cinema classic may never have reached cinemas.  At the same preview, a film called Article 99, about a veteran’s hospital was seen as a surefire hit.  Have you herd of the film Article 99?

So developing brand authenticity is difficult.  It takes hard work and a strong and consistent brand identity.  It is unlikely that a direct shout to consumers that your business is authentic will work.  It may eve have the opposite effect to that desired.  Instead use your marketing mix and variations of the above strategies to grow the impression of authenticity within your target customer groups.