A framework to define authenticity in marketing

(Photo credit: Unsplash)
(Photo credit: Unsplash)

How can brands develop work that is considered authentic if they don’t know what authenticity means? Here are five characteristics to consider.

Marketers increasingly hear calls to make their campaigns more authentic, led by the preferences of Gen Z. That begs the question: what does it mean for marketing to be considered authentic? 

2014 survey by Cohn and Wolfe of 12,000 marketers yielded thousands of definitions, with the most prevalent defining authenticity as having open and honest communications about products and services. However, when pressed for examples of companies that do this well, the results — like most surveys about great brands — become proxies for, “brands whose products I like.” It’s simple: for your marketing to be considered authentic, you just need to release a product loved by millions of people. 

Digiday collected a telling array of quotes from brand marketers, who suggested authenticity is:

  • Easy (I disagree, as would many brands)
  • Presenting yourself as conversational and colloquial (meaning no brand who presents as polished or official can be authentic)
  • Staying true to who you are (in this case, Palantir should top every list of most authentic brands)
  • Being transparent (according to whom?)

I don’t mean to dismiss the definitions of these well-meaning, successful marketers. But I do mean to demonstrate the difficulty in defining authenticity. 

This is a problem. Without a simple, measurable, and demonstrable framework with which to define authenticity, industry professionals have a harder time developing work that could be seen as authentic, much less articulating what is and is not authentic to their leadership.

To help brand marketers better assess whether their campaigns are authentic, I developed a simple framework: brand marketing achieves authenticity when it acts on stakeholder motivators in ways that display relevance, alignment, action, consistency, and value.

Relevance

When work has relevance, it possesses an easily understood relationship to the company’s mission, vision, values and/or products. Neither the target audience nor executives need to think much about why the brand would execute such work. When Petco in 2020 ended the sale of shock collars, this made complete sense: Petco, amidst a mission-driven transition to a health and wellness brand for pets, made the sensible decision that shock collars do not align with the brand. The brand executed a number of well-crafted marketing initiatives around this news, for which the messaging could stay simple, due to the high relevance of the work.

Alignment

Alignment means that the work lines up with the company’s immediate priorities. It’s the more near-term, here-and-now cousin of relevance. Said more simply, when the work achieves alignment, it speaks to the latest concerns and focuses of your executives. It’s much easier for brand marketers to achieve alignment when the CEO clearly communicates their priorities to employees. This can be done in a number of ways, like employee town halls and written executive communications, such as this robust and detailed December 2019 letter from Coca-Cola CEO James Quincey to employees. The letter points out the specific areas of where the company will commit resources (many of which are highly relevant). This alignment empowers employees to make decisions that ladder up to such commitments, helping to make tough choices of changes, tradeoffs and sacrifices.

Action

Brands that create action execute meaningful demonstrations of their intended objective, brand purpose, or company mission, often at real cost. We all know what action is not: one-off social media posts that profess a brands’ commitment to a cause, absent any real investment. Action represents the opposite of that: for example, Airbnb fronting the cost to house Afghan and Ukrainian refugees. Without action, a brand’s marketing risks coming off as superficial and performative.

Consistency

Consistency points to the recurrence of action from a brand, at easy-to-understand time intervals. Again, an example of what consistency is not: funding social justice causes at the height of attention for the topic, only to allocate dollars elsewhere once other topics enter mainstream. REI was considered a pioneer for closing its doors on Black Friday in 2015, and the #OptOutside campaign won numerous awards. Celebrating the seventh year of #OptOutside in 2021 (and with the brand permanently committing to it this year), stakeholder groups have evidence of the brands’ ironclad commitment to its purpose.

Value

Finally, value means that acting on a stakeholder motivator could, in time, translate into shareholder gains. While this seems controversial, it provides a powerful motivator that could help convince executives to commit to difficult and long-term changes, especially in the face of tough economic headwinds. For example, Ford’s stock price soared as it leaned into the F-150 Lightning electric pickup, which demonstrated their commitment to reducing reliance on fossil fuels. In the day-to-day, a 2020 study from Zeno Group found that when consumers think a brand has a strong purpose, they’re four times more likely to purchase from the company. It’s okay for authentic work to also be profitable for the brand.

I hope this framework provides marketing professionals with a more tangible way to assess authenticity. When brands produce more authentic work, everybody wins.

Andy Lutzky is a professor of public relations and digital marketing at the University of Southern California. He is also the EVP of brand partnerships at influencer marketing agency Xomad.

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