Authenticity. It’s unfortunately become a bit of a buzzword in the branding world, and that is a pet peeve of mine!
Because so many companies have been misusing authenticity as a marketing gimmick to appeal to people’s yearning for something genuine, trustworthy, sincere products and experiences, “authentic” no longer carries the same meaning as it used to.
So now, when a brand claims to be authentic, instead of leading to increased levels of trust — it often leads to scepticism and cynicism. That’s because we, as consumers, increasingly recognise that many brands use authenticity as a fancy facade to hide their true intentions. And those intentions are often focused on profit, profit and more profit, at any cost. As a result, these cynical brands have ruined authenticity for the rest of us, and it’s pissing me off big time!
Can we reverse this damage? I think we can, but it’s going to take some work. As human-centred brands, we need to take a different approach, one that prioritises authenticity in every aspect of our businesses — without shouting about it as if it’s a big deal. I mean, it kinda is a big deal, but really it should just be the norm. We shouldn’t have to question someone’s authenticity, but here we are.
Tune in to hear my take on this!
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How did authenticity become such a buzzword?
The word “authentic” has been used to describe things that are genuine and real for centuries, but it wasn’t until fairly recently that it gained real traction in the branding world. What I’m going to rename the “authentici-trend” can be traced back to the increasing desire among consumers for more meaningful and personal connections with the brands they buy from — which again is a direct reaction to the increase in commodification and mass production of products and services. As consumers have become more discerning and more sceptical of marketing claims, they now tend to seek out brands that they can trust and that reflect their own values and beliefs.
Up until this point, we’re all good!
But then, in response to this shift in consumer behaviour, many brands started to see this as an easy way of cashing in. They started to adopt authenticity as a core value, using it to differentiate themselves from competitors, and to establish an emotional connection, without actually meaning it. Aka: lying about their values and beliefs in order to attract more customers — with zero intention of actually putting their money where their mouth is. They’re misusing authenticity for profit.
This is where things start to get messed up. I mean… It was messed up from the start, but this is where it starts to backlash. That meme comes to mind, you know, the one:
“well, well, well — if it isn’t the consequences of my own actions…”
— that one. To make matters worse, those consequences don’t just affect the brands who purposefully applied this tactic: it affects the rest of us too.
Take a moment to absorb that.
See, these brands made the mistake of underestimating their audience. Hello! People aren’t stupid (well, some people are, but generally people aren’t stupid), it’s not like they weren’t going to catch on to what’s going on. So naturally, these false claims of authenticity have been exposed, and people have come to see them as just another marketing tool used to manipulate them into buying shit.
So: No surprise then, that the “authentici-trend” approach came with a real downside: the overuse, and misuse, of authenticity has made the term meaningless, and many of us have become sceptical of brands that claim to be authentic. We’ve developed, on a societal level, a mistrust — and rightly so!
So many brands have tried to appeal to our very human craving for genuine and sincere connection — by making claims that their products are handcrafted, local, or environmentally friendly, or that they’re trauma informed, sustainable, anti this or pro that, or whatever quality they’ve slapped on something to make it more appealing to their chosen audience — so many brand’s have been doing that, without actually doing anything to back up their claims.
This has happened over and over again, until we now find ourselves in a situation where we’re bombarded with an endless stream of claims about authenticity, but at the same time it’s becoming harder and harder to differentiate between brands that are truly authentic and those that are simply trying to exploit this trend for profit.
Authenticity has become just another buzzword that is used to describe everything from products to services to experiences, without any real understanding of what it actually means.
It’s pretty shitty, right?!
Right about now, you’re probably thinking “Ooooh, go on then, Petchy, give us some juicy examples of brands that should be made to sit on the naughty-step. Bring on the gossip, we’ve got the popcorn ready!”
I’m sorry, I won’t. For starters, I don’t want to be sued by anyone. But I’m pretty sure you can think of a company or two, or ten, that have been tempted to add a sprinkle of artificial authenticity to their brand.
What I can do though, is give some general examples, that I’m sure will trigger your “a-haaaaaa! reflex”:
- Greenwashing: This is when a brand makes false or exaggerated claims about their environmental impact, in order to appeal to people who are looking for more sustainable products. For example, claiming that their products are “all-natural” or “organic,” when in reality, they contain only a teeeensy amount of natural or organic ingredients.
- Cultural appropriation: A brand might adopt elements of a culture that is not their own, in an attempt to seem more authentic or appealing to a particular audience. For example by using imagery or symbols that are associated with a particular cultural group, without having a genuine link to, or any respect for or understanding of the cultural significance of those symbols.
- Copycat: this doesn’t just have to mean outright stealing another brand’s content or copying a product, it could also be mimicking someone else’s personality, their tone of voice, their behaviour, even their opinions — because you’ve seen it work for them and you want to ride the wave. This is never a good idea btw, pretending to be someone else is bloody exhausting, and people will eventually see through it.
- False claims: Some business owners and brands make false or misleading claims about their products or services, their income, or client results, in order to make them seem more authentic or enticing. This could look like: Claiming that their products are made in a certain country, when really, they are manufactured elsewhere. Cherry picking testimonials to showcase the most successful ones whilst leaving out the more realistic results. Making fake income claims (remember, revenue is not the same as profit!)
These are just a few examples, I’m sure you can think of more!
What can we do about this?
How can we avoid these pitfalls, and build a reputation for authenticity that is both genuine and sustainable?
To undo the damage that has been done, we — the people building human-centred brands — need to take a different approach, and it’s not as simple as hitting Command+Z. Unfortunately. If we want to be part of the solution, rather than adding to the problem, we have to prioritise authenticity in every aspect of our businesses — without following the urge to shout about it. We need to go beyond simply making claims about authenticity, we need to actually start embodying it in every aspect of our brands, from the products we offer to the way we interact with our audience. We need to follow through, we need to keep our promises, and we need to stop pretending to be someone we’re not.
One of the key steps we can take to reclaim authenticity is to focus on transparency. This means being honest and open about the products and services we offer, and about the processes and practices that go into creating those products. It does not mean we have to share stuff beyond what we’re comfortable sharing — remember, we’re not doing this to perform! That would defeat the purpose. By being consistently transparent, we can re-establish trust, because people are more likely to believe that a brand is truly authentic if they can see the evidence of it — over time.
Another important thing we can do is to focus on the customer experience, and putting the needs and preferences of our customers first, creating products and services that meet their real needs. To do this, we need to listen to customer feedback, and make changes to products and services based on that feedback. By doing that, we can ensure that our offerings are relevant, that they’re valuable, and that they are truly authentic in the sense that they are meeting the needs and desires of the people we want to serve.
There’s no getting around the fact that as human-centred brands, we need to be committed to responsible and ethical practices, such as protecting the environment, supporting local communities, and making sure that the people on our teams, whether they’re sub-contractors or employees, are treated fairly. (Heads-up: outsourcing by paying someone peanuts to help us build our brands and increase our own profits, is not ok. It’s exploitation, despite what many so-called business gurus teach!)
Yes, people are more likely to support brands that they know are doing the right thing, but whatever actions we take or decisions we make, we need to do it from a place of sincerity. Doing what we think is expected of us, is not authentic — it’s performative. We have to believe, deep in our gut, that these commitments are more than just “what people say is the right thing to do”.
One way to check our own intentions behind an action is to ask ourselves: If I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone about this, would I still do it? If the answer to that is yes, then chances are you’re actually being sincere and authentic.
It’s easy to think that as smaller brands, we have no power to change things. That’s simply not true! As smaller brands and solo business owners, we have the advantage of being more nimble and responsive to shifting our practices. And who said we have to do it all on our own? Or overnight? We can join forces to (quietly or loudly) rebel against the status quo, and reclaim authenticity with baby steps like:
- Showing the human(s) behind the logo
- Being honest and transparent about our business practices and company values.
- Calling other brands out when we spot something shady (it’s totally possible to reach out and/or question their practices without public naming and shaming btw!)
- Supporting local communities and giving back, making a positive impact where we are, without using it to “show off”
- Putting our money where our mouths are, taking action based on our values, and keeping our promises
To reclaim authenticity in branding, what we really need is a human-centred approach — one that prioritises transparency, customer experience, responsible practices, and an honest story. If enough of us join forces, we can counteract the damage that has been done and we can rebuild trust with the people who are looking for brands that are genuine, sincere, and trustworthy — for real!
Honestly, just be a decent human being and you’ll be well on your way to establishing a reputation for being a responsible and trustworthy brand. It’s not rocket science — or at least it shouldn’t be 😉
- Be honest
- Be transparent
- Own your mistakes — because you will make mistakes, we all do!
- If you fuck up: own up, don’t make excuses, apologise and make things right
- But above all: be you — and don’t apologise for it!
To learn more about how I can help you build a brand that is unmistakably you — and that your kind of people can truly resonate with and relate to — visit petchy.co and let’s have a chat.
Whether you need a full strategic rebrand, visuals and all, or you want to dive into the strategic foundations — the work we do together will always go beyond just a logo. I’ll make sure we anchor your brand to your values, your personality, your vision, and your worldview, so you don’t have to pretend to be authentic.
Until next time,
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