The Real Deal-Authenticity in Brand Identity is Hard to Fake (The Hub Magazine)

What makes a brand authentic?

A roundtable featuring: Tony Pace of Subway, Jeff Murray of the University of Arkansas, Jim Geikie of Burt's Bees and Dave Fiore of Catapult.

Tony Pace: Authenticity comes from putting who you are front-and-center and always remaining consistent with the consumer’s experience.

We try to be straightforward and simple about who we are at Subway; everything is right there in front of our customers and we let them make their own creations. It’s essential to be transparent in terms of what you have to offer, while also allowing consumers to participate in that process.

Jeff Murray: I see three or four strategies at work. One is what I call a “staged” authenticity, where a larger company tries to connect locally in some way. Walmart is doing this with its smaller format stores, for example. A second strategy is to mark your competitors as inauthentic, which Dove does with its “Real Women” campaign. It’s their way of saying that they are honest and transparent, while implying that their competitors are inauthentic.

A third strategy is to combine the brand’s story with the consumer’s. When I was in high school, a guy showed up one day at track practice with Tiger running shoes, which weren’t sold in stores yet. We felt like we were the only ones who had them, and that made those shoes feel authentic.

Then there’s what I call the “Kurt Cobain” strategy of saying that authenticity is a myth, that we’re all part of this giant cog of commercial capitalism, so just commit to selling out. It doesn’t matter what you are committed to, you just have to be committed. If you “live it” completely, even if that means selling out, then you are authentic.

Jim Geikie: Authenticity starts with being honest, genuine and real. It’s about really being truthful. It also helps to have established roots and a history.

It is about having clear and transparent principles and a track record of consistent behavior against those principals. When you marry authenticity with integrity, that’s the path to trust.

Dave Fiore: Authenticity is so many things — your brand history, your ethos, and how you are perceived relative to your competitors. All of those things go into the stew of authenticity.

Ultimately, authenticity comes down to one word: understanding. You must understand your consumers and the place that your product plays within their lives. You must understand all the pluses and minuses of your product in their minds.

Authenticity is where the rubber meets the road and fiction becomes truth. Authenticity is when you know what your brand is and you have the confidence to be what you are. When you have a place in the consumer’s life and you are relevant, then your brand can be very, very powerful.

Is a brand’s authenticity more important today than in the past?

Pace: Brand authenticity is more important than ever because consumers are subjected to so many more marketing messages. People are consuming more media than ever, and sometimes they have multiple screens on simultaneously. So, when you’re not as genuine, people tend to tune you out and hold you in lower regard.

That’s why Jared Fogle, a Subway brand ambassador for more than ten years, has been so effective for us. Jared is not someone we created in marketing. He is a real person who really lost 245 pounds by eating Subway and walking. He has been able to keep the weight off because he continues to eat at Subway and does all sorts of good exercise.

Murray: Authenticity is more important today because consumers have become so sophisticated in terms of reading marketing strategies. When I teach my undergraduates, one of the common reactions I get is: we already know all of this;
we just didn’t have a vocabulary for it yet.

In other words, they didn’t have a systematic way of thinking about brands. But they know what branding is. They live it. They do it. They’re great at it. It’s very familiar to them very quickly, and once they have the vocabulary, they are really good at it.

Like other consumers, they are experts at seeing through ads and strategies. And so, if the brand isn’t honest, if it’s not trying to be transparent, then that brand is not going to make it.

Geikie: Authenticity is more important than it has been in the past, but to a different degree for different consumers. There are a handful of consumers for whom authenticity is extremely important. Then there is another group, which is bigger and growing faster, where authenticity is somewhat important. Finally, there’s an even larger group for whom authenticity is less important.

The people for whom it’s very important might be a smaller group, but they can be extremely influential with other people. The people for whom it is somewhat important have grown the most in the past five or ten years, and likely will grow even more in the future. This group is disproportionately younger, which is why they represent a long-term trend.

Fiore: Authenticity is more important today, but I also think many brands are heading in the wrong direction. Consumers today have research capabilities through the internet as well as the ability to make their voices heard through blogs, videos and online reviews.

Add into that mix the incredible price pressure that comes from big-box stores. All of this drives the value story, and when that story is mostly about price, nothing separates you from anybody else except your brand and its authenticity.

Within the last three years especially, a brand’s authenticity has become absolutely paramount in the conversation it has with its consumers.

Is it harder to maintain authenticity today than in the past?

Pace: For Subway it’s pretty easy because authenticity is always a key objective. We never want to say anything that isn’t true. For example, one of our new sandwiches is Orchard Chicken Salad, and we were talking about whether to promote it with our “famous fan,” Apolo Ohno. But we would only do that if Orchard Chicken Salad were a sub that Apolo liked and ate on a regular basis. It turned out that he does like it and so we featured it in a spot with him. That commitment to authenticity is part of our DNA. It does require more work to maintain, but it’s important to us, so we make the effort.

Murray: It is harder to maintain authenticity today. In the past, marketing was a one-way communication. The marketer was talking at the consumer, but now they have to be talking with the consumer all the time.

You can still develop a marketing strategy and just put it out there, but you have to find a way to interact with consumers and communicate with them. Brands are still trying to figure out exactly how to use social media to keep that conversation going.

Geikie: Actually, it’s probably easier to maintain authenticity today than in the past because we have better tools to hold ourselves accountable. For example, the growth of corporate social responsibility reports is an excellent tool with which to set goals and objectives and then explain your progress against them.

It’s more important than ever before to say where you’ve fallen short of your own goals, as much as it is to sing your own praises for having achieved your goals. It’s that kind of objective transparency that consumers are looking for that builds authenticity.

The truth is, nobody is perfect all the time. But when you fall short, it gives you an opportunity to be above board about it. Authenticity is as much about how you handle your mistakes as it is aiming at being perfect all the time.

Fiore: We have more opportunity to be more authentic to our consumers, but with the larger number of communication variables, it is harder to achieve the right mix. You have to experiment a little bit to determine the best way to reach your consumers and engage them.

When brands take advantage of these new tools to be more responsive, they will be perceived as being more authentic and they will succeed as a result. There are so many different ways to do this that the challenge is to figure out what works best for your brand.

Do authentic brands necessarily have a competitive advantage?

Pace: Being small and local adds authenticity and accessibilty, and that’s a competitive advantage. One of the things about Subway’s business structure is that there is interaction.

You walk into a Subway and the first question is: What kind of bread do you want? Then there is back-and-forth all the way through the process of creating a sandwich. That creates authenticity because there is that interaction.

I don’t know that this makes us the “local guy,” but we feel local because our customers talk about the Subway that they go to, or the sandwich artist who recognizes them when they come through the door.

Murray: If you try to capture the mass market, you might be perceived as inauthentic. Growing, for an authentic brand, is a challenge. A brand like Patagonia could easily sell twice as much, but they keep it small and manageable.

You can find authenticity by connecting to the local community, giving back, staying small, being honest and transparent. But as you become more successful, and it’s time to grow, there are financial and cultural forces that keep pushing you to become bigger. That growth can be difficult to manage.

Geikie: Authenticity is not paramount for every consumer or every brand. Many brands are perfectly happy to be inauthentic and are very successful because they are not saying one thing and doing another.

For Burt’s Bees, authenticity is a competitive advantage because it is the foundation of our marketing strategy. We target a more deliberate and educated consumer who researches products and brands. We are trying to build a relationship with them, and authenticity and integrity are the foundation of that relationship.

Fiore: In the cynical world where price means everything, it’s possible that the authentic brand might be at a disadvantage. Some consumers don’t care about the quality or authenticity; they just want the lowest possible price.

A retailer may have a problem with authenticity because of its labor practices, but many consumers continue to shop there because of its price value. But most brands are not likely to survive very long by just offering the lowest price. So, being authentic offers a competitive advantage in the ways that matter most over the long-term.

Which brands do you consider to be most authentic and why?

Pace: One brand that seems to be very much on the side of athletes, especially younger athletes, is Under Armour. They are there when people are on their way up and not just when they have made it. They feel legit to me. They are still the underdog that you root for.

Murray: Tiger running shoes, good old Dunlop wooden tennis rackets with three stripes on the throat, K2 skis, Frye boots — these are all authentic brands to me because their stories resonate well with my own narrative.

In terms of brands that have been successful with developing a broader, more macro authenticity strategy, I think Toms Shoes is doing a great job. Whether or not they can maintain their authenticity is going to be their challenge.

Ben & Jerry’s, Patagonia, Honest Tea, The Body Shop, Burt’s Bees and Seventh Generation have all done a good job with authenticity. It’s difficult when you’re viewed as more of a cultural entrepreneur who is doing more than just selling the product. To maintain that over time is really hard.

Geikie: Many of the brands I admire are in our category of natural/personal care. Since we’re one of the larger brands in the space, we tend to do a lot of the category development work for retailers. I’m happy to recommend other brands in this space because they are all extremely authentic.

Dr. Bronner’s is a third-generation company that is willing to take action against those they view as inauthentic. When they see other brands try to confuse or mislead consumers, they are fairly aggressive about highlighting that.

When they do that, they open themselves up to lots of scrutiny, but they stand the test every
single time. Quite a few of the German brands, such as Weleda and Primavera, have been around for 50 to 100 years in this space and are similarly authentic. All of these brands were developed by very conscientious and committed naturalists and environmentalists.

I also like The New York Times and Oprah Winfrey. This goes back to the way they act when problems arise. The Times was quick to admit its mistakes and take corrective steps during the Jayson Blair scandal, when its journalistic integrity was questioned.

Similarly, Oprah handled the James Frey incident with integrity. She exposed her own flaws, which said a lot more about her and what she stood for than it did about Frey and his issues. It was really interesting to watch how Oprah made herself into an authentic brand.

Fiore: JetBlue is a fantastic example of an authentic brand. They had what could have been a marketing nightmare with that Valentine’s Day crisis where they had a plane full of passengers stuck on the tarmac in the middle of a snowstorm and couldn’t move for hours.

The passengers were tweeting, texting and emailing their frustrations, and soon the situation hit the major news outlets.

JetBlue had prided itself on great customer service and this could have been a real disaster, but the way they responded was fantastic. They put together a customer “Bill of Rights” that promised refunds for certain kinds of delays, cancellations or other travel inconveniences.

This sent a message that JetBlue was authentic in its customer service. They never said that JetBlue would never make these mistakes, or that flying on JetBlue is going to be perfect every time, but they make sure that you suffer as little as possible.

Read the full article at The Hub Magazine:

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