Sophomore year of college, I enrolled in an introductory business class. I knew that I needed to take the course to graduate, but what I didn’t know was that one definitive excerpt would shift the entire course of my life and unveil my true calling.
The chapter assigned was about how sales worked in the 1950’s - or, in a nutshell: “here is the only refrigerator we sell. Buy it or go away.” Being a millennial who grew up with the internet (and matured standards of customer service), I simply could not wrap my head around that notion. What?! No choices, no sales pitch, nothing? This was so different from my world that I instantly became fascinated with how marketing and sales have evolved from those bare-minimum, necessity-driven tactics to today’s sophisticated systems.
How did we get here? What caused the shift? To truly understand, we must first flash back to how marketing used to be…
Old World Marketing
Marketing, in its youth, was simply the concept of promoting products and services to the public in order to make a profit.
Success was defined by goals: how many sales, how big of a reach, quarterly reports, and so on. Choices were few and far between, and the market was much less saturated.
People were strictly seen as consumers on the business side, companies got away with lying to boost their image, and push marketing - getting in consumers’ minds by force and repetition - was all that they knew.
This went along fine and dandy until one innovation came about and reimagined everything: the internet.
New World Marketing
The World Wide Web first became available to the public on August 6, 1991. From there on out, people gained access to virtually everything, allowing consumers to become more informed in every way possible.
Now, with oodles of information at their fingertips, consumers do research before purchases by pulling the information they need to make a decision. They are less passive in their buyer role, they don’t like blatant advertising, and they are completely in control. This means that companies have gained an opportunity to provide the right information at the right time to increase chances of conversion.
But there’s a flipside: everything about a company, good and bad alike, is out there for everyone to find. If a company is not authentic, it will be exposed, which may harm its reputation.
Success is no longer goal-oriented and heavily quantitative; rather, a lot less calculation and optimization is involved due to the necessity of putting observation of the market in the forefront. People are more than just consumers now, companies need to be transparent and ethical, and pull marketing - providing the right value at the right time to the right people - is the standard.
As Erin McPherson, the Chief Content Officer of Maker Studios concisely stated, “the new authority is authenticity.”
So, what does authenticity truly mean, anyway? Depends on who you ask. Merriam-Webster’s definition refers to being original, real, actual, and true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character.
When it comes to the marketing definition, it’s more about establishing trust and drawing in customers by providing them with value. While it is about being transparent and showing consumers the real side of your brand (rather than just a polished, professional side), it is not necessarily about spontaneity, or as Charalambos Vlachoutsicos aptly puts it, “shooting from the hip.” Some say it’s not so much about being honest or ethical - don’t donate to a charity just to drive sales - but more about being true, consistent, and trusted.
The marketing definition of authenticity is about establishing trust and drawing in customers by providing them with value.
The word “authenticity” is used in targeting a particular demographic these days: millennials. Because these young folks grew up with lifelong access to information, they have changed the landscape in which companies get through to consumers by holding brands to higher standards than ever before.
Benefits to Being Authentic
The greatest part of being authentic is that, if your company exists for anything bigger than just profit, you just need to convey this by being yourself and not trying too hard. Easy, right?
Online, and especially on social media, casual, personable language is often associated with being authentic, which takes less effort than carefully crafting messages in professional language anyway. While it is important to be authentic as a brand to give you brownie points with your specific audience, it also makes your brand generally more relatable and trustworthy in the public’s eye.
Furthermore, the fact that people tend to advocate for brands that they genuinely like makes the payoff for being authentic exponentially better: when done right, voluntary brand advocates can bring in organic engagement, increase your reach, catalyze word-of-mouth (WOM) marketing, and score you some quality reviews. When your brand sets a goal of bringing value to your people, your people in turn want to convert from leads into customers. Win-win!
To summarize, let’s revisit the fact that people have a higher awareness of corporate social responsibility and business ethics now than ever before - consumers like brands based on how good they truly are, not just how good their products or services may be. Take advantage of this by creating that deeper connection with people and showing them your aligned values, not by attempting to convince them why they need to give you money.
Although it’s highly beneficial to be authentic, there are, as with most things in life, some pitfalls that are necessary to acknowledge.
Limitations to Authenticity
Have you noticed how much of a buzzword “authenticity” has become? It’s perhaps the greatest downside to the movement: the word is becoming diluted, slowly losing meaning as companies abuse and overuse it. Even worse, the term was originally used by corporations to not sound as ingenuine as their stereotypes made them out to be - ironic, isn’t it?
Although the definition of authentic includes being original, we must address the philosophical elephant in the room: how many businesses are truly original in nature, and on an even deeper level, what is original these days, anyway? While that question is best saved for another time, the definition of authentic also means real. The issue here is that it’s not totally true: remember - it’s not about total spontaneity, but rather well-crafted glimpses into the true brand personality. While showing real interactions is important, it doesn’t mean that any real interaction is good: just like you (should) internalize reactions that are inappropriate to the setting you’re in, your brand should display just the positive and well-thought-out interactions online.
The largest problem with the concept of authenticity, however, is the word itself: spending large sums of money on a campaign about how authentic your brand is does not convey authenticity...at all. In fact, actually using or implying the word “authentic” makes brands come off as “try-hards” and fake in the public’s eye, and can do more harm than good. Actions speak louder than words, so if your brand is indeed authentic, prove it, don’t say it.
Actions speak louder than words, so if your brand is indeed authentic, prove it, don’t say it.
Some of the downfalls of authenticity can result from going about it all wrong, which is why it’s crucial to follow some important guidelines for truly nailing the authentic vibe.
How to Practice Authenticity
Stay true, through and through
First and foremost, always - and I mean always - stay true to your company’s DNA. Authenticity is about conveying values and beliefs, not about hitting goals and implementing strategies. This also means that everyone in the company should genuinely believe in the brand, because every person involved has an impact on the brand’s personality - whether they intend to or not.
First and foremost, always - and I mean always - stay true to your company’s DNA.
Transparency goes hand-in-hand with authenticity: by having all the necessary information available to the public, your company can be proactive about any negative or false claims that come your way - which is great for PR! While it sounds counterintuitive, transparency embodies admitting flaws and how your company will tackle them, which establishes trust and relatability with consumers by relaying the message: “we’re not just some soulless corporation - we are humans who also make mistakes.”
Maintain a consistent voice and personality everywhere
While I stress the importance of your online presence in this article, it’s crucial to underline an important step: you must have one single, clear, definitive voice both online and offline to establish your brand’s one true identity. Just like people who shift personalities based on social factors make others uneasy, a brand could accidentally convey a split personality and lose out on their audience’s trust.
Listen, adapt, deliver, repeat
To truly understand your customers, you must listen to what they want, what they expect, and what drives them to make a purchase. There are so many ways to do this: survey your audience, ask questions on social media, listen to feedback, do research, analyze data, and then adapt.
Rather than blatantly promoting your products or services - which doesn’t work so well these days - solve a problem for your audience. In marketing terms, identify your buyer personas’ pain points and provide them with helpful content aimed to solve their problems and consequently show how your brand can help.
Engage, engage, engage! If your audience is on social media, you should be too. Build relationships with followers to show you truly care and are not just going through the motions to get in their wallets. 47% of millennials, according to Annalect, credit social media to helping introduce them to new brands. Capitalize on this by posting content that your ideal audience can relate to. Being in the moment and posting not-seemingly-planned updates in real-time captures the instant trend that’s so popular today, so don’t be too structured or linear with your content approach. Go with the flow, listen to the wants and needs of your ideal audience, and build your strategy from there.
Use real expertise
Would you believe an ad if it had Joe Shmoe talking about the benefits of some fancy, new ballet slippers - and then showed him dancing in them with horrendous form? Probably not, because he proves through his (lack of) form that he is not an expert on the topic - so why would his opinion matter to consumers?
Always use actual experts, not actors, when you’re emphasizing the value of a product or service according to authoritative sources. People trust experts, so don’t give them any less if that’s your marketing approach.
Leverage user generated content
User generated content (UGC) is when you ask your audience for participation online, usually via social posts with brand-unique hashtags. Many times, companies feature happy or clever customer photos, launch a contest that requires UGC for entry, or otherwise give shoutouts on their profile to loyal and engaged customers.
A classic example is Lay’s: they routinely ask fans to submit new flavors, then feature the highest-voted ones and the users who submitted them. The numbers back this method up: a Percolate report found that a whopping 86% of millennials believe UGC is a good indicator of whether a brand is good and trustworthy.
Enticing users with the chance to become insta-famous also naturally leads to more WOM marketing - which, with 74% of consumers identifying WOM as a key influencer in their purchase decision, boosts ROI online. The best part: getting users to participate with your brand means getting free, authentic content to share online - saving you time and effort.
Feature customer success stories
Similarly, making your customers the heroes of your brand not only gives them a chance to feel special and valued by your brand, but also functions as even more WOM marketing, in a way. Dimensional Research found that 90% of consumers said their buying decisions are influenced by reviews, so by putting real reviews front-and-center on your website, everybody wins: customers get to truly feel important to the brand, and your brand gains trust in the eyes of leads who take into account reviews when making a purchase decision.
Note: all reviews, good or bad, matter. In fact, omitting the bad ones and carefully placing only good reviews on your website is suspicious and triggers a “too good to be true” gut feeling, which may result in denting your brand’s reputation.
Walk the walk
More than anything, the key to successfully showing your audience that your brand is authentic is just that: show it. Actions speak louder than words, so by implementing the elements above and truly getting behind the idea of honest, genuine, not-doctored authenticity, your brand could reap some major benefits: more loyal customers, more sales, more credibility, an overall better reputation, and so much more.