What is brand authenticity?

Brand authenticity is the perception we have of the integrity and honesty of a brand to their own values as well as their customers’. A strong brand identity will help communicate the authenticity of a brand.

However, you cannot separate brand authenticity from consistency and transparency. It is simply no longer enough to say what you stand for (your values) you must act on your intentions (how you behave). 

Dolly Parton has album sales of more than 100 million and an estimated net. worth of $600 million, but what’s the relevance of the country superstar’s unique brand to your own 9 to 5 (the first of many, get off at the next stop if you’re not a fan)? 

Often misunderstood (and underestimated) the songwriter’s cosmetically enhanced image offers the paradox to her success – above all else Dolly Parton is authentic. 

Why is brand authenticity important?

Brand authenticity is important because it builds trust and loyalty with your customer base, helping to grow your business through shared values and recommendations.

Creating an authentic brand is essential with brand trust in steady decline, especially in the entertainment and technology sectors. Havas Group has identified an ‘Age of Cynicism’, while Edelman’s Trust Barometer 2020 points to a consumer market of ‘Belief Buyers’ – those who base purchase decisions on a brand’s own position in key social issues. So, now more than ever companies need to prioritise purpose over profit (if they aren’t doing so already). 

With a global Gen-Z population of nearly 2 billion using consumption as an expression of individuality, and always (re)searching for a brand’s truth, we’re all under the microscope. Even as employers we are being challenged to rethink how we attract a next generation workforce. A recent study by zety suggests while a good work/life balance is the priority, recognising shared values with a company, ranked high on the appeal of any future employer.

And let’s not forget the Millennials  (hi there), at the forefront of global issues like climate change, they actively seeking to reduce their own environmental impact through consumer choice. While the generation before sought status and brands, Gen-Y (Millennials) seek (consumer) experiences. 

Therefore, companies and brands need to focus on deeper connections and building stronger relationships with their customers. ‘Fully connected customers are 52% more valuable, on average, than those who are just highly satisfied’ (Harvard Business Review. 2015). On a human level, how do we form relationships? We share values, we build trust.

Building brand trust.

Brand trust is why your audience wants to engage with you, your product(s) or your service(s). It creates a currency that allows your business to grow through consumer loyalty and recommendations. Brand trust can also help absorb any damage to your reputation and protect your brand equity.

How do you build brand trust? It’s an investment, and it’s ongoing, but here are a couple of quick wins:

1.           Transparency – it’s all about closing the gap between what you promise and what you deliver. Brand transparency can be how you present your product or service but can also be how you operate.  Today, through digital platforms, brands are more accessible, for better or worse. Own your narrative. Be honest. Share your successes and your mistakes. 

2.         Communication – consumers trust brands that they feel understand them. To understand your audience, you must engage with your audience. And engaging means listening. In a recent webinar, CMO and chief growth officer at Latana, Angeley Mullins, discussed how social media platforms allow brands to resonate more with their target audience, identifying a shift from product advertising to deeper, emotional connections and shared values. 

3.         Consistency – don’t leave yourself open to misinterpretation, it can lead to suspicion and mistrust. Consumers like to have their expectations met (and exceeded) and that includes their expectation of you and your brand. 

Market researcher Craig Borowski offers a pretty solid analogy of how consistency creates loyalty – essentially we’re all machines looking for patterns.  

Good examples of brand authenticity.

If it’s about building trust and having deeper, more meaningful relationships with our target audience, who are the successes:

1.          Airbnb – Belong Anywhere.

With every step of the customer experience Airbnb aims to build a global community of inclusivity. From their 2019 ‘That’s why We Airbnb’ campaign of unfiltered UGC (User Generated Content) to the recent waiving of Ukraine members fees and offering free housing for 100,000 refugees, Airbnb is a brand of action. Purpose over profit (there it is again). But it was in 2016, in the interest of full transparency, after reports of guests facing ethnic and religious discrimination, Airbnb publicly sought to address the issue with its independent contractors and launched the ‘We Accept’ campaign. 

2.        Patagonia – We’re in business to save our home planet.

Former CEO Kristine McDivitt Tompkins literally donated one million acres of land to the Chilean government. At its inception Founder Yvon Chouinard committed either 1% of sales or 10% of profits, whichever was greater, to environmental activism. Identifying a target audience of both ‘fashionable and (the) conscientious’, Patagonia consistently registers as a trusted-brand with Millennials. Continuously reviewing the impact of its supply chain, and with countless initiatives including The Common Thread, encouraging a repair and reuse culture, ranking as one of B-Corp’s top accredited companies (look out, we’re coming for you) the clothing brand has annual sales of around $1 billion. Coincidence? We think not. Purpose and profit.

3.        Dolly Parton – Self-professed Backwood Barbie

The headliner. This is what you came for right? Dolly Parton’s Q Score, measuring the appeal of a celebrity brand (honestly, it’s a thing), is globally one of the highest, her negative rating, one of the lowest. Parton’s songs have always been grounded in her Smoky Mountain upbringing, even when jumping genres in the mid-70s with her first platinum selling pop album, Here You Come Again. The singer’s persona has long eclipsed her formidable music career. Producer, philanthropist, entrepreneur, her list of achievements is extensive. Remaining true to her roots (well, her heritage anyway), Parton has set-up literacy programmes, and employs over 4,000 people at her theme park, Dollywood. Take a breath. When her music has waned in popularity, Dolly Parton has diversified, found a new audience but remained, in her own words ‘a simple country girl’ – country is, as country does. 

And when brands are inauthentic…

In the article Recognizing Your Customer’s Purpose is Key to Growth Harvard Business Review identified a conscious shift, since the pandemic, in brands toward customer experience and purpose over pure profit drivers.

However, this approach is not without pitfalls. With many companies getting ready to roll out their rainbow flag this month, social media platforms are about to get a lot more colourful. Last year, much of the discourse during Pride Month focussed on the authenticity of global brands and their genuine support of the LGBTQ+ community with the Advertising Standard Authority (ASA) pointing to only 32% of marketers engaging with the community independent of Pride

‘Rainbow-washing’ is when a brand, company or organisation uses the colours of Pride to imply a unity with LGBTQ+ community and can include tokenism and paper-thin initiatives. More serious, some global brands update their Western-market platforms, ignoring the discrimination and persecution in other territories where they have financial interests. Profit before purpose

And while we’re coming clean, with sustainability firmly on the agenda, ‘Green-washing’ can also be a key indicator of a brand’s inauthenticity. We’re not in the habit of naming and shaming, but if you admittedly cheat on emission tests suddenly your eco-friendly marketing loses impact. Likewise, if you have ambitions to build an eco-friendly flagship store, perhaps it shouldn’t be on the site of the UK’s most sustainable supermarket, opened less than twenty years earlier, literally wiping out its green currency (just saying). 

Ok, maybe not so veiled. But no one named, certainly not shamed, and hopefully by now a recognition and regret at wrongdoing. Fortunately, consumers will forgive. We don’t expect brands to get it right all the time (we are all human after all), and we’re more tolerant when mistakes are acknowledged and ultimately corrected. When IKEA was shown to have been part of a supply chain sourcing pine from illegal logging they recognised the NGOs findings prompting a temporary ban in the use of sanitary felled wood. 

Dolly Parton herself has not escaped criticism, for her political neutrality, and avoiding discourse around the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements – deflecting more serious issues by poking fun at her own image and offering beauty-pageant platitudes. In 2017 Parton was criticised for the popular Dixie Stampede, a romanticised Civil War attraction, at her theme park in Pigeon Forge. Parton quickly changed the show explaining ‘when they said ‘Dixie’ was an offensive word, I thought. ‘Well, I don’t want to offend anybody…As soon as you realise that [something] is a problem, you should fix it. Don’t be a dumbass’. Exactly.

But in a climate of such social activism from other ‘celebrities’ how does the artist not only avoid further condemnation but enjoy enduring album sales with a fanbase of conversative traditionalists, liberals, and minority communities? 

How to make sure you stay authentic. 

Rather than soundbites, Dolly Parton has used action to pin her colours to the mast – and make no mistake, her flag isn’t hoisted for just one month a year. Parton has been a long-time supporter of the LGBTQ+ community as well as other marginalised and minority groups. Most recently it came to light Parton invested the substantial royalties from Whitney Houston’s cover of ‘I Will Always Love You’ into the Black communities of her home state. Social progress, not social posts.  

And politically, during the global pandemic, when many senior Republicans were using hoax-rhetoric, Dolly Parton made a substantial financial donation to the development of a COVID-19 vaccine. 

Not too many lines to read between there. 

What can we learn from the First Lady of Country?

1.      Brand Story – reflect on your own Brand Story. Remembering where you came from will help keep your actions and content ‘real’. Why did you start the business? 

2.     Brand Values – be true to your own values, they will be the compass you need to navigate the decisions ahead. Are they aligned to your customers’ values? Will they help you create that emotional connection? (we aren’t for everyone)

3.     Brand Mission – make it aspirational, it will keep you consistent but driven. We all want to do better, right?

4.    Be Active –engage with your target audience, and the issues that matter to you. Be an active listener. Customer testimonials will help build trust and grow your business. Don’t just talk-the-talk.

5.      Be Honest – it’s all about transparency. No one is perfect (not even Dolly it would seem). Admit when you’re wrong, own the narrative, and move on.

While we would advocate businesses talk more widely about the positive actions they are taking, in sustainability, equality and inclusivity or even more transparent business practices, to enjoy the same longevity as Dolly Parton and avoid a PR backlash, consider how you execute and communicate to your customer base. 

Not everyone will share your values and that’s ok. Stay genuine to your brand ethos.  And remember even Dolly Parton gets trolled. 

Interested to learn more? Great, us too. It’s at this point, to be completely transparent, we’d have to say, we don’t have all the answers. But we have ambitions; to be better, to do better. Typical Gen Y, we’re seeking out more meaningful connections too. If you would like further detail on how we can help support your brand or perhaps you just fancy our Dolly Parton Essential Playlist get in touch.