Social media marketing; for some brands, it has been a godsend, and for others, it’s the bane of their existence. Brands are under the scrutiny of consumers now more than ever, and social media has provided consumers a platform to tell you exactly what they think about your brand. Offering a great product or service is no longer enough. Consumers are craving authenticity and are seeking brands that align with their value systems. But being authentic vs. “doing brand authenticity” are two different things.
Many brands are “doing brand authenticity” by aligning with their mission statement in some areas of their operations, but the brands that live and breathe their mission statement in every aspect of their operations are the genuinely authentic ones. The reality is that most brands are failing in this department. Trust for almost all brands is at an all-time low, according to the 2021 Gustavason Brand Trust Index. Consumers are watching, reading, and listening to what brands are doing and saying on all channels.
Brands as a Form of Personal Identity
Traditionally people found meaning and belonging through culture, family, religion, and even their jobs, but these things no longer hold the same weight. Consumers are now searching for meaning and identity in other places, such as with the brands that they support. Purchasing decisions are no longer made lightly. Brands are now an extension of their customer’s identities. Customers select brands based on the quality of goods and services and believe in the brand’s greater mission. A 2020 consumer culture report found that 83 percent of Millennials want companies to have the same values as they do, and 76 percent want to see CEOs speak out on issues they care about.
If you haven’t caught on yet, we live in a “woke” generation – people are more politically and socially aware. Consumers hold brands accountable for their actions or inaction to what is happening in the current social climate. They are taking action to support causes and movements that they believe in through brands. 64% of today’s consumers are belief-driven buyers; they believe social change can be enacted through their purchases. For example, if a brand’s mission statement is to champion equality for women, consumers that believe in this cause will support the brand because their patronage is making a difference.
Each generation of consumers views consumption of goods through a different lens:
- Baby Boomers believe that consumption is an expression of ideology
- Gen Xers consume specific brands to convey status
- Millennials are more concerned with experiences
- Gen Zers are on the hunt for truth and belonging in both a personal and communal form
To hit the mark for all four generations is a challenging task. But if brands can stay authentic to their mission, those consumers who align will follow these brands to the ends of the earth.
How To Have Brand Authenticity
What is brand authenticity? Creating an authentic brand starts with identifying:
- What the brand stands for
- What the brand believes in
- Its mission statement
- A set of core values and ideals
A brand’s actions – from internal operations to public-facing messaging, creation and distribution of goods and services, to the partners that the brand chooses to work with – all have to align with its core values. In a world where everyone’s dirty laundry can be aired out for all to see on social media, there is no room for missteps. Brands must tread very carefully once they have taken a stance on what they stand for.
What qualifies a brand to be authentic?
Here are three characteristics that consumers are taking notice of when evaluating a brand’s level of authenticity:
- Does the brand accomplish its value promise through its products/services?
- Does the brand have a reputation for being honest?
- What is the brand’s set of moral principles? Do they align with the customer’s principles?
- Has the brand proven that they care about their customers in the way they serve and give back to them?
- Does the brand support essential values that the customer cares about? (By association, this allows customers to find meaning for supporting these brands.)
- Does the brand connect the customer with their authentic self and join other like-minded people together to form a community?
Why Brand Authenticity Matters
Authentic brands inspire customers, and in return, these customers will be emotionally invested in the success of these brands. Loyal customers will continue to give their business and support, even if there is a less expensive and possibly better quality alternative in the market – so long as these brands stay true to the mission that won these customers over in the first place. Companies that are viewed as authentic build brand loyalty and tend to be more profitable overall.
Recent research data shows that 63 percent of consumers will choose brands that they perceive as more authentic. Ninety-one percent of consumers prefer brands that are honest about their products and services. A McKinsey study found that Gen Zers are paying close attention to what brands are doing, with 80 percent saying they remember at least one scandal or controversy involving a company. Brand reputation matters so much to Gen Zers that 80 percent responded that they would refuse to support companies involved in scandals.
Gen Z Is Craving Brand Authenticity
Brands that haven’t started developing a strategy to appeal to Gen Z consumers are falling behind. Gen Zers are quickly overtaking Millennials to become the most powerful consumer group in the world. There are 67 million members that belong to club Gen Z, and by 2026 they will outnumber Millennials. And guess what this group cares about the most? Authenticity. A Gen Z survey respondent went as far as to say that “authenticity is (now) a core brand value,” and how a brand can address this is by “events and experiences that allow (Gen Z) to be a part of.” Gen Zers don’t care about all the marketing hype. They’re a tech-savvy bunch and will quickly figure out when a brand is being their authentic selves vs. presenting fabricated truths that come off as disingenuous.
Additionally, 90% of Gen Zers surveyed believe that brands should be active in supporting social and environmental issues, and 75 percent say they will research to see if a company is being honest when it takes a stand on issues. Now, we’re not saying that brands should take up a social cause as a part of their strategy for the sake of winning over this generation. That is obviously not authentic behavior. What Gen Zers want to see from authentic brands is open and honest communication. This generation wants to have a relationship with brands. They want their voices to be heard, and ideally, allow them input to co-create what the brand means to them.
The NRF (National Retail Federation) and IBM (Institute for Business Value) identified three categories of brand enthusiasts that exist within the Gen Z community. These are Brand Devotees, Brand Connectors, and Brand Pragmatists.
Roughly 28 percent of surveyed respondents were identified as Brand Devotees. This group places the highest value on brand authenticity and isn’t shy about calling out fake brands on social media. Brand Devotees are excited to be engaging with brands and are excellent brand evangelists attracting new converts.
About 48 percent of surveyed respondents were identified as Brand Connectors. Brand authenticity matters to this group, but they are more tolerant compared to the Brand Devotee group. Brand Connectors identify with their favorite brands and want their voices to be heard by them.
The remaining 24 percent of surveyed respondents were identified as Brand Pragmatists. This group is more concerned with quality, value, and availability. To them, brand authenticity is secondary to reliability. This group is less likely to switch brands so long as the brand honors its promises – on the other hand, the Devotees and Connectors are more likely to change brands should they determine that the brand is failing to be authentic.
Brand Authenticity: Getting It Right
Building a brand is not easy; being an authentic brand is even more difficult. Authenticity needs to be part of a brand’s DNA. It needs to permeate every aspect of it to be genuine. Aligning one business area with brand values but not others will be perceived as a sad attempt at being authentic. Consumers genuinely accept few brands as being authentic. Let’s take a look at how to “bee” authentic (successful pun initiated), starting with the case of Burt’s Bees.
Burt’s Bees’ mission statement: “We make thoughtful choices to reduce our impact on nature and work to protect biodiversity, which preserves our place in the world.”
Burt’s Bees’ natural body care brand was founded in 1984 by an artist (Roxanne) and a beekeeper (Burt). After a chance hitchhiking encounter, the two hit it off and started making wax candles together; today, Burt’s Bees offers over 350 natural body care products. Burt’s Bees is committed to protecting biodiversity and offering quality natural products. On their site, they state that their natural cosmetics work “because of how they’re made, not in spite of it.”
Rather than telling their personal stories on the About page, the page is dedicated to explaining what the brand stands for. On the Burt’s Bees About page, you’ll find details on what the brand is doing to support biodiversity:
- Responsibly sourcing natural ingredients
- Using recyclable packaging
- Their commitment to not practice animal testing, and
- How the brand operates and gives back to protect biodiversity
Even their marketing efforts are not self-promoting, but instead, they utilize a branded content method to promote their cause. Burt’s Bees uses videos to educate consumers about the key ingredients that they attribute to the brand’s success (hi, bees), and through it, they tell the story of the Burt’s Bees brand. The brand practices transparency by releasing their sustainability reports allowing all to see where they are succeeding and (get this) where they are failing in areas to fulfill their mission.
Helloooo Brand Authenticity.
Patagonia’s mission statement: “We’re in the business to save our home planet.”
Patagonia is an iconic outdoor clothing and gear retailer recognized for its high-quality, high-performance products. They are also known to be one of the most authentic brands that exist. The brand recently simplified its mission statement to the short and sweet statement listed above, but before this updated version, its mission statement read as follows: “build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.” Although the word count has been cut down, the essence of this mission statement continues to live on throughout every aspect of Patagonia’s business.
Patagonia fulfills its brand promise by building products that perform to the highest standards that are built to last, so much so that customers rarely have to purchase replacement gear. This seems counterintuitive to what a business would want their customers to do, but Patagonia believes it is the right thing to do. In 2011, Patagonia ran a Black Friday campaign featuring ad copy that read “Don’t Buy This Jacket.” Yes, you read that right. They asked customers NOT to buy a jacket. The ad called attention to the environmental impact of consumerism, specifically, the toll that the jacket’s production and distribution process had on the environment.
So how did the campaign affect Patagonia’s sales? The brand actually saw its revenue grow, not fall, by 30 percent in 2012, followed by another 6 percent growth in 2013. Another counterintuitive business move that Patagonia decided to implement was their Worn Wear program which enabled customers to buy and sell used Patagonia gear. The program also helped educate customers on how to make their clothes last longer, thereby reducing overall consumption in the process.
Patagonia develops products with the environment in mind, utilizing raw materials where possible, and managing the environmental impacts of their global supply chain by monitoring their operations via Patagonia’s Supply Chain Environmental Responsibility Program. In addition to practicing sustainable sourcing, Patagonia takes an active role in supporting other efforts that promote sustainable living:
- The brand donates 1% of its sales to the preservation and restoration of the environment
- They’ve started a venture fund to support eco-friendly startups
- They’ve launched a food company that supports organic regenerative farming
- Their campaigns are focused on environmental causes
- Internally they’ve developed a program that incentivizes employees not to drive to work alone
- Oh, and they’ve set a goal to be carbon neutral by 2025!
Dove’s mission statement: “To help women everywhere develop a positive relationship with the way they look, helping them raise their self-esteem and realize their full potential.”
Dove is a skin and hair care line that genuinely cares about women, female-identifying, and non-binary people. Their mission is to help women feel comfortable in their skin, both literally and figuratively. Not only do their products deliver on the utility front providing women with quality products that work, but they also use every opportunity to champion women’s empowerment by challenging the traditional viewpoint of what beauty is.
In 2004 Dove launched its Real Beauty campaign featuring real women with real bodies over picture-perfect models. The brand wanted to build self-confidence in women and young children by highlighting bodies that resembled the average person more closely and not an unattainable modelesque physique. Dove saw sales jump from $2.5 billion to over $4 billion within a decade of launching this campaign. Through this switch up from print models to natural bodies, women found the brand more relatable. They saw that their efforts to champion women were authentic, evidenced through their website, campaign messaging, and the initiatives that the brand supports.
The Dove Self-Esteem Project (DSEP) was created from a vision that beauty should be a source of confidence, not anxiety. The DSEP provides resources to help parents speak to their children about challenging issues such as bullying and poor body image and confidence-building workshops for mentors and youth leaders. The mission of the DSEP is “to ensure the next generation grows up enjoying a positive relationship with the way they look — helping young people raise their self-esteem and realize their full potential.” Since its launch in 2004, the program has reached over 60 million youth with self-esteem education and has targeted projections to have helped a quarter billion by 2030. Dove has also created a fund to organize activities with the Girl Scouts, Boys & Girls Clubs of America, and Girls Inc that help build self-esteem amongst youth by addressing issues such as online bullying.
What Happens When Brands Miss the Mark?
Brand authenticity can help brands win customers for a lifetime, whereas evidence of inauthenticity can cause brands to lose existing customers and any chance of winning new customers.
H&M: Brand Inauthenticity Fiasco
H&M’s mission statement: “Invest in people, communities, and innovative ideas to drive long-lasting positive change and improve living conditions.”
Fast-fashion retailer H&M experienced such a crisis in 2016 when journalists revealed the brand was using child labor for manufacturing their goods. These children were working in poor factory conditions in Myanmar, Bangladesh, and Cambodia for up to 12 hours a day and were severely underpaid for their work on top of that. For the next few years, the H&M brand suffered, and sales dropped lower than they had in a decade to approximately 62 percent within the first quarter of 2018. Yikes.
To recover, H&M has made efforts to ensure a fair living wage and normal working hours for everyone that is a part of their supply chain. They have committed to uphold a human rights policy that addresses labor rights, working hours, wages, and the fight against modern slavery.
To make good from some of the bad publicity, H&M has made an effort to communicate to consumers that they are taking a stance on sustainability by implementing a few eco-conscious initiatives. H&M now offers an in-store recycling program where customers can bring in used clothing from any brand; the store will then sort the used clothing into three categories: re-wear, reuse, or recycle. H&M’s Conscious line features products that contain at least 50 percent sustainable materials developed for eco-conscious shoppers.
On the product side, to mitigate the toll that fast fashion has on the environment, H&M has joined a range of organizations and initiatives to tackle sustainability issues and reduce environmental impact. The brand has set a target to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 2010 and has pledged to use 100 percent recycled or sustainable materials by 2030.
But do these efforts feel authentic, and are they enough to cancel out the scandal of 2016?
To win consumers’ trust, H&M will have to be transparent with the state of their operations, from supply chain to retail conditions. The brand doesn’t have to hit the mark right away, but the closer they are to their mission target, the more consumers will perceive them as authentic. Until then, consumers have every right to be suspicious of the messaging that the brand has carefully chosen to put out there.
3 Steps To Being an Authentic Brand
Authentic brands have evangelists, not just customers. We’ve already discussed what makes a brand authentic. Now we’re going to cover three steps to ensure that your business stays aligned with the brand mission:
Step 1: Develop the brand mission statement as a team
A brand’s mission statement should be a collection of what the team as a whole can agree upon. Survey your team and find commonalities amongst the values that everyone has listed, then narrow it down to something real. From there, you can use this mission statement in your hiring process because every team member should be in alignment with what the company stands for and what it is setting out to accomplish.
Step 2: Be genuine
Don’t develop a mission or take up a cause for the sake of marketing, be about your mission and be invested in the cause. It won’t be difficult for consumers to see through your brand if the motive is disingenuous.
Step 3: Be consistent
Once you’ve identified your brand mission and or taken a stance on an issue, do not waiver from it. Even if it may be controversial, even if it could cost the brand customers, those who align with your brand’s mission will respect the brand for being true to its mission – these are the evangelists that will fight for you.
Above all else, the key to being an authentic brand is to build an open, honest, and transparent relationship with the customer. With transparency comes vulnerability; consumers concerned with brand authenticity will scrutinize their actions and statements, and brands will have to be ready to be held accountable. Consumers can be harsh critics, but if brands put in an honest effort to ingrain their mission statement in every aspect of their business and to take ownership when they fall short of this, trust can be formed. Trust is the basis of being an authentic brand.