Consumers are Now Shaping the Narrative of Brands: Using Brand Authenticity to Keep Brands Relevant in a Rapidly Evolving World

By Rob Duboff and Tony Gallo
New York City, NY - June 22nd 2016: Closed-up shot of time square and neon captured by smartphone

It is absolutely critical for my brand to be seen as authentic. As a marketer, especially today, authenticity is the key to connecting with consumers

Rachel Felix, Chief Marketing Officer, Boston Medical Center

Back in the day, consumers (like me) would buy brands that signaled who they aspired/pretended to be – Polo, Nike, Gucci, Tiffany. It was the heyday of logos big and small, a time when a heavily marketed brand personality (faux or real) drove consumer desires. But, to quote the bard Dylan, “The battle outside is ragin’” (Come on, you know the refrain) and the windows have been shaken and the walls been rattled such that in today’s world, it is the other way around: the consumer is shaping the persona of the brand through their choices, and the most successful brands are responding by becoming more authentic to themselves, and more importantly reflecting the authenticity of their customers.

Consumers have become more true to themselves, to their values, and are no longer trying to squeeze into molds that brands once told them they needed to fit into or services they needed to receive.  Consumers take much more pride in who they are as individuals, their needs, and what they represent.  In essence, they are more authentic to themselves, requiring brands to do the same to forge true connection points and trust.

Rachel Felix, Chief Marketing Officer, Boston Medical Center

Trust and honesty are tied inextricably with authenticity

Elizabeth Klein, Senior Director of Marketing, Mayo Clinic

Pandemic or not, buyers seek to buy from companies that they see as real…companies that share the same values as their customers and are transparent about their intentions. We see this come to life in brands like Patagonia, Trader Joe’s, Chick-Fil-a. BMW prides itself on staying true to its classic tagline, “The Ultimate Driving Machine”, a moniker (and, crucially, a product line) that has screamed authenticity since its inception in 1973.

What Does It Mean for a Brand to be Authentic?

Authenticity is having a mission or purpose and living that every day through your actions… Standing for something – even if not cause-driven – helps keep the focus on the end goal and gives consumers transparency into what to expect. Again, the dialogue with consumers on this intention, and the interpretation of the mission is critical to the brand voice and building a relationship.

Rachel Felix, Chief Marketing Officer, Boston Medical Center

“Authenticity requires marketing in congruence with the business model so that perceptions match the experience.”

– Sherri Gilligan, Chief Marketing Officer, Mayo Clinic 

HawkPartners has been invested in understanding the power of brand authenticity for quite some time. This year, we contacted nearly 4,000 customers on why brand authenticity is important, what they look for in a brand, and what they’re willing to do for a brand they believe is authentic. We have identified six pillars that drive brand authenticity:

Authentic brands are…

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Authentic brands…

expression of who i am icon

tell their story

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align with my values

care about LiKE me

Measuring Brand Authenticity Through the Eyes of Key Stakeholders

Beyond defining authenticity, it is essential to know if your brand is being expressed authentically. The two crucial audiences here are your customers and your employees. John Bigay, Chief Marketing Officer of iZotope, describes the evolution to an authentic brand in this way:

“Moving from transactions to relationships encourages something very important: a dialogue. It’s then a brand’s job to listen. What are your customers telling you? Customer support, social media, employee surveys. Chances are, there’s no shortage of feedback if you are willing to take an honest look. They’ll be quick to tell you what feels real and what doesn’t.”

John Bigay, Chief Marketing Officer, iZotope

While engaging through social media is an integral part of this, using research to measure how your customers feel about your brand (vs. the competition) is essential to maintaining a clear-eyed view of how your brand is being perceived. We would argue that the six pillars of authenticity are the measures that can help you understand how and where your brand is/isn’t perceived relative to authenticity.
The expression of authenticity is more than understanding your customers. It is also the voices represented by your employees, the everyday stewards, and ambassadors of brand authenticity.

“One of the many gauges of brand authenticity is employee sentiment.  Do employees understand the mission?  Are they inspired?  Does management invest in them as messengers of their brand?  One great example of this is the recent gift from the Spanx CEO, Sara Blakeley, to each employee of $10,000 and two first-class tickets to anywhere in the world.  This is truly and authentically living Spanx’s mission of wanting women to feel great about themselves and their potential, starting with their employees who also largely reflect their customer base.” 

– Rachel Felix, Chief Marketing Officer, Boston Medical Center

We can hear CMOs and Brand managers everywhere bemoaning the prospect of totally redefining what they do. But, if you are doing your job well, you are most likely addressing several drivers of authenticity already. We ask brand caretakers to recognize that brand authenticity is directly linked to rising above the clutter, so that customer engagement comes about with intentionality, not as a serendipitous by-product.

“Brand trust is the cornerstone, and authenticity paves the path. Brands build it over time, and it can be destroyed overnight.”

– Sherri Gilligan, Chief Marketing Officer, Mayo Clinic 

Of course, there are other important attributes, but if you don’t have a clear sense of who you are and what you stand for, and a commitment to stay true to that, it can be hard to breakthrough.

John Bigay, Chief Marketing Officer, iZotope