Branding in 2017: Reliable, respectful, real

Traditional retail giant, Sears, is making itself obsolete at a spectacular pace. Micro-businesses owned and operated by a single employee are thriving. Things that have worked in the past aren’t working anymore and the world of business management has been turned on its head. What’s going on?
Before we dive in, let’s clarify a few things about branding:
Branding is: a promise; what customers say behind a company’s back; the soul of a business; a personality applied to a company’s offer; the reason a business exists; influenced by everyone who sells/represents/uses a brand from inside and outside the company; formed in the minds of consumers; ever-changing.
Branding is not: a logo; synonymous with marketing.
Developing a brand strategy is incredibly important for all businesses, as the process forces companies to articulate why they’re in business and for whom. The what, when, where, and how (strategy) comes later once the first two questions are answered. This makes up the soul of a brand.
There is no better example of branding in action then with a commoditized product like bottled water. With so many brands of bottled water available, how is a consumer to decide which one to buy? After all, water is virtually the same across all brands and it’s available without having to go to the store (and practically for free!). This is where brand strategy shines. Although most consumers have an opinion about the type of bottled water they prefer, what they really have an opinion about is the packaging, advertising, celebrities that endorse the brand, distribution, and availability.
Furthermore, brands have evolved from simply being an indication of high quality (Mr. Kellogg’s products, for example), to humanizing brands so consumers feel a greater connection to the inanimate objects they’re buying (Aunt Jemima, anyone?), to brands as status symbols (Levi’s and Volkswagen did the job), to brands providing more than just a product or service and instead an experience (Starbucks and Disney come to mind), to brands tapping into our most primal urges for connection and feeling safe, wanted, and heard (namely, Facebook). Each wave of brand evolution has brought with it new meaning and increased importance for consumers.
And we’re on the verge of another shift.
I’m here to propose that we’re at the tipping point of the next wave of brand evolution. Brands of all shapes and sizes (not just the heavily funded mega-corporations) are thriving in today’s global, interconnected world and they’re doing so because they’re not just connecting, but they’re connecting authentically. To succeed in today’s consumer space, successful companies are building trust by connecting authentically with a group of narrowly defined customers. Status, size, and past success can only take a business so far in today’s digital landscape that influences so much of the physical world. As mentioned earlier, the mighty are falling (the once market-leading Sears is falling fast) and more and more tiny businesses (made up of one or two individuals) are thriving. Large firms face the challenge of more nimble competitors with a strong sense of self who are forging more authentic connections with consumers across a variety of industries. The craft beer industry is a perfect example. In 1988, one in every four beers sold in America was a Budweiser, but that number has declined annually and only one in every 12 beers sold today is a Budweiser. Instead, the craft brewery landscape has exploded, increasing 1700% in the U.S. in the same time frame. Vision Critical’s Andrew Reid put it best: “If every beer has a personality, the major brands are the boorish out-of-towners invading the local pub, while craft beers are the witty conversationalists whose company you most enjoy.”
Branding thought leader and author of The Brand Gap, The Brand Flip, and Brand A-Z, Marty Neumeier, agrees: “We now look for something more than authority. We look for authenticity.” Authority, big business, and a popular brand name used to mean trust. Not anymore. Instead, authenticity means trust, and trust is everything. But how is authenticity defined?

Authenticity: Defined

Authentic [aw-then-tik]:

  • Not false.
  • True to one’s own personality, spirit, or character.
  • The quality of being genuine, often considered a powerful brand attribute.

Branding agency Cohn & Wolfe has studied brand authenticity since 2012, surveying 12,000 consumers regarding 1,600 brands resulting in the ‘Authentic 100’ list: the top 100 brands that prove most authentic in the minds of consumers. Automotive companies scored the highest overall, followed closely by technology companies, but it was Disney that took the number one spot.
According to Cohn & Wolfe, authenticity is demonstrated through three drivers: being reliable, respectful, and real. ‘Reliable’ is product-centric, encompassing a high quality offering and delivering on promises. ‘Respectful’ is customer relationship-centric, including treating customers well and protecting customer privacy in the handling of personal data. Lastly, ‘real’ is vision-centric, whereby honest and genuine communication, as well as acting with integrity take priority. These three R’s were important concepts in the minds of consumers throughout the studies and high ranking companies consistently demonstrated aptitude in each category. The study found that almost nine out of ten people surveyed were willing to take action and reward a brand for its authenticity, including recommending the brand to others and remaining loyal. Furthermore, Cohn & Wolfe discovered that when brands get it wrong, it’s most often the third ‘R’ that they get wrong. Not being as ‘real’ as consumers expect and not communicating honestly or acting disingenuously in the minds of consumers is a surefire way to erode trust. But why is trust so important?

Establishing Authenticity, Building Trust

In an age where the leader of the free world has averaged 2.1 false claims per day in his first six months in office, it’s no wonder that consumers crave increased accountability and transparency. Distrust extends from government agencies to large corporations too. According to marketing research firm, Mintel, 50% of Americans trust small companies to “do the right thing” but only 36% trust large companies to do the same.
In her exploration into Danish culture, journalist Helen Russell’s book, A Year of Living Danishly, revealed some very interesting notions about trust. (Most notably, the correlation between trust and happiness.) “More than 70 per cent of Danes say: ‘Yes, most people can be trusted’. The average for the rest of Europe is just over a third.” Danish society consistently ranks amongst the happiest in the world, largely attributed to the high degree of trust woven into the fabric of everyday life. Furthermore, the neuroscience research and marketing research communities have both been studying the effects of brand trust since the early 1990’s. Claremont Graduate University researcher, Paul J. Zak, uncovered that our brains release the neurochemical oxytocin (sometimes called the ‘love hormone’) when a company is trustworthy or treats a customer well. The oxytocin tells our brains that the other party (person or entity) is safe to be around and to treat them like ‘family’. This is good news for businesses and largely supports what marketers have hoped all along.
Additionally, in Cohn & Wolfe’s research, they identified the increasingly important role data security plays in building and maintaining trustworthy authentic brands. Privacy concerns are now seen as a key component in what makes a brand authentic in the eyes of consumers. A total of 71% of global respondents to Cohn & Wolfe’s surveys said they would be extremely angry “if a company were to sell their personal information to others” and 67% said they would be extremely angry “if a company failed to protect their personal information”. It’s obvious that technology companies are top of mind in handling customer data, however most businesses today handle customer data to some degree so this is an issue that affects everyone.
Authenticity is in the Eye of the Beholder
To say an organization should be more authentic is one thing, but putting it into action is challenging because ‘demonstrating authenticity’ is not a one-size-fits-all formula. What seems authentic to one person may not appear authentic to another. A survey by the Boston Consulting Group found that authenticity is a major driver of consumer engagement across all demographics, but most notably with Millennials, who will soon have the greatest buying power of any cohort on the planet. But it’s worth mentioning that authenticity was viewed differently depending on the cohort. Baby Boomers believed authentic brands to be long-standing brands, whereas Millennials viewed companies with personality and participation in social causes to be more authentic.
Therefore, aiming to demonstrate increased authenticity starts with articulating your company’s purpose or a reason for existing other than to make money. Yes, companies exist to turn a profit, but why else does the business exist? What are you trying to accomplish? And for whom? ‘Maximizing shareholder value’ is an important element to running a business, but it’s a terribly inauthentic purpose. Purpose is for your customers. Therefore, companies must understand who they are at the core of their business and what customers value about them most. Demonstrating authenticity is about playing to your strengths, versus changing who you are to fit a perfect industry or societal ideal. Your tagline, logo, and market may shift as the business evolves, but it’s your purpose that acts as both an anchor and a compass: it keeps your business grounded in what’s most important for your customers while providing you with direction.
Real People, Real Stories, Real Time
It’s been said that people hate to be sold, but they love to buy. And people love to buy ideas in the form of stories. The good news for marketers is that good storytelling does double duty: it’s a convincing sales tool and it’s a key component in authentic communication. The bad news for marketers is that good storytelling is damn hard. When done well, it moves a brand forward, conjuring up favourable thoughts in minds of consumers, connecting them to the soul of the business, and moving a transaction forward. When done poorly, it bores and confuses the reader, making them feel disconnected to the brand so that the action they take is to unfollow, unsubscribe, or delete the message. Storytelling has become an integral part of communicating authentically, which requires establishing a clear and consistent brand voice that cuts through the noise in order to humanize cold business speak. Customers want to buy from someone who sounds like them. The democratization of the Internet (both the tools we use to create content, as well as the self publishing options) has enabled businesses of all sizes to become communication forces to be reckoned with.
Social media has changed the game too. It’s changed not only in the proliferation of brands in our lives (because our smartphones are in our hands at all times of the day and night), but also the brand voice spoken on these less formal platforms. We buy because of the connection, personality, and voice on the other side of the medium. An authentic offering on social media means offering high quality social content that matches the platform (beautiful photography on Instagram and links to news or other content on Twitter, for example). Social media content is like a handshake you extend to consumers inviting them to interact with you.
Social media has also opened up the floodgates to allow ideas to flow both ways: from company to customer and customer to company. This two-way online dialogue is a powerful conversation in which companies should actively participate. Today’s consumers expect this two-way dialogue and through positive interactions on social platforms companies are building authentic relationships and turning customers into loyal brand evangelists.
Social media is an ideal platform on which to tell your brand story, but it’s also where your competitors are telling their stories. Photographer and social media business coach, Jenna Kutcher, said it best: “Social media can feel like this screaming match where everyone is competing and trying to make the most noise. But here’s the key: you don’t want to join in on the yelling. Instead, you want to whisper directly to your dream clients.”
Toronto-based company, Greenhouse Juice Co., does a great job whispering to their dream clients in consistent brand voice. Witty juice puns litter their Instagram feed, website, and emails (“Curious about a cleanse? Turn over a new leaf and then drink it!”). The secret to their brand voice success is their talented in-house copywriter (who also happens to be one of the company’s co-founders) Emma Knight. She’s the only person who writes on behalf of Greenhouse Juice Co. across all platforms.
Furthermore, product placement and social influencer sponsorship is becoming the norm across various social platforms. For example, large companies reach out to popular Instagram personalities and ask them to post content featuring their products. It’s an ingenious strategy that allows large companies access to niche followings while at the same time leveraging the influence of “real people” recommending products, increasing the perception of authenticity. But there’s also a growing movement (and perhaps even legislation in the near future) of using the hashtags ‘#sponsored’ and ‘#ad’ in the posts so that consumers are aware when an individual was compensated for the product placement. This move towards more transparent and authentic product placement in paid-for advertising is a novel shift (in a world that’s seen subtle product placement all the way back to art painted in the late 1800’s), which proves that advertisers are onboard to be more authentic in their advertising efforts.
Authenticity in Action
So why was Disney crowned the world’s most authentic brand?
If my 4 and 6-year-old nieces demanding ‘Little Mermaid bathing suits’, ‘Moana cereal’, and ‘Frozen EVERYTHING’ are any indication of the continued proliferation of the Disney brands into the young minds of tomorrow, believe me… they’ve got them. Parents and kids continue to demonstrate loyalty to the Disney brand and pay top dollar for the Disney experience (their 2016 revenue was $55.63 billion dollars!) because Disney lives out the three R’s in all of their offerings. This is no easy feat considering that there are 11.2 billion ways to experience the Disney brand at Orlando’s Disney World Resort alone! Each touch point is an opportunity to carry out the ideals of the Disney brand, including demonstrating authenticity.
Reliable: Providing a high quality offering is the name of Disney’s game. It’s no surprise that Disney has also topped Fortune’s list of ‘10 Most Admired Companies for Quality’. From spotlessly clean amusement parks (custodians clean the streets at night in addition to cleaning throughout the day), to making every guest feel important (employees are encouraged to address guests by name whenever possible), to personalized service (there is approximately one crew member for every three guests on Disney Cruise Line ships), Disney makes quality a priority.
Respectful: Disney treats its customers well. Disney parks are different than other amusement parks because they are staffed by well-trained and engaging ‘cast members’, (not underpaid and uninterested teenagers found at some other parks). Additionally, “that’s not my job” is not in a Disney cast member’s vocabulary. Everyone is trained to answer a multitude of questions that guests may have, even questions about Disney parks other than the one in which they work.
Real: Honest communication is woven into the fabric of Disney’s branding and communications strategy. Simply, they are trained to communicate effectively. If a train runs even a second late, the conductor will get on the speaker and let everyone know why the train is delayed and when it will get going. Furthermore, Amy Rossi, Disney Institute facilitator revealed that they hire “attitude versus aptitude”. She goes on to say that “We can teach someone to drive a bus. We can’t teach them to smile and be happy,” which is a critical component to the success of the “happiest place on Earth”.
Popular communications strategist, Carmine Gallo, recently visited Disneyland with his family. He suggests to business owners that “the next time you complain about how difficult it is to do business in this challenging economy, take a second look at the way you’re doing business. Are you offering a Disney-quality experience for your customers?”
If heading down to California or Florida isn’t an option, the Disney Institute (a series of business management seminars founded on Disney’s philosophies) offers courses across North America. More information can be found at
It’s clear that building a successful, authentic brand takes work. It requires companies to keep their promises and deliver reliable, respectful, and real experiences consistently. Creating an authentic brand is no easy feat, but it’s not rocket science either: creativity, honesty, and hard work increase emotional connection and brand loyalty. As iconic brand, Jeep, suggests: “Whatever your destination, there are a million beautiful, ever changing ways to get us there.” Whatever path you decide to take, let authenticity be your guide.

Diana Varma
Diana Varma is an Instructor at the School of Graphic Communications Management at Ryerson University and the Owner of ON-SITE First Aid & CPR Training Group, a health & safety company that provides training to the Graphic Arts Industry.

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