Traditionally, when the word authenticity was mentioned by senior executives, it was defined by the term ‘the genuine article’. It was a reference to official goods as opposed to counterfeits. Authority was conferred on a product through the enforcement of intellectual property and the use of legal force in terms of both criminal and civil sanctions. Thus authenticity was conferred on products by their manufacturer.
Today, authenticity is conferred through the perception of consumers. To develop an authentic brand story, you must buy in to the perceptions of your target consumers and fit within their concept of the truth.
What recent political campaigns have shown is that something doesn’t need to be true or factual to confer authenticity. Leave won the EU referendum campaign through the widespread dissemination of lies and myth. They plastered a bus with a false and misleading statements about “£350 million a week for the NHS”. This was a lie as the UK only ever paid a fraction of that sum to the EU as its membership fee. Donald Trump continues to send out false and misleading messages. For example, this week he tweeted about a large rise in the crime rate in Germany. In truth crime in Germany has fallen to its lowest level in over a decade.
Obviously there are laws to prevent the dissemination of false or misleading statements about products (e.g. the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008) and there are far less robust controls in politics. However the Trump and leave campaigns won because their messages fitted best with the perception of the truth amongst the target audience. Common sense and facts did not matter, the misleading messages fitted with the target audiences beliefs. Both Trump and Leave cynically targeted the less well-educated and the politically dispossessed with fairy stories and the creation of a false Utopia. In the long run the lies told by Trump and Leave will be exposed and the effects of a policy based on lies will be felt. But politicians aren’t trying to maintain a product over decades. Their concern is for the immediate campaign, not the campaigns of ten years time. They are quite happy to deliver a prospectus which contains false authenticity because by the time the effects are felt, the ‘product they sell will be gone.
That is not an appropriate strategy if you are trying to develop brand authenticity in the long-term.
However, as with politics, something doesn’t need to be true to be authentic.
Charles Morgan, of the Morgan Motor Company, which makes ‘classic British sports cars’ said:
“Rather than a brand, I think it’s an attempt to interest the cult and to keep the cult going. we like telling stories people can tell in the pub and that makes them feel part of the family. And so the brand is made up around a series of myths; some of which are true, some of which are owned – The one about the wooden chassis in France, we have tried and tried to get rid of that, but it still persists; and I think eventually we’re going to have to say, “Okay, yeah, yeah, it’s true”.
Of course, parts of a Morgan car are constructed from wood, but the chassis is not and never has been. The wooden chassis myth is part of the subjective nature of brand authenticity. The fact Morgan talks of myths, truthful and owned, is part of the firm’s creation of an alluring mystique which is authentic in the minds of its target customer group.
So why does brand authenticity matter:7
- Consumer brand choice is an extension of their desired self. They use brands to achieve self-actualisation (the peak of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Consumers use brands to confirm a preferred identity but they also go further and use brands to connect with a preferred community. A brand is a connection to those who think alike.
- Authenticity can increase brand equity. Brands considered authentic are often viewed more favourably by consumers and therefore are seen to have greater worth. Authenticity can lead to greater loyalty, more word of mouth communication, helps to create brand communities, makes consumers more tolerant of failures and often acts as a defence in tougher times. In market research, if consumers see a brand as authentic, it is an indicator of purchasing intention.
- Authentic brands are often long-lasting. Their product life cycle is long or cyclical. Brands seen as authentic can persist for decades. The UK has two of the oldest brands in the world, Lyon’s Golden Syrup and Bass beer. Both these brands have persisted for nearly two centuries.
Developing authenticity provides an ongoing point of difference. It can also provide excitement and élan.
For example, Lexus cars are seen by consumers as technically excellent but boring. Alfa Romeo cars have a record of inconsistent performance (particularly electrical faults) but they are seen as having soul.
Here are five strategies for building brand authenticity:
- Become part of the community: Assimilate the psyche of nations and sub-cultures. What is Australia without Vegemite? What is France without Champagne? What is London without the red double-decker bus? What is Scotland without Tartan? Being part of the community makes it difficult for new market entrants to gain a foothold. If you are part of the community, buying your product is an act of identity, not just loyalty.
- Challenge conventions: It is often authentic to go against conventions; although admittedly that sounds counter-intuitive. For example, nineteenth century Britain the accepted culture was one of modernisation and technological advance. William Morris, patron of the arts and crafts movement went against the zeitgeist. Through Liberty he chose to champion artisan skills and a culture of craft. He espoused a simpler age based on nature, tradition and emotion. Liberty still exist to this day. Punk arose in the late 1970’s as a reaction to the convention’s of progressive rock. Where many saw the future of popular music as complex and taking influence from classical music, Punk looked to the simpler three chord structures previously seen in fifties rock and roll. these simpler structures were seen as more authentic than prog. Dyson are all about challenging convention. Dyson’s technology is seen as authentic because it challenges vacuum cleaner designs which hadn’t changed in decades. It is authentic to target the rebellious spirit in all of us.
- Stick to your roots: Authentic brands are stubborn. It is often a convention in marketing that to sustain a brand over time, you need to adapt to changing environmental, societal and technological factors. However brands recognised as authentic often ignore societal change and stick to their roots. In fact there could be a consumer backlash if they do not. For example, Irn Bru recently changed its recipe. It reduced the sugar content as a result of a tax introduced by the government on sugary soft drinks. Barr’s faced a backlash from its customers in Scotland who were unhappy at the recipe change. In contrast, Coca Cola accepted the new tax and raised prices rather than lower the sugar content. Perhaps Coke was ‘once bitten, twice shy’ following the failure of the New Recipe Coke in the late 1980’s. Brand history is critical to authenticity. Heritage, sincerity and love of production are central to consumers’ perception of authenticity.
- Love of craft: Are your people passionate about your products and services? Do senior managers spend time on the shop floor? Consumer’s see authenticity when a firm shows true love of their craft. Morgan cars are one such example. It has retained the craft of hand-built coach work when other car manufacturers have factories filled with robots. The firm is family owned and its managers own and drive its products. Currently there is a group of Star Wars fans who want to remake The Last Jedi ‘properly’. They feel the latest film in the series didn’t fit with the values of the ‘Star Wars’ brand and with its established conventions. Brands run and staffed by enthusiasts are seen as authentic.
- Business Amateurism: Authentic brands are often run by people who the general public see as amateurs. A fine example is Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream. In the minds of many consumers, Ben and Jerry are two hippies who decided to sell ice cream. They are not seen as hard-nosed businessmen. The impression is that such firms reject market research and use gut feeling. Of course, this is nonsense but the brand is seen as authentic as it has developed the myth of the amateur. Amateurs have redeeming features. They do it for love rather than remuneration. They think differently (often through a lack of training). Amateurs are often unconcerned about fame, paying bills or meeting targets. They are viewed as grounded, humble and playful.
Authenticity is shown, not described. Overt claims of being authentic are often seen as hype. Such claims may make genuine brand claims seem fake.
For cultural immersion, small details and one-off experiences can count as much as extensive research programmes. It is appropriate to immerse yourself in the market culture. I have just watched Darkest Hour, the film-based on the early days of Churchill’s premiership during World War 2. The critical scene is where Churchill takes a short journey on the London underground and ask the opinions of the commuters in the tube car. This is what he bases his policy on, not the statistics produced by his civil servants. Ugg, the sheepskin boot manufacturer takes a great interest in the views of its ‘brand fans’. Ugg invites these fans to have work experience in the company where their individual views can be examined. Ugg fans directly impact decision-making.
Employing a brand historian can help develop authenticity. A brand’s past can inform its future. authenticity can be built through a company’s history and the colourful characters associated with a brand. How many firms advertise themselves through the quirks of their creator? For example, Huntley and Palmer biscuits sponsored Captain Scott’s expedition to the south pole. Despite the expedition being a disaster, it is seen by many British consumers as an expression of British bulldog spirit and bravery against adversity. Huntley and Palmer’s exploit their history to develop brand authenticity.
Authentic brands are not afraid of letting their consumers in on their processes. It is often critical to firms to get their consumers’ views on new technological innovations, new recipes and new products. For example many software manufactures use beta testing. They get trusted consumers to use prototype software and to identify bugs and potential improvements. Showing you trust your consumers with your ‘in development’ products builds the impression of partnership, shared values and thus authenticity.
Authenticity can be developed through the exploitation of lucky breaks. Ugg boots started life as a specialist product for male surfers. they were designed to keep surfers feet warm when they got out of the cold ocean. The brand got a lucky break when young female consumers saw the boots as comfortable and fashionable. Dyson took advantage of a market where product design was assumed to be unchanging. He was also lucky in that the market leader, Hoover, was in financial difficulty following the Sinclair C5 debacle and a disastrous free flights offer. Dyson took advantage with new technological designs and fashionable design.
Creating and developing brand authenticity is a challenge. It is critical to develop open-ended and rich stories rather than technical position statements. It is important to espouse enduring values, emphasise love of craft and to develop a powerful organisational memory.