The challenge of 'brand authenticity'

A common sentiment amongst marketers is that the stronger a brand’s core authenticity is, the more likely people will become advocates for the brand, and ultimately, the greater market share a brand will hold. But what exactly does it mean to be "authentic" and how can a brand achieve this? Brand strategist Kim Koster recently joined CMA’s Branding & Strategic Planning Council to help flesh out this concept. Here are some of the key takeaways from that discussion:

Defining brand authenticity:
Authenticity is considered by many marketers to be a loaded buzzword and difficult to define. Based on a 2014 Cohn and Wolfe global study, one helpful, consumer-derived definition provided by Kim is as follows: “A brand that has values and morals and stands by them no matter what, while honestly divulging its practices (flaws and all).”

The idea of “morals” takes brands down a very human path; not every marketer takes this approach. The notion of “flaws” is also key here – brands staying consistent and recognizing what they stand for (and what they are not) can have significant value. As Kim explains, a brand must stay true to itself; it can’t be all things to all people. The actions should match the message, with storytelling being an essential tool for illustrating where the brand comes from and what it stands for. Many brands in fact don’t know what they stand for and thus struggle to be authentic.

The value of brand authenticity and the authenticity gap:
There’s real commercial value of brands maintaining authenticity. The following charts demonstrate how “core authenticity” can drive business performance:

Share of high-value customers

Willingness to recommend a brand:


Evidently the stronger a brand's core authenticity, the more likely people will become advocates for the brand, and the greater the share a brand will have of high value customers in its market.

Kim also cited a Forrester study, which notes a significant employee authenticity gap: an overwhelming number of customer-facing workers (89%) say there's a gap between the experience they can deliver and the experience the customer expects.

Examples of authenticity:

McDonalds’ Our Food Your Questions campaign demonstrated the fast food chain’s efforts to be more transparent. The website Etsy, a peer-to-peer e-commerce site that sells mostly handmade or vintage items and supplies, was also cited by Kim as one of the more authentic online-based brands.  With the company recently going public and now allowing non-handmade items to be sold, Etsy recognizes it faces a significant challenge remaining authentic in this environment.

Another excellent example of brand authenticity is the Toronto Raptors' We the North campaign. The emphasis and embrace of the Raptors as Canada’s only NBA franchise has received plenty of positive feedback, with other brands like Sport Chek even feeding off the sentiment for their own campaign (entitled My North).

Key takeaways:

  • Kim pointed out that while being considered authentic can lead to positive business results, the reverse can also be true: Companies seen as lacking in transparency face more criticism than ever before, particular on social media.
  • A key element of brand authenticity is being relevant to your target audience -- and having the appropriate strategy with that in mind.
  • It’s also essential to find a true story that brings emotion to the brand -- and making sure you’re storytelling in a differentiated way (there are few things worse than being perceived as trying to get on the "authenticity bandwagon").
  • Tools to think about: It could be helpful for your organization to audit the gaps between management, employees, customers and suppliers – is your company delivering the experience it’s promising?
  • Also, auditing what info about your company is not yet in public domain, and considering what would happen if it was in fact made available, could be positive step for your organization (i.e. discussing the benefits of proactively releasing this info in the name of transparency).

Jordan Sandler is Manager, Councils at the Canadian Marketing Association

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Tags: Brand Authenticity, Branding