These days it’s not the cheapest or the sexiest that survive – the most authentic brands are the ones cleaning up
For many years, marketing models and conventional advertising was all about presenting audiences with aspirational narratives: they would tempt consumers to buy a certain type of perfume, aftershave or car, claiming that said product or service would improve their social status or their sex life. In many cases brands over-promised and under-delivered. How many Lynx wearers found themselves mobbed by semi-clothed supermodels after emptying a can of the deodorant? The answer will probably be ‘not very many’.
In recent times, a new breed of consumer has emerged with an appetite for veracity, demanding that brands be authentic in what they can and cannot deliver. In the Primark era of consumerism, where everything is disposable and widely available – it’s possible to buy the exactly same pair of shoes in Rio de Janeiro and London – businesses need to find a new differentiator.
According to Wally Olins, marketing expert and chairman of Saffron Brand Consultants, the modern consumer now seeks to be different and yearns for products that are locally sourced or produced and that are less harmful to the environment. This trend, as he explains in his latest book Brand New – The shape of brands to come, has long been spotted by small entrepreneurial companies, and now the big boys are lumbering to catch up.
“At the same time that we have this opportunity for large companies to go everywhere in the world and be the same, it spurs the opportunity for smaller companies to emerge and say ‘look at what we’ve got that’s different, unusual and genuinely local and authentic, compared to what others have to offer’,” explains Olins.
Marjorie Benzkofer, senior VP at Fleishman Hillard, the public relations and marketing agency, believes we live on a smaller, more accessible planet thanks to globalisation and communication but this has not done away with the need to be relevant at a local level.
Fundamentally, it means that a brand has a greater responsibility to its consumers, to understand local expectations in order to be meaningful and relevant to the audiences they serve; authenticity should therefore permeate everything a company does and says. “It’s about how you treat your employees, how you interact with a community; how an executive behaves and how you operate your plans. All of those things are part of how an organisation has to think about its brand; it’s not just the purview of the marketing department anymore,” says Benzkofer.
Fleishman Hillard has identified nine drivers of authenticity that companies need to address in order to have a genuine engagement with their audiences. “Three of them relate to customer benefit and that’s around innovation, value and service,” elaborates Benzkofer. “The second strand is around impact on society so that’s about care of the environment, care of your employees and community impact. The last three drivers are about how management behaves. So that’s about doing the right thing, having consistent performance and being credible in your communication.”
Benzkofer says a business has to be on par with its competitors on all nine drivers. But in order to really stand head and shoulders above the rest, it should then focus on one or two drivers that are most important to its audience in terms of expectations, and differentiate themselves on those drivers from the rest of their competitors or in the industry. “When we look at the issue of authenticity, we try to get an organisation’s brand, which is everything an organisation can own and control, in alignment with its reputation, which is also the perceptions of its different audiences,” explains Benzkofer. “When a brand is aligned with its reputation, then it’s a truly authentic brand.”
Olins describes IKEA as such a company. “It’s a classic example of the way in which Swedishness presents itself to a consumer in every conceivable respect; in the way in which it operates, in the way it looks, the way its products look and so on.”
Yet, as bigger organisations try to cash in on customer demand for more responsible businesses, many will claim or imply a level of authenticity which they don’t actually live and breathe. Olins quotes a marketer in his book: ‘authenticity is the new thing, and we have to learn how to fake it’.
There has been a marked shift from brands selling aspirations and dreams to promoting themselves as genuine and considerate. It has been evident in Santander’s branding as simple, effective and fair, in McDonald’s emphasising its home-grown ingredients and even the new 1.6 V6 engines Formula 1 regulators have introduced in an attempt to ‘green-up’ the motor sport.
Though it might be the current trend, authenticity does not look set to displace the aspirational notions on which industries such as fashion and automotive thrive, neither will it cease our move towards homogenisation.
As a result, in order for start-ups to stand out in both developed and emerging markets, Olins advises SMEs to emphasise their personality or style.Whether it is clothing, jewellery or a service business, the company should highlight what it has that makes it different. “80% of what you’ve got will be the same as what everybody else but the 10% or 20% that’s different is what you have to underline and talk about,” he says. “Emphasise that in everything you do, in everything you say, to your own staff and to the world outside.”
Incidentally, this puts the entrepreneur or business owner in a pivotal position to ensure that the business projects a consistent image to their audience and that it’s not making promises in its marketing that it’s not delivering in its customer service. “SMEs are in a great place to have a holistic view of the organisation which can be harder in a larger multinational corporation, where it’s difficult to see into every corner of the business,” comments Benzkofer. “I think that gives them a competitive advantage in building deeper more meaningful relationships with the kinds of customers that they’re going after.”
Indeed, actually being perceived as authentic can go a long way in helping an entrepreneur to establish their business. “It creates better engagement not just with consumers, but with all of its different stakeholders, business partners, with regulators and its own employees,” says Benzkofer.
In short, an entrepreneur is better able to achieve their desired business goals when they have a truly authentic engagement with those audiences.
Olins agrees. “A genuine brand and clear personality gives you a good opportunity to develop in a very clear position in the market place, particularly with a product that looks different, that feels different, and that underlines the authenticity you claim,” he concludes.