It’s no secret that all our worlds have changed significantly over the past several years, but shifting from commuting on planes to commuting in sweats or from meeting in boardrooms to meeting in Zoom rooms aren’t the only things that changed. So, too, has the content of discussions. We no longer hear from clients that they’re looking to decide which ad concept is better for their brand’s equity. Now, they’re coming to us and asking which social issues they should take a position on, how their customers would feel about the sustainability of the materials they use, or what consumers think about their spokespeople’s reputations.
Most of those conversations have a common denominator: consumers are demanding more of the brands they support and are willing to offer their loyalty when brands meet (or exceed) those expectations. But in meeting those expectations, a brand also must convince consumers that they are authentic: that they mean what they say, and that their actions align with their words.
So, we’ve aimed to explore how brands are showing their authenticity. According to our Brand Authenticity IndexTM, we identified the six factors that make a brand authentic.
Authentic Brands are:
- Explicitly Moral
- Brutally Honest
- Unapologetically Transparent
- Rooted in Their Values
- Constantly Consistent
- An Expression of Who Their Customers Are
Our research shows that brands can compel consumers to engage beyond the typical brand-customer relationship and become loyal, long-term customers through these six pillars.
Definition: These brands have a defined moral compass that guides every action they take and defines who they are. Consumers can count on explicitly moral brands to do the right thing.
Ben & Jerry’s always followed its defined moral compass. They are very clear about the values that they stand for and the issues they support – from racial justice to campaign finance reform. Spend just a few minutes on their website, and they align their business practices with their values and are not afraid to sacrifice profit for peace. This communicates a level of morality that most brands only talk about and rarely act on.
You may be surprised to learn that an investment advisory company with $7 trillion in assets under management is turning heads with its morality – but Vanguard is. In an industry fueled by profits, Vanguard took the unusual step of changing its ownership structure. The company is owned by its funds, which their shareholders own. As a result, the company has no conflicting loyalties; instead, employees are free to uphold the highest ethical standards every day. This structure is exactly what younger investors seek in their prime saving years.
Rooted In Their Values
Definition: A brand that lives its values tells us precisely what they believe in and stand for. Even when they don’t share the same beliefs, consumers credit brands that stay true to who they are.
Its purpose drives Nike’s business decisions: to break barriers. 50% of its corporate employees are women, and underrepresented racial and ethnic communities fill 29% of its VP roles. They have heavily invested in creating sustainable products and circular designs where products are recyclable at the end of use. In 2020, they devoted $140 million to organizations that advance racial equality. As their CEO John Donohue says, “Nike’s values will always lead us, and we will never, ever stop striving for better.”
The five co-founders of Peloton just wanted easy access to high-quality workouts, and their rallying cry has become “democratizing fitness.” From their classes to apparel launches to industry partnerships, everything Peloton does is intended to put members first. The company even invites members to join them in the process, further reinforcing their values. The company has continued to build a loyal following of brand ambassadors and a sense of community even when we were all stuck at home during the pandemic.
Levi’s has always stood up for what’s right. In 1960, the company pushed back against racial segregation and opened its first desegregated sewing factory in Virginia. In 1982, their leaders and employees came together to educate the public on LGBTQ+ issues. In 1991, they instituted a Terms of Engagement to ensure all workers along their supply chain are protected. From climate change to racial justice, the company culture follows its values, no matter what.
Definition: Brands that tell the truth; we can rely on them to always be honest, even if the news is terrible.
The insurance and banking industry is not typically known for its honesty and trustworthiness, but USAA breaks the mold. They are clear about who they are for – active and retired military families – and create a connection based on an honest agreement that many consumers may pay more for but will be met with improved claims and coverage experience, breaking the mold for insurance companies. As a result, customers are confident that USAA will be there when they need them and view them as the safety blanket required by an insurance provider.
Southwest began flying out of Love Field in Dallas in 1971, and since then, they have striven to show their customers “LUV” (their ticker name on the New York Stock Exchange). That means that they don’t pretend to be anything that they’re not – they proudly disrupted the airline industry and recognized that they might not be for everyone. They tell it like it is and take passengers on the journey together.
Definition: Brands that consistently deliver what they say they will.
Visit any Costco location in the US, and you know what to expect: high-quality products at predictable prices in a bright, clean, and comfortable environment. The company has set the standard for wholesale retailers. Members know they will save on gas, groceries, prescriptions, and everything in between. The brand has consistently innovated to bring in new offerings like eye exams and high-end jewelry while keeping that consistent customer experience.
Trader Joe’s has turned grocery shopping into a fun, playful experience. Each visit promises tropical shirts, smiling employees, quirky products you can’t find anywhere else, an overall positive vibe, and over-the-top customer service. Whether you’re in Brooklyn or San Diego, you know you’ll walk out with a smile on your face – and probably $100 worth of new grocery finds you didn’t know you needed.
Consistent customer service is Ritz-Carlton’s calling card. Employees pledge to provide the most exemplary personal service and facilities for their guests “who will always enjoy a warm, relaxed, yet refined ambiance.” Beginning with a warm and sincere greeting, employees address guests by name and are trained to anticipate and fulfill each guest’s needs. This same welcoming and customer-first attitude are evident at every Ritz-Carlton property worldwide. Customers leave feeling the same regardless of which property they experience
Definition: Transparency no longer means merely being open and honest but now also involves giving details about the thought process behind how brands make decisions, what drives them and how consumers can impact the decisions they make.
Patagonia invited consumers behind the curtain to understand its environmental protection and sustainability decision-making. The company has always been transparent about its support for the environment (since its founding in 1985, the company has pledged 1% of sales to preserve and restore the natural environment), but in recent years has gone well beyond this. During a previous administration, the Bear’s Ears and Grand Escalante National Monuments in Utah were threatened to lose their protective status. Patagonia spoke out against this and allocated donations towards the effort, explaining to consumers how this aligned with their values and why it made the decision and has continued to support this initiative, most recently refusing to participate in the Outdoor Retailer show, which moved back to Utah from Colorado, until state and federal legislators guaranteed protection for the monuments.
In the complex world of investment management, straightforward pricing is a rarity – but it is a badge of honor for Fidelity Investments. Fidelity is entirely transparent about its pricing structure. They lay everything out in easy-to-read charts, including their trading fees (mostly zero), comparisons to other services, and planning and advice fees.
An Expression of Who I Am
Definition: Authentic brands become a part of who the consumer is, ascending to “badge brand” status by creating a connection beyond brand and person, imprinting themselves on each other.
In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Calm app became a staple of consumers’ lives. With stress hitting new highs, people needed an antidote. Calm helped us learn to meditate, get more restful sleep, access lessons on mindful movement, and enjoy music, nature scenes, and sounds for relaxation—no wonder this popular app has found a long-term place in our lives.
Apple is an iconic brand. Since it was founded in 1976, it has focused on building a community of dedicated fans and positioning itself differently. That feeling of belonging to a like-minded tribe and bucking the status quo has reverberated through the decades. Innovation is infused in everything Apple does, from usability to design packaging to retail, resulting in customer loyalty and revenue growth. Add in the sleek design and intuitive product experience, owning an Apple product has become a lifestyle statement.
These 14 brands highlight the power of the different pillars of brand authenticity in creating lasting connections with consumers. Whether it’s waiting in a line that wraps around the store at Trader Joe’s, paying more for an Apple iPhone, or trusting Vanguard or Fidelity with your investments, we see brands excelling by focusing on each of these six key pillars.
Let’s discuss how to increase your brand authenticity and create lasting, valuable connections with consumers!