Think authenticity guarantees your brand success? You can be authentic all you like, argues Robert Rose. But if your brand can’t be trusted, it won’t make any difference.

Authenticity. What is it?

There’s a lot of talk about the concept of authenticity in our marketing these days. But, in reality, most discussions about authenticity would be better off using other words.  

What most people mean when they speak of authenticity relates more to concepts like ‘trust’, ‘honesty’, or ‘transparency’ to communicate their point. 

The primary definition of ‘authentic’ is simply “of undisputed origin; genuine”, as in an authentic Andy Warhol painting. Other definitions include “accurate or reliable” or “based on facts”, as in an authentic depiction of that historic event. So, yeah, you can be an authentic jerk – reliably unkind and mean. You can be an authentic liar – one of undisputed origin. We have one of those here in the U.S. if you’re interested in picking one up.

In short: your brand can be authentic, and still be distrusted.

Authentically distrusted

I recently spoke with a team at a big, fairly well-known brand that’s trying to tell a new, ongoing story through a branded digital magazine and social media. User-generated comment after comment and poll after poll told them the same thing: the audience just didn’t care and didn’t trust the brand to tell that particular story. 

There are well-documented examples of other brands struggling with distrust, despite its authenticity. Starbucks famously tripped on its #RaceTogether story in 2015. It was certainly an authentic and earnest effort. The company gathered employees in six major cities, rolled out content describing their efforts in sponsored sections in USA Today, and then tried to engage customers in discussions about race by giving baristas the option to write “Race Together” on customers’ cups.

Now, in the failure of #RaceTogether, there are many flaws to point out.  The notion that anyone really wants to have an incredibly complex and honest discussion about race with a barista while getting a fast-serve cup of coffee is one.

But, interestingly, that objection is probably one that could be overcome over time.

Yeah, you can be an authentic jerk – reliably unkind and mean. You can be an authentic liar – one of undisputed origin. We have one of those here in the U.S. if you’re interested in picking one up. In short: your brand can be authentic, and still be distrusted.

The primary challenge is not the authenticity, it’s trust in the storyteller. Starbucks simply hasn’t earned the trust to tell the race relations story. Yet? Ever? Who really knows? The point is that we all must earn our way into “trusted storyteller” status.

In pop culture, we see this all the time. Anybody remember country megastar Garth Brooks’ brief experiment with rock ‘n’ roll alter ego Chris Gaines? That was a fail. Then there’s Grace Helbig, who couldn’t translate her very popular YouTube presence to a television talk show. And, most recently, we saw social media star Casey Neistat fail to launch a digital news and opinion initiative for CNN.

In each of these cases (and certainly thousands of others), there was a failure to recognize that trust in the story starts with the storyteller. It’s not that Garth was insincere or inauthentic about his love for singing rock ‘n’ roll. Grace Helbig is reliably, and authentically, funny. And, of course, Casey Neistat is known for being an authentic storyteller.

But a new story, told by a storyteller who hasn’t yet earned the requisite trust with a specific audience will fail.

Evolving our authenticity

But, wait a minute. Isn’t this a catch-22? If the storyteller must first earn trust with an audience in order to tell a new story, how do they do that without actually telling the story? Does this mean, as a brand, we can never evolve into new stories? No, of course not. We just have to be willing to do one of two things. 

The first thing we can do is to slowly and purposely evolve, so that we ease our audiences into this new story. Consider your reaction to Amazon’s Web Service as an “operating system for the internet” rather than “online department store”. It’s a story that more than one million customers are subscribed (really) to these days. But the very slow evolution of that story took almost five years from concept to reality. They eased their way into that trust, and were patient with developing it, before claiming ‘storyteller’ status.

The second thing we can do is dive in and be willing to suffer the distrust of a large portion of a potential, or existing audience, as we prove ourselves trustworthy to those who choose to give us a chance. You can see this happening in real-time as Nike rolls out its new story.

The key, however, is that in both cases – the effort needs to be, yes, authentic. If Nike was unreliable in its past efforts, it would face almost certain failure in this new story. But that they’ve kept the controversial Colin Kaepernick under contract for the last few years, while other brands have shown him the door means, that whether they succeed or fail – this new story is at least authentic.    

The big brand I mentioned earlier was creating incredible content. These were honest, passionate, and true stories told in a humorous way. But because the team was telling these stories through the mouth of their giant, well-known brand, they might as well have been Garth Brooks trying to sing rock and roll. Nobody was willing to give that a chance.

The answer for them? One experiment they’re trying is to break the magazine away from the corporate voice and brand. Creating a separate content brand gives them the opportunity to create a trusted voice (and an engaged audience) without the challenge of the better known but less trusted storyteller behind them. They can ease their audience into realizing that their brand is behind this new story.

This, of course, changes the goals and purpose of the magazine. Only time will tell if they can successfully make those goals align with the business.

There’s a wonderful quote by the author John Maxwell. He says, “People buy into the leader before they buy into the vision.” The same can be said for the stories we tell. If your audience doesn’t believe in the storyteller, the story won’t matter.

That belief in the storyteller. That’s real authenticity.

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