Does your brand have authenticity problems? They seem to be surging. Over the past year, plenty of brands have received negative feedback over sappy “in These Unprecedented Times” messaging. But, it feels inauthentic to not acknowledge how much our worlds have changed over the past several months. Enter: the authenticity dilemma. How do you make messaging that is speaks to reality, without copping everyone else’s look and feel?

Lindsay Hotmire, brand strategist and CEO of Lindsay Hotmire Creative, LLC, spoke about the challenge of authenticity and owning your brand. By creating an authentic, realistic voice for your organization, you can find clarity in your brand and establish leadership in your industry.

The Authenticity Dilemma

Lindsay said that, just as 99.9 percent of human DNA is identical, a huge part of your brand’s experience may not be unique. Our personalities are created in that 0.1 percent of our genetic makeup’s “uniqueness.” But, your brand has some differential that sets you apart from the competition.

Lindsay names a problem some of us may recognize: management that wants to compete through assimilation. When she worked at a small liberal arts college with tanking enrollment, Lindsay’s team pushed her to figure out why students were choosing other, similar arts colleges. The goal from the top: figure out, using quantitative data and enrollment numbers, what’s working for the competition. Then, they reasoned, the team could simply copy other colleges’ strategies. Unsurprisingly, the copycat messaging simply didn’t fly.

Your audience isn’t looking for a mirror image of your competitors: they’re looking for a brand within your competition circle that stands out. Even if you provide a similar product or experience as the competition, you need to do the work of creating a core identity. As marketers, we need to do a better job of knowing who we are and owning who we are. Focus in on the 0.1 percent that makes your core identity stand out.

So, what’s your authentic voice?

Brand authenticity is too often synthesized in a formulaic way. “Authenticity” has, itself, become a massive buzzword! That brings us to Lindsay’s “authenticity dilemma:” many brands are, ironically, manufacturing the same, inauthentic, authenticity: just add a human story and a little vulnerability to your existing brand.

However, plenty of brands have created tone-deaf campaigns by adding a human element that feels contrived or false: think of Pepsi’s disastrous protest ad. Instead of applying a touchy-feely message in an inauthentic way, Lindsay suggests asking the following questions:

What principles inform, guide, and sustain your brand’s actions and beliefs? These are values.

Think about the triple-bottom-line ideals you may have learned in a business ethics class: how does your organization affect its employees, customers, and society at large? Your values don’t have to fall into the “save the entire world” category.  Maybe your brand is all about providing a unique, innovative product, or producing an affordable item that customers will love. Or, maybe you’re delivering services to a traditionally underserved audience. Check your organization’s mission statement, and look through positive reviews from clients.

How consistently does your organization live those values? What are your actions?

How do you live the values of your mission? What makes your actions unique among your industry? Consumers — especially younger consumers — want to work with organizations that walk the talk. Look at outdoor-gear brand Patagonia’s advocacy for conservation causes, or Aerie’s use of un-Photoshopped models. Not sure what actions speak to your truth? You may need to incorporate more community outreach into your overall strategy.

Where are you leading with objective truth versus bias and assumption? What is honest about your brand?

“We’re number one” simply doesn’t engage customers. If you are a leader in your industry, what actions has your company taken to earn or maintain that spot? If you aren’t, what sets you apart from other content creators?

In order to consider your brand’s honesty, take a hard look at how your audience views your brand: and whether they see brands as trustworthy at all. Millennials and Zoomers are less likely than their parents to hold onto brand loyalty, and would rather talk to people than orgs. They don’t see brands as being feminist, friendly, or holding any number of attributes that may be assigned to individuals. You may not be able to position your brand as inherently good, but you can certainly showcase caring employees, admirable spokespeople, and amazing products.

Do your relationships reflect and invite openness, honesty, sincerity, and truthfulness? How is your community impacted by your brand?

Think through sustainability initiatives and community engagement initiatives. What impact does your brand have on your geographic community, on your users, on your industry? Brand authenticity isn’t just about pushing a message: it’s about creating a conversation. In order to realize your community impact, you may need to employ discussion tools like surveys or social media conversations.

Authenticity Flywheel

Lindsay Hotmire recommends building authenticity through value, community, honesty and action.

Once you’ve identified those four key components, dig deeper and really get to know your own story. Forget your existing assumptions, and ask yourself some “first date” questions about your values, actions, honesty and community:

  • What common story lines (good and bad) show up for you consistently?
  • If you were designing a perfect world, what would be your first five rules?
  • What feels broken about your world, and what solutions might be available?
  • Think about your audience. What do they feel is broken about their world?
  • What audience beliefs exist, and which ones excite me?

This kind of exercise can help you look at your brand with fresh eyes. If you’re working with a brand day in and day out, you likely know how your brand stands out from the competition — for better or worse.

Don’t keep it to yourself.

So, you’ve gotten clear on your core values and unique identifiers for your brand. Now, it’s time to spread the message. How can you use your authentic voice when creating content? Authenticity comes down to matching content to your values, actions, communities, and truths. If a piece of content feels forced to you, it almost certainly feels fake to your readers.

A few reminders:

  • Transparency is key. You don’t necessarily need a subject matter expert to write a blog on a hot industry topic, but you do need to be honest about who your writer is. Put bios near bylines, and let your content creators own what they create.
  • Focus on people, not “the brand.” Users don’t trust brands, but they may well trust the folks who run them. Don’t write emails or Facebook posts from “the XX Team;” instead, write them from “Lauren at XX.”
  • Create a consistent voice. Whether your organization has a more lighthearted feel, or writes in an academic tone, make sure your content creators are on the same page with your customers.
  • If it makes sense, try influencer marketing. Customers tend to trust other customers more than they trust brands. If you can find an influencer whose image aligns with yours, a partnership can be a great tool for building authenticity. Another great (and possibly free) possibility: try using user-generated content.
  • Don’t use stock photos or content recycled from other sources. Not only is this stuff useless for SEO, it practically screams “we didn’t make this ourselves.”
  • Don’t lie or mislead your customers. Authenticity is about honesty, so don’t break your customers’ trust. Don’t use statistics from years ago, don’t buy reviews, don’t show photos of products that aren’t yours – basically, cut the snake oil.

Finally, read your content through your users’ eyes: what feels real about it to you? Conversely, feels like a stretch for your brand? If you were meeting your brand for the first time, what would you hope to find? As an expert on your brand, it may be difficult to give an unbiased look. If feasible, run your content through fresh eyes or perform market research to identify your most resonant messaging. Now sure where to start? Give us a call.