Can Marketing Make A Brand Authentic?


Last week news emerged of VW’s cunning approach to fuel emissions testing – a cheeky ruse which came as quite a shock to those of us once beguiled by VW’s hitherto hard-won reputation for reliability and general trustworthiness.

Not only does the scandal tarnish VW’s reputation, but it’s arguable that it couldn’t have come at a worse time for them, because, now, more than ever before, audiences are starting to expect a little more truth from brands and organisations, meaning VW’s customer-led punishment for a perceived falsehood could be all the more acute. That expectation of authenticity has probably been cultivated by the frenzied flurry of newly turned leaves and the sonorous chorus of mea culpas that many large organisations have been putting at the forefront of their marketing in recent years. “Yes, we were naughty. But now we’re good. Look”. The ‘look’ often points to re-booted CSR initiatives, or a new transparent tone to contract terms and conditions.

And brands have been keen to embrace such authenticity because audiences have been slowly but surely rewarding them for it, in all of its guises.

People buy brands with an authentic purpose

Millward Brown’s BrandZ is an annual study that uses customer research to identify the 100 most valuable brands in the world. Drawing on data since 2006, Millward Brown discovered that the top 50 brands, which had increased their net worth by 124%, all had high ‘difference’ scores – an effect driven by having a well-articulated purpose. Doreen Wang, Global Head of Brandz, spells it out in commercial terms: “Brands with a strong purpose help accelerate brand equity. Those brands with a purpose which is beyond just making money: they understand why they exist, how to improve consumers’ lives and how to make the world a better place. These are the brands that achieve faster value growth.”

These are the brands that place authenticity of purpose at the heart of everything they do – whether that’s an authentic wish to help people be more creative (Apple), get fitter (Nike), or build a networked society for the common good (Ericsson).

Authentic ain’t just for the yoof

Perhaps because social media and digital channels have thrown a spotlight onto brands’ realtime behaviour, and social channels skew youthward, much of what’s been written on the subject of authenticity in marketing has focussed on younger audiences. Y’know, pop ups, street food, fairtrade artisan coffee, blah blah blah.  And, yes, there’s plenty of research evidence that younger audiences (millennials, generation z, 18-24 year olds – whatever you want to call them this week) do really, like, sooooooo value authenticity highly, and warm to brands deemed ‘authentic’. But I’m puzzled why any brand’s shift towards authenticity is so often justified primarily by a desire to engage these younger audiences. It’s like authenticity is a new marketing fad designed just to woo the social generation. Surely anyone in any demographic group stands to benefit from businesses embracing authenticity? Stuff the overly-pampered, sensitive ickle millennials, don’t we all want a bit less marketing bullsh**t in the world? A more honest approach from brands has such obvious benefits for both the audience and the communicating organisation.

Actions, not words

Alas, for many businesses, the notion of authenticity still seems to struggle to break out of the marketing department, which is a problem because authenticity is about deeds more than tone. It’s made real through customer experience, not a marketing idea or digital campaign. That’s an understanding recently embraced by one of our clients, Barclays. Smarting from the libor scandal and some pretty low net promoter scores, Barclays has been on a road to reinvention. They’re not perfect yet, but authenticity of purpose and action is now a key driver for their business. Their purpose is now based on helping people achieve their ambitions, and they’ve been bringing that to life with a range of schemes that really do help people – whether that’s coaches to get older people online (Digital Eagles), training and work experience for young people (LifeSkills), or coding practice and tips for kids (Code Playground). It’s great marketing, but it’s only great marketing because they’re doing it, not just saying it.

Authentic consistency

Saying you’re authentic without acting on it won’t work for long. It doesn’t matter how jauntily charming and transparent your web or packaging copy is, or how movingly you bring to life your brand’s altruistic purpose in content and advertising – it can all be undone by one aggressive payment demand letter, faked emissions test or a surly call centre operative. That’s because those bad experiences for the audience look like the truth that a brand is trying to hide, and thus the audience reframes the entire marketing effort as deliberately misleading and inauthentic.

So establishing authenticity is not just a brand marketing challenge. It’s a challenge for every discipline in every tiny little corner of an organisation, and the zero-tolerance drive for transparency must come from the very top.

Michael Reeves, Business Development Director, Content