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‘Authenticity’ is still one of the attributes brands are constantly reaching out for. Yet in a world of ‘alternative facts’, deepfakes and meat mimics, is it time to call time on authenticity or can it still have any meaning and value for brands?
Authenticity, we’re often told, really counts with consumers, especially the brand-sceptical Millennials that most want to win. But it feels like we’ve entered a new era.
Social media and technology have skewed our view of facts, evidence and trusted sources.
Our demand for instant answers means we’re as likely to be getting chummy with a chatbot as a human when we’re shopping online. We debate politics on twitter with what turns out to be a just a stroppy line of computer code.
Small, shooting star entrepreneur brands that made their name and fame on the personality and passion of their founders are swallowed with relish by global players looking for edge and a new audience connection. Which is fine, but as consumers, we’re no longer clear who we’re dealing with any more.
And our desire to be healthier and/or more environmentally-conscious has overturned our attitudes to what’s ‘real,’ as we seek to do the right thing and shift away from meat and animal products.
Where once we demanded clean label food – ingredients we could recognise from the store cupboard, minimally processed – now we’re getting excited about burgers made with textured wheat protein and soy protein isolate, and queuing round the block for mycoprotein ‘sausage rolls’.
Authenticity, which used to be about origins and originality, provenance and heritage, honesty and pride, is in danger of becoming reduced to a tone of voice: shoot-from-the-hip, talk-my-language, one of the boys.
Even the corporate world is not immune. A Financial Times opinion piece last year pleaded for an ‘end to the era of authenticity’. It testily called on Chief Executives to stop trying to be ‘authentic’ by sounding off on subjects not related to their business and tanking the share price as a result. They should, said the FT, just get back to the day job of managing.
It’s a murky world for authenticity to thrive. So maybe we should just accept the new rules of the game and learn to exploit an environment where nothing is quite what it seems and every noun is framed by ironic quote marks.
But no. Let’s not. There’s life in authenticity yet. It’s just a matter of reframing it and reclaiming it.
That does mean going all in. It can’t just be one of a tick box list of brand values. It has to be the value, the guiding principle, built on a belief that what you’ve got as a brand is timelessly true, honest and original – worth being loyal to, recommending, paying more for. It doesn’t come easy. It takes hard work, a dollop of daring and thinking in human terms. Because what we prize as authentic in our friends and our colleagues holds good for brands, too.
So what does it take?
The most important element of authenticity should be obvious: Be true to who you are and play to your strengths. Do what you do brilliantly well and do it your own way. That means, of course, you do have to be crystal clear about who you are and how your strengths match the changing needs of today’s consumers.
Greggs absolutely understood this when they launched their famous vegan sausage roll. They did it with pride. They didn’t pretend it was something it wasn’t or reinvent the format. This was a down-and-dirty sausage roll alternative for people who didn’t want to eat animal, some of the time or all the time. They knew what counted and took the time and effort to make it their own – from the signature 96-layer flaky pastry to the ballsy, tongue-in-cheek advertising campaign. Pure Greggs in spirit and substance.
Hellmann’s have been similarly savvy, taking their long standing ‘real food’ proposition into experiential anti-food waste campaigns. By serving up food that’s surplus or past its best though pop up food trucks, festivals and sports events and making it delicious, they’re true to truth of the brand at every level.
Demonstrating authenticity in the new age will be a 360 degree, immersive experience. Ordering and buying in future will be so streamlined and swift (and often predictive and automated) that if brands want to make the emotional connection that authenticity brings, they’ll need consumers to spend time with them, get to know them more deeply. That could be showing their style in branded events or their values through collaboration on causes and campaigns. Or it could simply be offering an entertaining online space where consumers can exchange with like-minded brand fans in a place that feels secure and troll-free.
Authenticity for brands will also be about the company they keep. As social shopping increases, consumers will know them by their influencers. Glossy Instagram-perfect style, follower numbers or just being a celeb won’t scream authentic. Seeking out the genuine faces and voices that connect with the right consumers and who generate two-way conversation with followers will count above the ubiquitous fashion image of over-sized sunglasses and pout.
And it will be about tone of voice. Saying authenticity has become just a tone of voice, that doesn’t mean tone of voice has no place. It’s the way that brands introduce their authentic self. Get it right and it provides a framework for everything else.
Last and toughest to achieve – open up. Full and accessible disclosure. As a brand, you can’t be authentic without letting people in and showing just what you’re made of.
We often talk about consumers rejecting compromise and wanting it all. But the reality is that pretty much any choice we make is a trade-off between things that matter to us. If you’re transparent, consumers can make an informed choice and if they choose you with their eyes open, they’re likely to give you the benefit of the doubt and stick with you through good times and bad.
Amazon, in response to criticism of working conditions in their fulfillment centres, opened some of them up for public tours back in 2014. Many journalists who’ve taken up the opportunity to get a gantry-eye view of the Amazon operation have been brutal in their assessment of the environment for employees. But Amazon have continued with the programme. In fact, they’re running a new ad campaign right now. It doesn’t get them a totally clean authenticity report card. But the fact is, what they promise to do for us (using the internet and technology to find, discover and buy anything), they do extremely well. They’ve given us the opportunity as consumers to come in, see how they do it and what that clash of human and technology means. It’s up to us to make our choice.
The challenges of a digital economy and climate change will mean consumers are going to have to make new trade-offs in the future and they’re going to find it hard – whether that is getting to grips with weird, unfamiliar, but more sustainable ingredients in food, how and where products are sourced and manufactured or even who brands are employing for their products and services and how.
Brands that thrive will be those that accept the mission to explain, simply and entertainingly; shout loud and proud about who they are, tell compelling stories about their record and resources and don’t hide their light under the bushel of a QR code.
We’re living in an age of fakery, but It’s time to get real.
Nina Cooper is Associate Director, Insight & Innovation at Dragon Rouge London