Nowhere to hide

Brands used to be in the power seat. And that seat was enclosed within a black box where they were able to carefully curate the image they promoted to the outside world – ultimately shaping consumer perceptions.

Trendwatching’s recent report on Glass Box Brands  makes for a thought-provoking read on how that power has shifted and what it means to be a brand in today’s world.

The rise of transparency, user-based journalism, social media – and consumers’ increasing need for connectivity – has led to the black paint being scrubbed away to reveal ‘glass box brands’. In this guise, everything a brand does – both externally and internally – has the potential to be visible to the hearts and minds of consumers, readily scrutinising everything they see and hear about what brands are up to.

The report calls for brands to think (if they haven’t already) about how to deal with this increased level of scrutiny, particularly in terms of increasing public interest in a brand’s internal culture.

Although we agree that brands would do well to take a more 360-degree approach to nurturing brand image, past and present events suggest that if a brand plays a fundamental value and convenience function in the lives of consumers then we (as consumers) will be more willing to turn a blind eye to any of their indiscretions. We may wrestle with how the likes of, say Amazon, Starbucks, and Uber operate, however we won’t always vote with our feet. 

BUT we are seeing a shift…  

“The truth is that there is a high cost to a bad reputation.” Not our words, but the words of new Uber CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, in an open letter to his employees following the recent Transport for London ruling that denied them an operating licence.

What we’ve seen is Uber’s tone go from arrogance to humility. Khosrowshahi followed up with an open letter to London apologising and promising that his company will change. Music to consumers’ ears.

Michael O’Leary, CEO of RyanAir (notorious for his aggressive nature) also changed his tone in recent times. The airline ‘messed up’ their rosters and many flights were cancelled affecting more than 700,000 passengers. In comparison to his previous outbursts, he’s been uncharacteristically remourseful towards his passengers.

Is this a sign of things to come? Probably. It’s fine in consumers’ eyes to come along and shake things up. That’s what challenger brands do. However, when you’re successful and suddenly playing in the big leagues, things inevitably change. Consumers will scrutinise you and expect a decent level of customer service and ethics – in addition to the value and convenience you’ve been offering them. It would be absurd to disregard outsider opinion and expect no fallout. In Uber’s case, TfL pointed an uncomfortable spotlight in its face. If their response is anything to go by, we should eventually have more trust in them – not just in their reliable product but their reputation too.

Genuinely confusing

‘Authenticity’ is one of those words. Marketers are obsessed with it. Consumers refer to it all the time…but what does it really mean?

Let’s start with the dictionary. Oxford defines it as, ‘of undisputed origin and not a copy; genuine’.

However, this doesn’t quite cover the full extent of its usage. Because, like charisma (that other indefinable quality), authenticity comes in many, and sometimes contradictory, guises. For example, a recipe can be said to be ‘authentic’ if it adheres to tradition, but so can an artisanal, ‘craft’ brewer tearing up the rule book. 

Confused? You’re not the only one.   

But if we track its many, and varied, guises we might come closer to understanding what it’s all about. So, like a Victorian naturalist surveying their butterfly collection, here’s a few choice specimens of ‘the authentic’.

The genuine article

Brands have been exploiting our desire for the ‘real thing’ for decades, either through design cues (official-looking stamps/crests, evocations of provenance etc.) or by, quite literally, telling us.

1990-Can-t-Beat-the-Real-Thing

The fruit of human labour

‘Handmade’, ‘handcrafted’ and even ‘handbaked’ (?!)… all signifiers that the product was made by an actual person. But why do we care? Yes, it implies a certain degree of quality – but the fact that it was touched by human hand is also used to suggest that it’s in some way more genuine, more real.

Bloom

The passion play

Many brands talk about how ‘passionate’ they are about what they do. However, this is where it all gets a bit problematic. Consumers frequently mistake the authenticity of the maker for the authenticity of the product, which is not the same thing; they may be genuinely passionate about what they do but that doesn’t mean that what they produce is authentic.

Nonetheless, brands have been profitably mining this confusion for years (and thereby entrenching it further): witness the amount of packaging telling you how much ‘love’ has gone into the product.   

Skoda

The honest approach

There are honest brands which quietly go about their work and then there are honest brands which actively make a virtue out of it. They come in strident, anti-bullshit form or through gentler appeals to transparency and integrity (Honest Tea). However, as in Oasis’ case (below), being honest is not the same as being genuine.

Oasis

This is really just the tip of the iceberg as far as authenticity in branding is concerned.

As I’ve hopefully shown, it’s not without its contradictions. The fact that authenticity applies differently to product (i.e. ‘made to the authentic recipe’) as it does to brand behaviour (e.g. tone of voice and personality) can make for a confused, if compelling, mess. 

But one that ultimately still proves winning with consumers.