When we consider what consumers look for in brands, everyone’s favourite term seems to be ‘authenticity’. However, the more it’s used, the more it seems to become a nebulous buzzword with no concrete definition. A conventional definition of authenticity is “the quality of being real or true”, but when we talk about authenticity relating specifically to brands, our definition expands to include: integrity, honesty and transparency.
The brands we buy represent our own values so we need them to reflect these accurately and consistently. When a brand we buy into appears to stand for a certain cause, ideology, view point or demographic, let’s face it, it can be pretty disappointing when this isn’t upheld. The seemingly endless use of authenticity can get pretty boring, but it is important. We live in an age where everything can be fact checked; consumers have less faith than ever in brands, and we have more access to information about companies than ever before. Additionally, thanks to social media, if you’re not directly questioning the legitimacy of how a company positions itself, someone else on your feed definitely will be.
Exhibit A: Monki recently released a capsule collection of t-shirts for International Women’s Day. In the comments of the Instagram post launching the products, followers immediately began to question the reality of working conditions for their female workers. Many of Monki’s followers who would have ordinarily bought the t-shirts, myself included, were immediately discouraged. The meaning behind the t-shirts, the reason so many people responded to them in the first place, was completely undermined. As consumers, we’re no longer blind, and are so much more cynical in how we perceive brand narratives. Brands might be more authentic than ever, and increasingly careful about being so, but they can’t get away with being inauthentic even for a moment.
People value transparency, especially on social media. The overwhelmingly positive reaction to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s recent livestream Q&A while she put together IKEA furniture and drank wine is a testament to this. Who doesn’t want to see a politician do something so fundamentally human as struggling to put together a Gjöra bed? Companies could learn from AOC, she used social media to humanise herself - something many consumers are now searching for in brands.
Consumers also now value utility from the products we use in a completely different way, with the reflection of our ideals representing a new form of utility. We’re able to support causes or ideologies close to our hearts and display this to the rest of the world at the same time. Perhaps as a result, branding is becoming increasingly stripped back. Companies are focusing on simplistic packaging so the products speak for themselves and branding is merely there to support product engagement (Glossier is a good example of this).. With this in mind, the role of agencies should be to clearly highlight a product’s utility, or to create amazing content that promotes a brand while also having utility as a standalone product.
This desire for authenticity also explains the rise of user-generated content, with 60% of consumers viewing this as the most authentic form of content. High street brands are jumping on the trend too,with brands like Urban Outfitters and Asos making use of user-generated content in their shoppable street style campaigns. Users who upload images aren’t paid to so their recommendations seem much more genuine; as a result, consumers are less cynical of this kind of marketing, explaining the rise of micro-influencers. Their reach may not be as wide as traditional influencers, but their engagement is higher because their audience trusts them more. Mainstream influencers like Kendall Jenner and Ella Woodward have recently come under “fyre” (if you know, you know) for being inauthentic and these high profile embarrassments mean that trusted, smaller-scale influencers are increasingly useful.
Brands need to acknowledge the current climate of mistrust in order to taste success. Consumers feel betrayed and misled by companies and are finding it difficult to recover, the most obvious example of this being Facebook. In a study following the Cambridge Analytica data breach scandal, five times as many people viewed Facebook as the least trustworthy company than Amazon and Twitter. So, beware - loss of consumer confidence doesn’t just affect products, but services too. Authenticity might be easy to dismiss as a buzzword that will have no relevance in a few years time, but consumers now demand accountability from brands. If marketers want them to engage with brands like they have in the past, their trust needs to be regained.