What it means to be an authentic brand

 In Branding


Authenticity in business and branding has become more important in the last decade or so. But in my opinion the definition of what is authenticity, still leaves something to be desired.


The problem with the use of authenticity is that people give a positive meaning to the word authentic. Being authentic is seen as good, but the word authenticity itself does not have a positive nor negative connotation. It is a concept without an intrinsic value.


Authenticity is a word like quality. The word quality itself doesn´t say anything about what it is used to describe. The word itself has no intrinsic value. A piece of clothing can be good quality or bad quality. Just saying the dress has quality doesn´t say anything about it being good or bad quality. It works the same for authenticity.


Let´s illustrate with an example.


The other day Nike launched its new campaign, celebrating the 30th anniversary of its Just Do It campaign with Colin Kaepernick.


“Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”  is the tagline of the ad which has sparked a lot of controversy between opponents and proponents of Kaepernick´s kneeling stance on social injustice.


Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.

The tagline itself proves Kaepernick´s authenticity. It is about what he believes in and stands, or rather kneels, for and he doesn´t compromise on it. In his case resulting in sacrificing his football career.


Nike believes in something as well. They are standing for an athlete´s right to express his opinion. It is costing them customers and it has resulted in a #BoycotNike movement.


In both cases they are true to what they stand for. And there are people who love it and people who hate it.


The fact that Kaepernick as well as Nike are liked and disliked for being authentic, shows that the appreciation of authenticity completely depends on what the brands of Kaepernick and Nike stand for. You do not like what they stand for? Then you will not appreciate their authenticity.


Authenticity litmus test

So being authentic isn´t necessarily good. Take terrorists for instance. They believe in something. They sometimes even sacrifice their own lives to follow through on their beliefs.


Do we like their authenticity? No!


The mafia has been portrayed as to operate under certain strict principles. Do we like their authenticity? Most of us don´t.


What would happen if you would overlay Kaepernick´s tagline on a picture of Hitler or Osama Bin Laden? (It seems sacrilege to even apply such a noble principle in such a thought experiment!) These people stood for something, but because people didn´t appreciate what they were standing for, very few people today appreciate their authenticity.


Think of people or groups of people who stand for their beliefs. They live their beliefs and values every day. If you have an opposite set of values, you may not appreciate their authenticity.


So how does authenticity work for brands and businesses?


Authenticity in business

A business or an organization is not a person. But like a person, an organization has beliefs and values it lives by. It is called organizational culture.


And if positioned properly, a brand is based on the values that leads to the success of the business and sets itself apart from the competition.


This works because brands need to be consistent in making true on their brand promise at every moment of interaction with its stakeholders. Sociologist Max Weber stated in his study, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, that value based behavior results in consistent behavior.


The Cambridge Dictionary defines authenticity as “ Being what it is claimed to be; Genuine”. An extrapolation of that definition to businesses and brands is: “Being what the brand/business claims to be”. Or in brand speak: fulfilling your brand promise.


That means acting according to the brand´s values by every employee, with every stakeholder, at every touchpoint.


Authentic Top 100

Cohn & Wolfe agency publish a yearly Authentic Top 100  in which they survey 15.000 people in 15 different countries. According to them authenticity is made up by three key attributes: reliability, respectfulness, and reality. Source: Business Insider.


Based on my explanation, it will not surprise you that I disagree with that definition. Cohn & Wolfe have selected values that may not be part of the brand values of the brands considered.


They measure brands against their Cohn & Wolfe´s yardstick and not the brand´s own. It is more a measure of quality than of authenticity, in my opinion.


I also think that employees should be included in this survey on their company´s authenticity. They are the best judge if the brand´s promise is an empty one.


Authenticity in practice

Authenticity in practice is having clear brand values that have their base in organizational culture. And living and leading by it every day.


It means knowing what your brand stands for and applying this to the choices you make, the interactions you have within the company and outside of it. They should govern day-to-day employee and leadership behavior within the company. That is why it is so important to hire people that fit within your organizational culture.


What do you think about authenticity in branding? Please let me know in the comments.


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