Authenticity has been a marketing buzzword for a decade-plus now and while it continues to gain traction, it’s still not always clear what is meant by it. The word itself says original, real and honest. The opposites are fakery, cynicism and distrust. Beyond that, definitions seem to differ. I’ve read several articles on the topic recently and some say that there is no one recipe for authenticity and that it varies by category, which isn’t very helpful for us marketers looking for a clear strategy. Other experts such as the good people at the Australian ‘authentic brand index’ [http://www.authenticbrandindex.com/] profess that authenticity is simply about practicing what you preach and aligning marketing communications with brand experience. That seems a bit too expansive as the sole criteria for my taste. I believe marketing-product alignment is a fundamental of good marketing in any context, authentic or not.
As an example of the above, I think back to the dot-com boom of the late 90s when pets.com was making a splash with their humorous sock puppet ads. They failed for precisely that marketing-product misalignment reason. The ads which so effectively captured the fun and frolic of pets was not carried over to their staid and boring website where the sock puppet was nowhere to be found and all you could do was order dog food and pay for shipping. But pets.com was not marketing authenticity, as evidenced by the brilliant use of said sock puppet that was in no way ‘real’. In fact they reveled in fakery by making a point of showing the arm of the person sticking out of the sock puppet. Even if they’d had a product experience to match it still wouldn’t have been an authentic brand in my mind, it just would have been a fun place to buy kitty litter.
So how can we more clearly define authentic brands? More importantly, how do we market it? Here is my take on it, the Williams Global Marketing “Four P’s of Marketing Authenticity”:
1. A sense of Place – Brands are more ‘real’ when we know where they come from. Preferably this is a place that connects to the product benefit, but also a place with a history and a backstory that reinforces the honest values that brought the brand into being. Patagonia is a brand with a place literally in it’s name (Patagonia refers to the southern end of Argentina and Chile), and it’s authentic because the company values are embedded in the spirit of that place. Patagonia started as a company making tools for climbers and then grew from alpinism to cover other sports that “require a connection between us and nature” such as skiing, snowboarding, surfing, fishing and paddling. While naming a brand after a location isn’t always necessary (think Ben and Jerry’s association with Vermont), it’s the representation of a place’s idealized values that is important.
2. A Passion – We want to know that real people are involved with an authentic brand and that they are passionate about what they do. They are not driven solely by the almighty dollar, but rather by doing something better and making a difference in some way. This is often reflected through charitable causes, but that doesn’t have to be the focus. A great example of this is Whole Foods and its co-founder John Mackey who has been a lifelong advocate for organic food. He created his company around his passion and today Whole Foods still speaks strongly to real food, sustainability and community. One of their current taglines, “Get Planet Passionate”, reflects well on this notion of passion first, profit second.
3. A Product to match – While I made the point that this is not enough by itself for a brand to be authentic, it is still an important component of the total package. Marketing communications must be backed up by a product experience that fits with what is being said. Saying one thing and delivering another will disappoint all the more with authenticity marketing because we are now communicating on a more personal level. You told me who you are and where you’re from, and I thought you were an honest and decent brand. But now I come to find out what you were telling me isn’t true. You didn’t just disappoint, you lied to me! Now I have to kick you out, and it hurts. Illy is a good example of a brand that has a sense of place (Italy), is identified with people of passion (the Illy family, beginning with Francesco Illy in 1933 who invented the modern espresso machine) and has products to match from their sleek and modern espresso machines to their hand-picked coffee beans that are repeatedly tested as they age by Illy ‘liquorers’. I know this product is a match to marketing because I occasionally run into Illy consumers who are fanatical about the product and will talk my ear off about how great it is. I finally tried it myself and in this case, tasting is believing.
4. Don’t be a Poseur – In order for a brand to be authentic it must be sincere. If the marketing gets too slick, too overbearing, or if it looks like it’s trying too hard, it will come across as insincere at best and patronizing at worst. A classic example of this was the 2007 Silverado, “Our Country, Our Truck” campaign which featured over-the-top red, white and brash imagery. Pics of rural America, dads holding babies, the Statue of Liberty, Rosa Parks (didn’t she ride the bus?), and some good old American tragedies like Vietnam, Hurricane Katrina and (until they later removed it due to criticism) 9/11. Some media types were previewed with a never-aired test spot that included a nuclear bomb mushroom cloud. What’s more American than blowing things up? Throw in the Mellencampy tunes of the artist formerly known as John Cougar and it was truly an assault on the patriotic senses. Despite General Motors spokesperson assertions that, “the idea was that the pickup consumer is honest, hardworking, authentic and real” the ads were critically and socially panned with one pundit dubbing it, “America, Truck Yeah!” and Bob Garfield of Advertising Age summing it up nicely by saying, “I feel a little violated when I watch it.”
In summary, marketing around authenticity is seemingly a high risk-high reward proposition. If done right it can be extremely compelling and elevate brand power to a whole new level. But if even one element comes across as fake or insincere the whole thing can cave in like a house of cards. Just like a person who’s been caught in a lie, you can never fully trust them again. Hence the best advice for marketing authenticity may be that age-old first date advice, “just be yourself.”
For my next blog post we will take a look at an authenticity case study in one of my favorite categories, frozen pizza. I will benchmark a couple of brands that are utilizing an authentic positioning and see how they stack up against the four P’s above.