The Public Relations Strategist

The Search for Authenticity: A Bold Way to Build Brands and Business

December 31, 2014

[corbis/mustafa hacalaki]
[corbis/mustafa hacalaki]

“Authenticity.” It’s a word that brand strategists are using more and more in theoretical terms. But what does it actually mean in the context of real-world communications with consumers today?   

We investigated that question for Cohn & Wolfe’s “Authentic Brands 2014,” a study of 12,000 people in key markets around the world, including the United States. Respondents were asked to state in 140 characters what they think an authentic brand or company really is.

I for one was skeptical that we would receive meaningful responses. “Authenticity” is not a word often heard when planning campaigns, and far less in everyday conversations. But the responses were remarkable and proved my doubts wrong.

We received our share of “don’t knows,” but they were very much in the minority. Of 1,000 people polled in the United States, two-thirds reported having a clear and articulate view of what an authentic brand could or should be.

Consider these unprompted answers:

• Honesty, transparency, reasonable prices and humane treatment for its workers

• Honest, transparent, fair, consistent

• Open, caring, old-fashioned pride and integrity in every phase of business

• Direct, truthful. You get what’s on the label

• Good product, good practices, good to people

• Fair, responsible, accountable

• Does what it says it will do. True to its core values

The responses paint a picture of the modern American consumer, whose idea of authenticity in business means being open, honest and transparent. But consumers also associate the term with the higher notions of integrity, responsibility and, crucially, being “true to core values.” This last idea appears to apply to all aspects of business, from delivering on the core brand promise – “you get what’s on the label” — to fulfilling social and environmental commitments. As defined by our respondents, the main ideas of authenticity were condensed into seven key concepts or behaviors:

• Communicating honestly about products or services

• Being honest about environmental practices

• Acting with integrity at all times

• Being true to beliefs

• Being transparent about suppliers and how your business operates

• Having a purpose beyond making money

• Having an engaging and authentic story

We then asked respondents to rate these authentic behaviors against another set of more traditional brand benefits, from basic customer service and product utility to innovation, brand appeal and peer popularity.

Communicating honestly

In the United States and all of our other markets, the behavior that consumers most desired from brands was “honest communication about products and services.” American consumers cited this core notion of authenticity as “important” or “very important” by 94 percent of U.S. respondents, compared to 91 percent across 12 markets.

Other anchors of authenticity — being honest about the environment, acting with integrity and maintaining beliefs — also featured more prominently in the study than traditional brand benefits like product utility or innovation.

We asked respondents if they would change their purchasing behavior for a brand they considered to be more authentic as we have defined the term. Would they be willing to switch to more authentic brands? In the United States, 68 percent said they would buy a more authentic brand over its competitors, again above average for our 12 markets.

But do these results provide solid evidence that being a more authentic brand makes a business more successful? Making the unlikely assumption that half our respondents didn’t answer accurately, that still leaves about 34 percent who would switch to brands they see as more authentic, suggesting that the rewards for demonstrating brand authenticity are substantial.

Reshaping relationships

To interpret the survey results, Cohn & Wolfe tested the notion that post-crash consumers are far more cynical about corporate brands and messages than Americans were before the country slid into recession in 2008. The results prove that our hypothesis was correct. In the United States, 97 percent disagreed that “big business” is generally honest and transparent — a shocking figure, but indicative of the trauma American consumers have endured since 2008, as the economy has struggled to regain momentum and corporate scandals continue to hit the front pages.

American consumers, with their peers across Europe and the main markets of Asia, appear to be demanding a fundamental reshaping of their relationship with big brands, to one based on core ideas of honesty, transparency, integrity and commitment to social purpose.

For major brands, it’s become impossible to manage authentic images and ideas in the traditional sense, amid the overwhelming impact of ubiquitous digital devices that can capture and transmit images and ideas through social media. The “Age of Authenticity” is an idea we coined at Cohn & Wolfe, meaning that the truth will emerge. Just ask the technology giants exposed by Edward Snowden’s revelations of NSA surveillance, or food producers in Europe caught selling products advertised as beef that were in fact horse meat.

Despite there being a great deal more theoretical interest in authenticity in branding and business, the idea is rarely front and center in a brand owner’s mind, especially when planning a major campaign or responding to a crisis. Yet based on the evidence in our study, we believe that authenticity in brands is an idea that’s time has come.

Those with the boldness to put authenticity at the heart of their strategy will be rewarded by battle-hardened American consumers — who despite everything they’ve experienced are still optimistic enough to expect a relationship with brands based on the simple but powerful ideas of honesty, transparency, integrity and idealism.

Geoff Beattie
Geoff Beattie is head of corporate affairs at global brand communications agency Cohn & Wolfe, and has advised a number of the world’s leading corporations over the past 15 years. He is a former newspaper and television journalist in the United Kingdom.

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