To some, the term “brand authenticity” is a contradiction in terms. Skepticism about the authenticity of online personas — of people as well as brands — abounds. Years of carefully curated Instagram feeds and the co-opting of social media by corporate brands have online audiences casting a wary eye on so-called authenticity, often for a good reason. From ESG debunking to the emergence of apps attempting to enforce a more realistic portrayal of life, the drive for online authenticity is heating up.
But what does real authenticity even look like? Can it be achieved? And how can organizations and brands navigate this complex and shifting terrain?
A moving target
In an increasingly online world, many people see their digital presence as part of their personal brand. And, while the idea of authenticity has always been at the heart of building social brands, opinions have been changing about what that really means.
In 2014, Dr. Nina Burrowes argued that crafting an online personality was an acceptable, even laudable activity: “Authenticity is an active and creative process. It's not about revealing something, it's about building something; and that something is you.” Staying true to that persona was considered close enough to being authentic. But, as time has passed, people have become savvier at separating the truth from fiction.
Gen Z has played a large part in ushering in this change. Forrester reports its data “shows that nearly a third of Gen Z say that they unfollow, hide, or block brands on social media — at least weekly.” Why are Gen Zers policing their online relationships with brands so closely? It all comes down to the perceived authenticity of those brands.
“Forrester found a 6-point year-over-year drop (from 52% to 46%) in adult Gen Zers who think it’s cool to be associated with a brand on social media. While a number of factors can be attributed to this decline, a dominant theme that emerged across our research is that Gen Z expects brands to use their influence to stand up for what’s right — to stand up for the truth.”
The COVID-19 pandemic revealed the truth behind many online brand presences. Hollow “thoughts and prayers” type messages that aren’t backed up with action don’t sit well with today’s audiences. As 22-year-old Joan Garcia told Forrester, “My trust in brands has decreased because so many of them during the pandemic didn’t do anything. They didn’t even try to make an impact.”
“I’ve started to care less about the products [brands] sell and more about their message to consumers,” 19-year-old Rob Felton told Forrester. As Gen Z becomes a bigger force in the market, brands will have no choice but to sit up and take notice.
What does brand authenticity look like?
Marketers looking for authenticity in action need to look no further than BeReal, a social media app that took authenticity to new heights — and hit the top of the app charts doing it. Described as the anti-Instagram, the photo-sharing app sends prompts to users once a day, and gives them just two minutes to post a picture of what they’re doing. The goal is to get a more unfiltered look into people’s lives, and it’s become very popular among younger users.
For individuals, being themselves online has tangible benefits. According to Scientific American, “...large-scale studies showed that social media users whose online personas were more closely aligned with their ‘real’ personalities enjoyed greater well-being.”
But even BeReal's compulsory authenticity mechanism has been gamed by users. Instead of taking impromptu photos, BeReal users have learned to be prepared with props and curate even these supposedly raw images of daily life. Meanwhile, these same users increasingly demand that brands match their offline activity to their online personas. According to Sprout Social, “company alignment with personal values is 74% more important to consumers than it was in 2021.”
Appeasing these socially-aware consumers can be tricky, but not impossible. Outdoor clothing retailer Patagonia has done this well. Founded by legendary outdoorsman Yvon Chouinard, Patagonia has long put quality products and a commitment to the environment at the heart of what it does. The company tested these values with its “The President Just Stole Your Land” messaging that drew attention to President Donald Trump’s attempts to shrink two national monuments. The brand ultimately joined a lawsuit to stop the move. More recently, Chouinard turned the company over to the Patagonia Purpose Trust: “100% of the company’s voting stock transfers to the Patagonia Purpose Trust, created to protect the company’s values; and 100% of the nonvoting stock had been given to the Holdfast Collective, a nonprofit dedicated to fighting the environmental crisis and defending nature.”
Even Gen Z can’t argue with that kind of brand authenticity. But how do other companies navigate this new terrain where audiences care more about what you do than the products you offer — all while continuing to carefully curate their own online presence?
Six tips for brand authenticity
1. Authenticity starts at the top. Not only should a company’s choice of CEO reflect its values, but the chief executive should also be prepared to speak out on the issues that matter — and to put policies in place that back up a brand’s stance.
2. Get the team involved. Marketers should not determine company values. If you want to truly understand what a brand represents, employees must be allowed to chime in. No one knows the brand or the customers better — and, more importantly, they can weigh in on whether a brand is living up to the values they espouse.
3. Consistency is key. Gen Z can smell an inauthentic brand from a mile away, so paying more than lip service is important. Every June, American consumers are inundated with corporate Pride messaging only to hear the backlash about “rainbow-washing.” Changing a profile picture is not enough. Before a brand makes any values-based statement, it must ensure it can be consistently committed to advancing that cause — and ready to stand by its beliefs if controversy ensues.
4. Embrace user-generated content. As we’ve already learned, branded social media accounts don’t hold much sway with young people. That’s why influencers have become such an important part of social media strategy in recent years. However, most people now understand that influencers are being paid for their endorsements, so savvy influencers are embracing their own authenticity by offering bad reviews or “de-influencing.” But that doesn’t mean user-generated content is over. Genuine reviews, curated collections, and even carefully chosen influencers can still be a boon to brands.
5. Measure and iterate. As with every company initiative, measuring success and strategizing based on results is important. Authenticity tends to lead to increased conversation and more engagement with an audience. Understanding which posts and what content translate to authenticity can help a company build and maintain credibility with its audience.
6. Walk the walk. Much of the conversation around authenticity over the past decade or so has focused on how to appear authentic on social media — but that’s no longer enough. Savvy consumers want companies to follow up what they say with action, which means building company values into everything they do.