What 'authentic' branding really is, and why so many businesses fail at it
Updated: Jan 26
Whether it's copywriting or content management, probably 80 percent of the businesses I work with all say the same thing to me when I sit down with them to figure out what we're going to create - "we want authentic branding material."
Executives and marketing team leaders say this to me as if it defines precisely what material they expect me to create for them. Unfortunately, when I follow up this request with the simple question "alright, and what does 'authentic branding material' look like to you?" I'm often met with silence. More often than not, this silence originates from the fact that the people I'm talking to don't actually know what an authentic representation of their brand would look like - just that they want to seem 'relatable' or 'socially aware.'
It's not hard to figure out why so many executives and marketing teams are obsessed with branding that's 'authentic.' According to the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer, only 48 percent of the general U.S. population trusts businesses, a year-over-year decrease of 10 percent. Consumer trust is in a freefall, thanks partially to the mishandling of consumer data by major enterprises. Data breaches at Marriot and Quora in 2018 cumulatively compromised the personal information of over 600 million consumers. These 2018 data breaches follow 2017 cybersecurity disasters such as the infamous Equifax hack that compromised the data of around 150 million individuals and Yahoo's revelation that multiple data breaches had gifted the data of all 3 billion of its users to cybercriminals.
Data is the black gold of businesses in the digital era. And just like oil, very few companies know how to handle data appropriately. Seventy-three percent of all data collected is never even analyzed, and with cyberattacks only increasing in frequency, data is just as dangerous as it is valuable for companies. The takeaway here is that the mishandling of consumer data has quickly eroded the trust the average consumer has in businesses, medium-sized, and big businesses in particular.
Unfortunately for businesses, consumer trust is fickle. A study by data handling company Label Insight revealed that 73 percent of consumers surveyed were willing to pay more for a transparent brand, and 40 percent were willing to change from a preferred brand to a brand that had more transparency. People want to buy products and services from brands that they feel respect them as consumers, and that they think have social values they can agree with.
So, we get 'authentic branding.' The two words which many executives apparently believe will lead to great reviews and fiscal success. Maybe they're right. But far too often, I see businesses I work with confuse 'authentic branding' for 'political branding' or 'socially aware branding' which… just isn't what it's about.
Let's define what each of these terms means to me. 'Authentic branding' is branding that is true to a business's ethos - its missions and its practices. Moreover, 'authentic branding' is branding that consumers believe when they see it - it's branding that they buy into. 'Political branding' or 'socially aware branding,' on the other hand, are branding practices centered on connecting business to particular social or political stances. While 'authentic branding' can simultaneously be 'political' or 'socially aware' branding, branding campaigns focused on social issues, or politics can also be entirely inauthentic, coming off as pandering or 'fake' to consumers.
Executives aren't stupid. More and more, Millennials and Gen Zs are becoming the focus of marketing campaigns - after all, they're the generations poised to take over the bulk of purchasing power in the coming years. Because these generations are more left-leaning as a whole than previous generations, many brands decide to market themselves as paragons of left-leaning values in an attempt to appeal to younger consumers. Sometimes it works. Other times… not so much.
Case in point, let's contrast two branding campaigns: Nike's 2018 Colin Kaepernick campaign, and Gillette's 2018 Toxic Masculinity campaign. On a surface level, these two ad campaigns seem relatively similar. Both focus on a left-leaning message that is aimed at connecting the brands involved to left-leaning political stances centered on embracing diversity and cultural change.
However, the public reception to these two ads couldn't have been more different. After releasing the Colin Kaepernick ad campaign, Nike sales surged by $6 billion, and Nike ended 2018 with one of its most energetic fiscal performances in recent memory. So, a successful ad campaign by any measure. The Gillette ad? Not so much. It currently sits at an almost two-to-one dislike-to-like ratio on YouTube, and it seriously peeved plenty of people from every side of the political spectrum. Yikes.
Why did the Nike campaign succeed when the Gillette campaign failed? Simple. People bought into Nike's messaging, and they didn't buy into Gillette's. For decades, the Nike brand has been undergoing a facelift that moved it far away from the child sweatshops and labor abuse allegations the brand once suffered from. The Nike of today is branded as socially and politically progressive, a consistent supporter of marginalized individuals who seek to overcome all odds to achieve greatness.
But that rebranding didn't happen overnight. Time and again, Nike has put its money where its mouth is to support progressive social causes - at least at first glance. As a result, when Nike runs a progressive ad, it's believable. It's transparent. It's authentic.
Author's note: Nike's recently revealed abuse of female athletes under the brand's sponsorship makes it clear that Nike's practices do not mirror its messaging (and arguably never have). This article (written before this scandal occurred) deals with how Nike was able to make consumers buy into its facade as a progressive company (and why Gilette failed to do the same) - it is not intended as an endorsement of Nike or their practices. I'm interested to see how consumers will receive Nike's next major campaign in the wake of this scandal, and whether or not Nike will move away from politically-charged branding as a result of these revelations.
I think revelations like these are actually interesting - while Nike's business practices are clearly not progressive, marketers have been so successful at branding the company as 'progressive' that many progressives weren't even aware of the company's actual practices until they blew up in an expose somewhere prominent like the New York Times. For companies, this poses the question - "do we actually need to be ethical? Or do we just need to push ethical messages convincingly enough that the average consumer, who won't do a deep dive into our business practices, believes we're ethical?" For consumers, it poses a different question - "how much effort should we put into researching a company and making sure its branding matches its business practices to be a 'responsible' consumer?" I'm wrestling with these questions right now, as I'm sure many consumers are. I'm not sure there's a black and white answer to these questions, and it's something I look forward to musing on as I continue developing my views on these subjects.
Gillette, on the other hand? The same Gillette that still sells women's razors in pink and teal only? The same Gillette that has never tied any political stance to its brand until this commercial? Yeah, not so much. Because Gillette has never made any efforts to be a progressive business, a progressive ad campaign feels forced and fake.
The takeaway here for businesses should be this: while some companies can - and should - run political ad campaigns as 'authentic' branding efforts, a political stance alone does not an authentic brand make. In fact, a brand doesn't need to have any political position at all to seem genuine.
There are plenty of ad campaigns that you can use to prove this. Dollar Shave Club's infamous viral ad and Squatty Potty's ridiculous pooping unicorn ad are great examples of authentic branding efforts that have absolutely no political message.
But for my money, if you really want to see an example of good branding in action, you need look no further than the Metropolitan Museum of Art's absurd Michelangelo (both the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle and the artist) ad campaign.
To engage social media users, the Met posted a photo of someone in a Michelangelo (the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle) costume looking lovingly at an exhibit by Michelangelo (the Renaissance artist).
It's an absurd set of pictures. It's also a brilliant example of authentic marketing. In terms of outreach, it was a complete success. Most of The Met Museum's tweets receive less than 200 likes on average. Michelangelo's picture thread? Over 36,000 likes. Yes, you read that right. The Michelangelo series of Met tweets received over 180 times more engagement than the Met's average tweets. But why? After all, some absurdist humor involving a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle is not what one would expect of a high art museum.
That's precisely why it works. It's an effortless appeal to the surrealist, meme-based humor that documents the internet. It shows off a different side to The Met and its workers, giving consumers a peek under the hood at a group of people who want to preserve culture and aren't afraid to have a laugh while doing it. It's believable, it's funny, and yes, it's - wait for it - authentic without having any political or social message.
The moral of this article is this - if you're a business owner or a marketing team leader or an executive, understand that 'authentic' branding isn't just an ad campaign with a random political stance slapped onto it. 'Authentic' branding is an extension of a company's core values and its mission - whatever those may be - into an ad campaign or a branding effort. 'Authentic' branding has nothing to do with politics, although 'authentic' branding efforts can absolutely be political. The sooner business leaders start to realize what 'authentic branding' actually is, the sooner they'll begin to see success in this modern digital age.
Shameless plug - if you're a business owner interested in hiring someone who actually understands how to create authentic branding material, feel free to reach out to me. You can email me for business inquiries at email@example.com.