There’s a widespread perception that marketing is, by definition, inauthentic. Marketers seek to put their company’s best foot forward while exposing every possible flaw in the competition. To hear some tell it, marketing is always on the knife’s edge between hyperbole and outright dishonesty.
To be clear, that stereotype is not unwarranted. Plenty of marketing does walk that line. But it’s certainly not true of all marketing, nor is it necessarily the most effective approach.
For example, Southwest Airlines’ 2015 “Transfarency” campaign earned tremendous engagement on social media by using Southwest’s no-fees approach as a differentiator from the experience of flying with competitors. The world’s leading Greek yogurt brand, Chobani, uses a down-to-earth, disarming tagline to highlight the power of sustainably producing an everyday product: “A cup of yogurt won’t change the world, but how we make it might.” These companies have avoided overtly self-aggrandizing messaging to focus on honest connection with consumers, and it works.
The advent of social media and the digital age has changed the world of marketing forever, and in that landscape, the way to succeed is to be authentic.
Consumers demand brand authenticity
Fundamentally, authenticity in marketing is important because consumers demand it. According to a 2017 report, an overwhelming majority (86 percent) of consumers say authenticity is important when deciding what brands they like and support.
The same report also found that the majority of consumers believe most brands are not creating content that resonates as authentic. In other words, in the eyes of consumers, brands are not doing a particularly good job of meeting them where they are.
Changing content consumption in the digital age
Why is it that consumers demand authenticity in the current age? In part, it’s because they have much more control over the content they experience now than ever before.
The average American has access to millions of websites, numerous streaming video services with thousands of hours of content, and perhaps most importantly, an endless parade of user-generated content on social media. Consumers today have unprecedented access to content created by real people, including people they know personally; content that is, by definition, truly authentic. For most members of the Gen Z cohort in particular, an increasing share of the market, social media has been part of the world for as long as they can remember, and it shapes their perception of any message in any medium.
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The digital environment has also dramatically lowered consumers’ tolerance for inauthentic content. A world where anyone can create content is also a world where fake news and misleading claims run rampant, which means consumers are exposed to them every day. Moreover, when a particular claim is debunked or called out, the debunking itself can spread like wildfire on social media.
Consumers are wary of fake news and inauthentic messaging, and the internet makes it fairly easy to seek verification for anything the user questions. On the other hand, the internet makes it easy for people to find messaging that tells them what they want to hear (whether it’s based in facts or not) and not pay too much attention to the evidence behind it. To cut through this environment, and anyone trying to reach a broad audience (and do so ethically) must meet users where they are, and do so in a manner backed by real-world action, not just empty rhetoric.
In short, for brands to resonate with consumers in this evolving digital world, they have to be authentic.
Authenticity in marketing creates digital word of mouth
Thanks to social media and other forms of instant communication, consumers are increasingly turning to people they know to recommend brands and products. For instance, 57 percent of Millennials have made travel plans based on an image or video they saw on social media, and 56 percent have decided to eat at a restaurant because of a friend’s post on social media. Recommendations from friends and family matter not just in terms of brand awareness, but critically, during the research phase as potential customers decide whether to buy.
Brands can capitalize on this, but only if they’re able to incentivize people to recommend them to friends, whether by sharing branded content or creating their own posts recommending the company. The challenge here is that people who have influence in their social circles are typically discerning about what they share. They’re largely going to share content from brands that they trust, not just marketing material that looks flashy.
So how do brands build consumer trust?
Show integrity to build trust in business
The first step toward building an authentic marketing strategy is to commit to consistency across all marketing channels. That doesn’t mean every channel has to be the same — it makes sense, for instance, to show the fun side of a company on Instagram while sticking with highly professional, serious content on LinkedIn — but those channel-specific pieces of content need to be recognizably part of the same brand. A company that is perceived as having multiple personalities will find it impossible to earn trust.
This consistent approach needs to be intentionally integrated across every channel, both online and offline. For example, when brands engage with environmental causes or initiatives, they’re often accused of “greenwashing;” that is, being performatively environmentally conscious for the sake of good PR instead of a genuine desire to help the environment. One infamous example of this phenomenon was McDonald’s’ 2009 rollout of new logo colors in Europe, changing from yellow and red to yellow and green.
The antidote to this perception is to think critically about the individual organization’s role in the broader goal of environmental sustainability and roll out an initiative that makes sense for the brand, in alignment with the organization’s mission and purpose. An excellent example of this approach done well comes from Lego, which has rolled out plant-based bricks and sustainably sourced supply chains as part of its mission to make its products sustainable by 2030 — and has leveraged this authentic pursuit of sustainability to better connect with the Millennial parents of most of today’s school-age children.
Honest brands can handle crises well
Brands that put in the effort to be authentic at all times will find this approach pays dividends when it matters: during a communication crisis.
A consequence of the digital world is that information spreads fast, and companies cannot control the conversation about their products, services, and marketing initiatives. In pursuit of authenticity, marketing professionals will inevitably to encounter hiccups along the way, saying something that isn’t perceived the way intended or engaging with a hot-button issue that may have best been handled more gingerly.
The way a company responds to a crisis is a huge factor in how that company is perceived. Again, the key is to be authentic and vulnerable, avoid getting defensive, and engage with consumers and the public in an honest, transparent manner. Transparency in marketing during a crisis means finding a balance between staying on-message and being genuine instead of giving a “canned” response.
In a digital age, brands need authentic marketing leaders
In short, an organization can’t just wake up tomorrow and decide to be authentic. Creating brand authenticity and building consumer trust takes time, effort, and commitment. Businesses need to be intentional about implementing consistent messaging and transparency across every channel. Perhaps most importantly, they need to double down on authenticity during a crisis situation when the temptation to fall back on defensiveness and generic PR is strongest. Authentic marketing works, but only strong leadership can pull it off.
If you’re ready to take the next step in your career and lead a brand into an age dominated by authenticity in marketing, your next step is an MBA program that engages with contemporary issues and values hands-on experience and real-world insight. Get started with the online MBA program with a specialization in marketing at Lindenwood University.