Despite the teachable moments from countless marketing fails, brands continue to embarrass themselves with desperate attempts to please consumers with the flavor of the month, be it catchphrase or cause. A quick scroll through Instagram sees brands blindly throwing up messaging to show how sincere, funny, supportive or “with it” they are.
But in the discerning eyes of millions, if a company’s real-life behavior doesn’t match its branding, their message comes across as misguided, tone deaf or even hypocritical, and people will gladly pile on and troll them on Twitter. So instead of connecting with customers, half-baked marketing efforts only prove a company’s own inability to understand marketing.
Much of this breakdown stems from a change in consumer expectations. Increasingly media-savvy consumers have become suspicious of traditional corporate messaging and its impersonal, “one size fits all” approach that feels disingenuous. Nowadays, we are more inclined to listen to messaging that talks to real experiences and tells compelling stories. People expect brands to be true to themselves, genuine and committed. People expect brands to walk it like they talk it.
In a word, what people expect is authenticity.
The realness of authenticity
Translated for business, what this means is a company’s behavior needs to always be aligned with its brand, and marketing that shows a disconnect between the two will be called out as inauthentic.
Sure, some brands have tried to pivot to these changing expectations, but rather than take it seriously, they simply slap on a coat of “realness” as a branding exercise, a veneer transparent enough to see right through. Instead of being authentic, what these brands are doing is performing “authenticity”.
Under constant scrutiny from a public less trusting of brand messaging, a brand’s worst sin is to be performative in their authenticity; that is, market one way but act another.
So, when companies try to parlay causes or singular events – say, Black Lives Matter or the global pandemic – into marketing efforts, they risk being called out if their corporate actions fail to reflect the brand image they are trying to project.
Look no further than Walmart and the “uplifting” ads they released during the pandemic, which proudly trumpeted that “we’re all in this together”, while at the same time were widely criticized for leaving employees to work in unsafe conditions without paid sick leave.
What can be done?
While there’s nothing inherently wrong with brands commenting on causes or trends, they need to do it better and differently. Change starts internally, where new marketing efforts need to be looked at by a diversity of people besides those already trapped in a company’s echo chamber; people who can weigh in on where the brand already stands and the intentions of the new message.
But more than that, brands need to be authentic. And real authenticity manifests itself not in the way you brand yourself, but in the way you behave and treat people, whether it’s your customers, your staff, new clients or old, regardless of who they are or how much they have in their wallets.
Real authenticity is how you act, day in, day out.
So how should you act?
Well, what are your values?
Values drive action. Your company’s core values – what you truly believe in – should decide where you invest your time and energy. When companies identify their values and act on them in a genuine way, something extraordinary happens – people feel your truth. Authentic brand marketing evokes an emotion because it speaks to customers on this deeper level.
M-Cap seizes the moment
If the public wants to see your values and expects them to align with your actions, that means there is an exciting opportunity right now for brands to re-examine or show their core values if they’ve been afraid to do so – companies now have the permission to begin the soul searching to find their true, authentic self.
Take the example of M-Cap, a mortgage company who was driven to make their marketing more inclusive. Rather than slap a Black Lives Matter logo on their LinkedIn page, they knew that to embrace diversity in a genuine way meant starting at the beginning – listening to their customers. Doing this, M-Cap discovered who their customers really were, a diverse group of people who took their financial security seriously. And so MCAP’s marketing strategy followed suit, creating video content that addressed a diversity of financial needs and demographics, and not just those of the traditional white, middle-class, male avatar.
By acknowledging the real-life experiences of their various target audiences, M-Cap spoke directly to their customers in a way that was truly genuine.
Sure, but how?
Here’s the thing: for most businesses, their genuine, authentic behaviors already exist. They just need to reconnect with their values and, when showcased in a way that matches brand values to behavior, let authenticity flow from what they do best. In essence, be yourself.
Let’s see how this plays out IRL by looking at TikTok, the platform of the moment, home of bite-sized video and epitome of social media cool.
From a traditional marketing mindset, an organization like NASA, beset by “uncool”, complex, scientific issues, wouldn’t stand a chance on the platform. And yet, NASA absolutely kills on TikTok. Why? Because they are using TikTok in a truly “NASA” way, as astronauts and scientists geekily sharing their love of science and space, and their enthusiasm is genuine and contagious; that is, they are being authentic to their values and their work.
If a brand truly does not know its values or fails to live by them, it will be doomed to perpetually create misguided messaging that never sticks.
To successfully win over today’s fickle audiences, companies need to stop reacting impulsively to every fad or dance or meme that pops up. Quicker than ever before, trends come and go, and hopping on the bandwagon every time isn’t just exhausting, it’s short-sighted and screamingly inauthentic.
On the other hand, your values are here to stay. To be truly authentic, companies need to dig deep, find their values and act on them. And the sooner you find your values, the more time you’ll have to craft the perfect messaging that is aligned with them.
Do what you love, do what you believe in, do you what you do best. Do you.