Bringing a brand strategy to life requires authenticity, particularly when your target audiences face an increasingly uncertain environment. To build a strong brand, you’ll need to align your people and channels to consistently deliver on your brand promise.

In my recent branding article, I discussed three critical factors to ensure brand relevance and loyalty as customers navigate uncertainty. Building on this idea, this article will focus on “bringing the brand to life” via your customer experience, and the importance of doing so in an authentic way. Authentic brand realization can position your brand effectively for the long term and is even more important during times of uncertainty.

Brand Realization and Authenticity Today

In a nutshell, brand realization is delivering on your brand promise consistently across all your customer interactions – making a brand strategy on paper become real in the hearts and minds of your customers. Authenticity is how your brand resonates with target audiences in a credible way. Successful brands find ways to realize a compelling brand experience in an authentic way.

Today, brands face a minefield of challenges making authentic realization critical in this current political, social and economic climate. Given the frequency of inaccurate and misleading news, consumers have a growing skepticism of all communications across social media and other channels.

Misdeeds and missed opportunities are widely broadcast with ruthless speed in an age of radical brand transparency. It is heartening when we see it work for the greater good, like the #MeToo movement, but also worrisome to anyone who manages brands when small missteps can have an outsized impact. Without a doubt, skepticism and transparency have led to greater unpredictability when it comes to brand management.

3 Keys to Achieving Authentic Realization for Your Brand

“This above all: to thine own self be true.”

- Polonius In William Shakespeare's Hamlet

1. Know Your Brand

Brands seeking authenticity should start with clarity on who you are and are not – much like Shakespeare’s famous quote reminds us. When seeking to evolve or build new associations, it is not uncommon for brands to convince themselves into believing they are something they are not.

EXAMPLES – Take Gillette’s campaign touting its 1,200 workers in its Boston factory putting money back in the pockets of Americans in an attempt to deliver a down-to-earth, “Made in America” promise to compete with Dollar Shave Club and Harry’s. After years of high-tech messaging and innovation positioning, the pivot seems forced. It comes across as more words than actions without any changes to the brand experience.

Whereas, the New England Aquarium had more success when it leveraged its established, but little-known history focused on sustainability research and environmental awareness to build the brand beyond a place to “see the penguins” into a leader in marine conservation.

TIPThese historical gems exist within all brands, providing authentic grounding for brand realization. Defining your true self starts with facing reality. How do customers perceive your brand today? Taking an outside-in approach to listen to customers and understand the gap between your desired and perceived brand associations is a critical first step. Brands can then explore what are your true assets and what can be leveraged to close this gap.

“The Medium is the Message.”

- Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man

2. Pick the Right Medium

Channel selection has a major impact on your message, particularly when our channels are facing greater skepticism – making this Marshall McLuhan quote more important than ever.  Actions speak much louder than words in this environment. Brands need to start thinking experientially rather than simply verbally.

To begin, define your brand strategy in terms of your desired experience – not just as a textbook “brand positioning” statement. Gain clarity around your desired experience. Then, define your brand personality and the positioning required to deliver that experience.

EXAMPLE – In the last 10 years, Dominos has transformed from a mediocre pizza delivery brand into an innovation and customer efficiency trailblazer. Starting with their desired customer experience allowed them to create a cutting-edge digital experience – leveraging all channels, including Alexa and Google Home, to make pizza ordering and delivery a snap. The brand’s experiential focus combined with better pizza quality has driven significant growth in brand equity.

TIPAn experiential approach is well worth the effort but requires understanding your current experience in enough detail to know the leverage points in converting your prospect into a loyal customer, and where the gaps are compared to the desired experience. Conducting a brand experience review, then collaborating with employees who own the experience to brainstorm the necessary actions to improve your experience is a great first step.

“Well done is better than well said.”

- Benjamin Franklin

3. Lead by Example from the Top Down

Delivering an authentic brand experience is highly dependent on one of the most important elements of your brand – your employees. Employee impact is even more important for service companies where employees are the primary drivers of the brand experience.

It starts with employee orientation as well as ongoing training and workshops that communicate your brand experience guidelines. Yet the reality is there’s no better guide than leadership’s actions. It’s only natural that your team will mirror leadership action – or inaction. Leaders across your organization, not just those in customer-facing roles, set the direction and have a ripple effect on your employee’s behaviors. Authenticity starts at the top and matters most amongst leadership.

EXAMPLES – JetBlue teaches each employee to breathe life into its brand built on fun, safety and integrity during training sessions led by mentors who’ve demonstrated a keen understanding of how the brand is best articulated in a wide array of situations. Leadership takes nothing for granted in giving employees the tools they need to deliver on its brand promise.

Carnival Cruise Line’s focus on an exceptional, fun experience is no accident – values that are actively communicated by leadership help reinforce the desired experience:

“When I joined Carnival, the CEO told me we had to evolve a more experiential culture because… 'if you build it, they will come' was not sustainable. Our 8 values allow each team member to be unique but are the thread that connects each of us to one another and the company... a common language to express our shared values and ensure alignment.”

- Kevin Richeson, VP of Shipboard HR, Carnival, Excerpt from GALLUP News article

TIP – It’s key to understand the guidance leaders are delivering, both explicitly and implicitly, and the impact on your customer experience. Speaking to your employees in small groups or one-on-one helps to distill the desired experience and align authentically. Monitoring employee sentiment over time helps gauge how effective the internal guidance is on an ongoing basis.

Customers reward brands who are relevant and authentic across the brand experience. The keys to achieving authentic realization is knowing your brand, picking the right channels and leading from the top down. Authenticity may quickly become the key to differentiation as brands seek to compete in an unpredictable environment.

Read related article on “How Brands Help Navigate Uncertainty”