Brand authentication: Keeping it real in the Digital Age

Certified fresh: Brand authenticity is the whole bowl of wax in modern marketing, according to media master David Chauvin.

In theory, being authentic should be easy. How hard can it be to be yourself – the one person you know better than anyone?

Unfortunately, marketing history is full of stories of otherwise-sound brands misunderstanding themselves or the customer relationships – time and time and time again.

In search of advertising buzz, a brand refresh or the ever-elusive viral marketing campaign, marketers will often lose sight of what draws people to a brand in the first place. The results are usually ineffective, frequently embarrassing and occasionally out-and-out offensive.

The Digital Age has fundamentally changed the relationship between brand and consumer. Social media, in particular, have given a platform for customers to develop relationships with products, brands and companies – and that creates new expectations.

Now a company is not only obliged to provide quality products, but to remain true to its “perception.” This is what defines brand authenticity in the Digital Age: acting the way people expect your brand to act.

The need for brand authenticity is particularly important considering that, like trust, it can be difficult to regain once lost. People tend to coalesce around one idea of a company; if your brand gains a reputation for being tone-deaf or out-of-touch, it can be next to impossible to change that narrative.

And authenticity is only growing more pronounced. A 2017 study found overwhelming evidence that digital natives (millennials and younger) value brand authenticity over just about everything else (For example: “Real and organic” was selected over “perfect and packaged” by a startling 90 percent of millennials surveyed).

David Chauvin: Real deal.

The same study also found that 57 percent of all consumers believe less than half of all brands create content that resonates as authentic. Clearly, marketers are falling short.

Another study, published in 2014 by Cohn & Wolfe (now Burson Cohn & Wolfe), even called this “The Age of Authenticity” – and suggested that increased consumer cynicism has put pressure on marketers to make sure they’re being as transparent and honest about their products and their companies as possible.

Above all, the report concluded, consumers hate being lied to.

It’s clear from these studies – and from simply observing the buying habits of younger consumers – that brand authenticity is more important than snazzy advertising when it comes to actually convincing a customer to make a purchase. So how does a brand maintain authenticity?

From my experience, brands recognized as “authentic” have a bone-deep understanding of their products, their customer relationships and their social responsibility.

Recognizing that its customers are, by-and-large, young, well-off and in love with the outdoors, high-end outdoor-apparel company Patagonia has promised 1 percent of its proceeds to environmental causes – in perpetuity.

Authenticity bleeds into every facet of Patagonia’s culture, from the CEO refusing to let success change his childlike love of nature to products with awesome reputations for quality. Modern consumers respect that, which leads to brand loyalty.

Last fall, when Patagonia was poised to receive $10 million in tax relief through the Trump tax plan, it announced (on social media) that it would donate all of it to environmental concerns. Consumers widely celebrated – and it read as totally authentic, because Patagonia had already established itself as an altruistic maverick.

Transparency also goes a long way. If study after study reveals that modern consumers won’t tolerate being swindled, then doubling down on open and transparent marketing can be a shrewd business philosophy.

McDonald’s famously took this route with the “Our Food, Your Questions” campaign, in which the fast-food king tackled prevailing product misconceptions by pulling back the curtain on its food and business methods. It was a well-received campaign, which managed the impressive feat of changing the perception of a company mired in controversy and misconception for generations.

Smart marketers should also encourage and cultivate user-generated reviews and content. With access to information more open than ever, consumers overwhelmingly value and trust user reviews over branded content.

A robust and active social media presence is the most important and effective way to do this. The modern communications professional shouldn’t be wary of engaging with consumers on social media, responding to their concerns and promoting their ideas – this can build authentication better than a dozen cleverly written commercials.

David Chauvin is executive vice president of Great Neck-based public relations firm Zimmerman/Edelson Inc. and former director of communications for the Town of North Hempstead, among several government positions.