For brands — just as for celebrities, politicians and anyone else in the media spotlight — scandals, PR mishaps and social media slip ups are nearly impossible to keep off the connected consumer’s radar. As a result, brands no longer have an option other than representing themselves honestly and transparently. Authenticity is crucial to continued loyalty from fickle audiences.
This poses a challenge for marketers: They must navigate the latest and greatest means of meeting the customer where they are and ensure the messages they put out are both genuine and in alignment with their brand principles. Of course, the irony here is that marketing, by nature, isn’t really authentic. It’s an all-out arms race as brands compete to showcase their products and services in the most attractive, clever and appealing light possible while simultaneously downgrading their competitors and sweeping any negative commentary under the rug.
Those that have embraced authenticity and transparency (Dove, Airbnb) find consumers will do the marketing for them. Those that have fought it (Uber, Pepsi) continue to struggle to regain footing with an audience who will watch their every move, waiting to pounce when the first signs of negativity arise.
As someone who has worked with Fortune 500 brands to achieve better omnichannel customer experiences, I’ve seen how inauthenticity can negatively influence customer perception — and how brands that are customer-first always come out on top. Here are a few ways to infuse authenticity into your marketing and branding efforts:
1. Remember that honesty is (still) the best policy.
Why is communication — with the public and employees — the crux of any organization? It’s because humans are emotionally driven and crave the security of knowing there is an underlying foundation of mutual respect, honesty and trust between them and the establishments they associate with.
For so long, brands have valued traits like “clever,” “funny” and “witty” over traits like “honest,” “trustworthy” and even “vulnerable.” These qualities aren’t mutually exclusive, of course, but brands must exhibit the latter three or consumers won’t care about the former. This means listening to feedback or criticism and responding accordingly. A brand that is “above” humility will ultimately be resented. Audiences naturally shudder in response to falsity.
In today’s social media-driven world, news spreads fast. It’s all too easy to let the message get out of control without being able to effectively shut it down on your terms. So, invite your audience to be a part of the ride, changes and turmoil to humanize your brand. Don’t be afraid to tell customers that you’re working on improving a defective product or launching a new product that may not be fully baked. When customers feel like they were clued in, they will be more forgiving of any hiccups or inconveniences they experience along the way.
2. Show ‘em what you know — and that you care.
If your marketing strategy lives and dies by the “spray and pray” approach, your audience will sniff out the generic undertones and dismiss you. With myriad data available to marketers, there’s no excuse not to attempt some form of personalization and targeting. Don’t get me wrong: Personalization is an overused term in the industry, but its potential impact in marketing is huge. However, use caution when defining personalization for your business and customers — or risk trading authenticity for an ultra-creepy persona.
Consider the various stages consumers go through when researching and buying your product or service. Match their brand experiences to any customer data you have at your disposal. When you show them that you care about what they want, it not only boosts loyalty, but offers a human (read: authentic) element to the brand experience.
3. Stay true to the brand.
When brands are in a crunch to adapt and better connect with their audience, a “reinvention” is usually an avenue to boost sales or spur awareness. But reinventions often lead to brand experiences that stray far from the core values — and therefore alienate customers even more.
There are many ways to boost brand love and connect with consumers emotionally without sacrificing core brand values. Brands that operate one way offline but have a completely different online persona can come off as having a “multiple personality disorder” that sends audiences straight to the complaint boards. For example, don’t portray yourself as a luxury brand if your product is actually a value play. Stay in your lane, be the best in your sector, and know your customer and their expectations.
4. Be clear, direct and calm.
Most brands will inevitably face at least one communications crisis. They’re unavoidable and unpredictable, and the worst mistake you can make is a knee-jerk reaction. Consider the United Airlines fiasco that continues to drum up social media chatter: Not only was the brand seemingly ill-prepared to handle backlash from dragging a passenger off a flight, but it also didn’t stay on-message. Within 24 hours, United released two varying statements, making its stance on the issue confusing, hypocritical and difficult to understand. And the more it evolved, the harder United became to trust. That’s why it’s important to have a proactive strategy that ensures your message stays consistent while you communicate to all of your stakeholders.
In the long run, taking the time to build an authentic foundation and a community of brand ambassadors will help establish and maintain this authenticity, even through turmoil.