Why brands need to make their messaging more authentic

Luke Graham
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In this post-social media age, authenticity has become key to any communications strategy (Source: Getty)

How can businesses be more “authentic”? It may sound like just another buzzword to emerge from the world of marketing, but authenticity can go a long way to help build consumer trust in a brand and it’s one of the reasons why companies keep partnering with online influencers.

Put simply, authenticity marketing is about a brand’s public image and messages matching what it is like privately.

“Authenticity is about being transparent, truthful and genuine in everything you do,” ​​says digital strategy consultant​ Scott Guthrie.

“When brands fail to ‘walk the talk’, they open up a gap between their stated values and their lived values. That gap gets blown wide open via social media as we, the consumer, call them out for not doing what they say they do.”

The huge scope of social media is a real test for authenticity in the digital age, as any mistakes or tone-deaf messaging can be shared and spread widely, and may even go viral. Failing this test can be have serious consequences for businesses, as sounding inauthentic can be damaging to a brand and it may make them harder to trust.

Consumers’ trust in businesses is a key issue at the moment – the latest Edelman Trust Barometer, which measures people’s trust in public institutions, found that the UK public’s trust in business fell two percentage points, to 43 per cent by the end of 2017.

The survey by Edelman found one of the biggest barriers to trusting business was a lack of transparency – something which an authentic marketing voice can go a long way to fixing.

Kathleen Hall, corporate vice president of brand, advertising and research at Microsoft, warns that brands can end up sounding inauthentic when they try to make statements that do not reflect what the business is about, or crudely try to capitalise on events.

“You need to be principle based and values based,” she said during a panel at the Advertising Week conference in New York last October.

“You can’t really borrow from social capital. You have to deposit into it.”

If authenticity is so hard to get right, you may wonder why businesses would even bother trying to do it? Perhaps before the internet it was something they could ignore, but in this post-social media age, authenticity has become key to any communications strategy, according to Peter Maxwell, senior foresight writer at trend research company The Future Laboratory.

“The difficulty all too often comes when brands haven’t properly codified how they perceive themselves internally, and therefore struggle to talk to consumers confidently and coherently,” he says.

“Legacy brands that have grown too large and unwieldy are as guilty of this as challengers taking their first missteps in the market.”

A common mistake brands make when unsure about what their tone of voice should be is to create a “heavy-handed brand narrative” that gets thickly applied to all communications, according to Maxwell.

While this approach is consistent (a key component of authenticity), many consumers will see through it.

“In a digital world characterised by radical transparency and ‘glass box’ brands, when your customers have unparalleled insight into how businesses really operate, it quickly becomes apparent that such narratives are being used merely as a tool to convince us to buy rather than establish a real connection based on culture fit,” he added.

As this heavy-handed approach is unlikely work, many brands have found they can gain authenticity by turning for help from online influencers: YouTube stars, vloggers, Instagram users with huge followers, and even celebrities.

“Influencer marketing is sometimes dismissed as a fad; marred by short-term campaigns, spiralling influencer fees, a preoccupation with an influencers’ follower number instead of engagement rates, and a much-hyped disregard of disclosure regulations,” Guthrie explains. But he adds that influencer marketing isn’t going away, as consumers often identify closely with online influencers and listen to their recommendations.

“We find them more relatable; more engaging than traditionally authoritative voices. A less polished, more authentic, intimate voice which moves us to change our behaviours or opinions.”

Influencer marketing has grown rapidly over the last few years. A 2015 survey of marketing professionals by Tomoson (a service that connects businesses with influencers) claimed that businesses made $6.50 for every dollar spent on influencers.

However, just getting any YouTube celebrity to try and hawk a product may not be an effective approach.

“Brands must put in the effort to identify, vet and select the most appropriate influencer – someone with a real affinity for the brand whose tone of voice, values, and audience are in tune with the brand,” Guthrie adds.

One brand effectively leveraging influencers is The Body Shop.

Last year, the company partnered with several famous Instagram pet accounts (including a chinchilla called Mr Bagel with 109,000 followers) for its digital campaign “Forever Against Animal Testing”, which aims to raise awareness about animal cruelty. The company’s head of marketing said in a report that working with influencers allows it to broaden its reach and scope and make the campaign’s message more relevant.

“The cosmetics company looks far beyond the size of the audience when looking to work with an influencer. They map the creator’s own values against the Body Shop’s brand pillars,” Guthrie said.

“Theirs is a selection based on an influencers’ belief in cruelty-free products; being environmentally conscious; as well as being known within the beauty space.”

The popularity and familiarity of these social media stars means their fans see them like friends, so they are more likely to act on their recommendations.

As a result, borrowing from the authenticity of social media stars can be an effective way of making a brand’s voice more authentic.

Businesses can’t afford to ignore the importance of authenticity in the connected age of social media. In order to be more authentic, their branding needs to be consistent, sincere, and reflective of the brand’s actual values.