To hear the pundits tell it, we’re in some kind of golden age of brand authenticity. Marketers are less inclined to dictate what’s beautiful or normal or strong, and influencers like Billie Eilish refuse to cater to how we’re supposed to look and act. Brand messages are definitely edgier now that marketers are willing to take risks, and it’s hard to deny that those messages get a lot more attention.

While it’s great that brands are listening closely to the market and responding in ways that, to them anyway, reflect what the consumer wants, I can’t help thinking the tone is a bit off. In the quest to speak with an authentic voice, authenticity itself has been commoditized. 

This commoditization of authenticity may lead to a significant backlash, and marketers stand a good chance of being caught off guard. As we sit inside our home offices contemplating the big picture of our personal and professional lives, now is a good time to take a look at how we define authenticity, and whether or not we’re actually achieving it.

I’ll confess that I have more questions than answers, which is why it’s worth exploring right now.

Authenticity is the Brand Marketer’s Mantra

Every brand wants to come across as authentic, and they put a lot of effort towards achieving that goal. But with the rise of fake news (among many other trends), consumers have become jaded, especially when it comes to advertising. Ninety-six percent of consumers said they don’t trust advertising, and yet according to the 2019 Edelman report, trust is as important as product quality. It’s precisely that dichotomy that drives the marketer’s quest for authenticity.

But it’s a game of cat-and-mouse. Take the whole concept of consumer-generated content or the idea that a consumer who purchases a product is just as much an expert on its usefulness as the brand that spent years researching, developing, and bringing it to market. In the length of time it takes to snap a photo and put in on Instagram, she can reach and influence thousands of people in her social circle, a feat that wasn’t lost on the marketer. 

Brands quickly figured out how to co-opt that power by cultivating social media influencers, which worked for a while but is now beginning to lose its luster. In his bid for the White House, Michael Bloomberg hired some of the best-known influencers on Instagram to make him more relatable, a tactic that did his campaign more harm than good.

I’m not suggesting that influencer marketing is no longer valuable or that it will go away anytime soon (according to Business Insider, influencer marketing will be a $15 billion industry in just a few years). What I am saying is that brands rushed into influencer marketing because it was seen as a way of establishing authenticity with customers. Still, if the tone isn’t right, it can result in an epic fail.

Authenticity by Generation

Another challenge to authenticity is that each generation has its own criteria for what is real and what is posturing (e.g. woke-washing, green-washing, and so on). 

For Millennials, authenticity lies in the perfect Instagram post. It’s not hard to see why. Saddled with college debt and forced to eke out a living in the gig economy, Millennials want a calm and beautiful world where they can retreat and present to the world how perfect their lives are. Influencer marketing, and its patina of authenticity, took off largely because of millennials. Influencers like Jamie Oliver, Annette White, and Alexa Chung showed this generation just how beautiful and exciting worlds of food, travel, and fashion can (and should) be. Of course, all those beautiful moments made a great many people depressed.

But Gen Zers aren’t buying into the Millennial’s ideal. They see life as more messy and embrace the unfiltered, unstaged photos. Last April, The Atlantic declared that the Instagram aesthetic is over, stating that unlike Millennials who “hauled DSLR cameras to the beach and mastered photo editing,” Gen Zers go out of their way to make themselves look worse.

Aspirational Realness

Billie Eilish sort of exemplifies this trend towards unstaged authenticity. As Sophia Sunwoo describes in Medium, “Her insane audience growth is a result of branding that you’re either mesmerized by or absolutely loathe. She’s polarizing, and it works.”

Love her or hate her, Billie is real, and she has effortlessly achieved what brands want more than anything in the world: aspirational realness. 

Coined by Rosie Findley of Communications and Media at London College, aspirational realness says to the consumer: you can trust us because we’re you. It is, according to Findley, “inextricably tied to the photo-sharing app and its obsession with authenticity.” It sells products without a heavy sales pitch. Instead, marketers try to make the brand seem as relatable as possible.

Will other brands try to mirror Billie’s success by hiring influencers who look, dress, and act like her? I have no doubt they will, but something in the back of my mind tells me it will fail. Oddly, that conviction became stronger as a result of the coronavirus.

COVID-19 Big Reveals 

I don’t want to make this a post about the pandemic, but COVID-19 does bring into stark relief just how inauthentic many brands have become.  Last Friday, Jimmy Kimmel offered some suggestions for dealing with being cooped up in the house: cry in front of the kids, panic buy ramen noodles on Amazon, “or you can go through 500 emails from major corporations letting you know that they’re washing their hands now. Long emails, thousands of words.” He goes on to say he has received more emails from Petco than the CDC regarding the virus, and how ironic it is that McDonald’s wrote to say his health and safety is the brand’s top priority while simultaneously selling double quarter-pounder cheeseburgers.

According to a Digital Commerce 360 survey, messaging around the coronavirus are backfiring, with 43% of consumers saying that the many emails they’ve received sound exactly the same. I share that feeling. Emails from CEO’s -- with their signature inserted as if it’s a personal letter -- feel completely wrong to me. I’m struck by how tone-deaf some of them have been. 

It’s not a CEO’s place to implore every customer their brand has ever interacted with to wash our hands and practice social distancing. CEOs should be concerned with their company, employees’, and customers’ well being (and some are doing a fantastic job of this), but the voice and channel of who is sending the message matter. I don’t have a personal relationship with the CEO of our mortgage, insurance, and healthcare companies or the retail outlets at which we shop. An email from the CEO from my home heating energy company feels saccharine; one from the woman who inspects and cleans my furnace each year would feel more authentic and helpful.

These emails feel like tweets and press releases that offer “thoughts and prayers” or “T&P” as the cynically minded write, after unimaginable tragedies occur. These rote sentiments absolutely miss the mark.

Time to Rethink Authenticity

It’s easy to say what’s wrong with something, suggesting ways to fix it is way more difficult. I freely acknowledge that I don’t have all the answers, but I can offer up some mile markers that are worth paying attention to.

The Right Speaker 

Unless an issue is the direct result of a CEO’s failing, don’t send an email to the entire customer base from him or her. In fact, before you even send a mass email, ask honestly if what you intend to say is necessary. Do you really need to send an email telling everyone who has ever bought from you that the staff is wiping down the counters? Instead, create a landing page on your website where people can find pertinent information, like whether individual retail outlets are shutting down or scaling back hours. If you must send a message, keep it authentic and make sure it is from someone with whom your customers interact.

The Right Channel 

A few weeks ago, Phillip wrote a post for the Something Digital blog on the best and the worst of SMS campaigns, which looked at reasons why some campaigns succeed and why others turn customers off. One of the mistakes a brand can make is to assume that just because it collected the consumer’s mobile phone number during the shopping cart process, it’s okay to send them promotional texts. That right should be reserved for brands that specifically ask customers to opt into the channel and have built trust by sending transactional texts -- shipping updates, delivery information to them. Otherwise, it’s an intrusion.

The Right Voice 

Getting the voice right is as essential as it is difficult. DTC brands tend to be better at nailing theirs. For instance, in his SMS blog post, Phillip recounts how Buffy Sheets sent a late-night text to a subset of its customers, all of whom had opted-in to SMS messaging. The message was light-hearted: “You up?” It succeeded because it was spot on in terms of the brand’s irreverent style.

Authenticity in a Post-Pandemic World

A lot of brands are pulling back on advertising at the moment, out of respect for the hardships people are facing as a result of the pandemic. Eventually, they’ll need to get back into the game, but until that time, it might be time for all marketers to look critically at the tone of their brand’s voice. Is it really as authentic as you think? Or are you merely mimicking what others are doing? 

These are difficult questions and now feels like the right time to ask them. Hopefully in a post-pandemic world, true brand authenticity will persevere.   


Cover photo by Prateek Katyal on Unsplash