Brand Authenticity is Oxymoronic When We Want Companies to Sell Us More Than Products

An 'authentic brand' is almost a contradiction in terms.

An ‘authentic brand’ is almost a contradiction in terms.

Brands are, almost by definition, inauthentic. Even if actual events, happenings and controversies occasionally influence the reputation of a particular company, this reputation is largely the product of a never-ending stream of advertising and marketing. Through such PR activity, the relevant company effectively filters out the negative connotations surrounding its name and leaves only the positive associations, thereby propagating an image of itself that, despite pockets of truth, is decidedly selective, exaggerated and one-sided. Because it focuses on publicizing its strengths and spinning a flattering story around itself, it ultimately shapes a brand that, for want of a better term, is inauthentic.

Yet this tendency of branding to distort the public perception of a firm hasn’t stopped many of us from supposing that brands can and should be ‘authentic.’ This is nowhere more apparent than in Cohn & Wolfe’s Authentic 100, a survey of the 100 most authentic brands in the world “based on consumer perception of authenticity.” Having been released in April, it found that Disney is the globe’s most authentic brand, followed closely by BMW, Microsoft, Amazon and Apple. The higher ranking of these five corporations owes itself to their higher ranking on measures of reliability, respectfulness and realness. These are all laudable virtues, yet the fact that two of the three have no obvious bearing on whether or not a company is truthful about itself reveals that the whole concept of ‘authenticity’ is foggy at best, and perhaps misleading at worst.

And PR firm Cohn & Wolfe aren’t the only ones to wield it. Within the last month, the term has been tossed around left, right and center: in an Entrepreneur article by Vision Critical founder Andrew Reid, in an Investor’s Business Daily piece advising companies on how to stand out, in a Business Insider commentary that mentioned KFC’s recent authenticity-oriented marketing campaign, in a statement from Univision CEO Randy Falco concerning its takeover of Fusion Media Group, and in a FastCompany item on how long-established businesses might possibly manufacture a ‘startup culture’ without being a startup. All of these articles uncritically reproduce the idea of the ‘authentic brand,’ unaware of the self-defeating irony involved in dubbing as ‘authentic’ the self-conscious adoption of a particular posture by a company. In using it, they like Cohn & Wolfe confuse the very notion of authenticity, yet at the same time they provide a very interesting insight into how this notion functions within the consumerist world we currently inhabit.

Most simply and obviously of all, the widespread use and misuse of the term hints at how it has become, not something companies actually are, but rather just another symbolic element in their branding. It’s a sign, a signifier corporations use to brand themselves, and not a description of their brands. Over the years, it’s been interpreted in so many ways that its meaning has become vague and amorphous, yet it’s precisely this amorphousness which has made it so valuable as a branding tool, since nebulous, hazy concepts are resistant to contradiction, refutation or opposition. With an increasingly unclear definition, it simply becomes a positive-sounding umbrella term that companies can apply to themselves and their more mundane qualities, one that’s used to reassure consumers into supposing that they’re buying something more than just a car, phone or DVD.

And it’s this dubious sense of “buying something more” that’s key to authenticity. By looking at the Cohn & Wolfe Authentic 100, and by looking at recent events involving supposedly authentic brands, it will be shown how the emergence of the concept as a concern for consumers indicates a massive sea-change in what they expect from companies and brands. It indicates that we don’t simply expect businesses to deliver reliable goods and services, but that we also expect them to show leadership on the wider issues affecting the world today. These issues include environmental change, social justice and public health, and as a whole, the hope that companies will tackle them is one more manifestation of how we’ve increasingly privatized the once-public pursuit of social goods and goals.

Authenticity as a Fancy Name for a Good Business

But how exactly do companies and consumers define the slippery concept of authenticity these days? Well, taking at look at the Authentic 100, it declares that “Authenticity is a function of how much consumers perceive a company or brand to be” reliable, respectful and real. This means that we regard as authentic any company that “Delivers on promises,” “Is high quality,” “Treats customers well,” “Protects customer privacy/data,” “Communicates honestly,” “Is genuine and real, not artificial,” and “Acts with integrity.” What’s interesting about these supposed hallmarks of authenticity is that the 12,000 participants in Cohn & Wolfe’s survey place more weight on the “Reliable” and “Respectful” markers. That is, they’re more likely to regard as ‘authentic’ those companies that offer high quality goods and treats customers well, rather than those companies that are genuine and communicate honestly.

This is quite the perversion of the usual understanding of ‘authentic,’ so much so that it reduces authenticity to pretty much what we ordinarily expect businesses to do: provide us with quality goods and services. Now, there’s nothing at all wrong with wanting quality goods and services, but the fact that 69% of respondents regard the provision of such goods and services as ‘authenticity’ strongly implies that the word authenticity has simply become a means of dressing up business as usual. According to the survey, it’s now less a means of designating the honesty or faithfulness-to-tradition through which firms conduct their affairs, and more a nice, warm and fuzzy way of glamorizing the basic product a company offers. In other words, ‘authentic’ is an active agent in the branding of a company, not a passive descriptor of a company’s brand.

More confusion over the term’s meaning becomes evident with a perusal of recent writing on the subject. In a New York Times article from 2014, authenticity was equated with “heritage, sincerity and commitment to quality,” whereas in a Memeburn piece from April, it was also declared that “Becoming a more charitable organization is another way to make your brand more relatable and demonstrate your authenticity.” Adding yet more symptoms of authenticity to the list, Hootsuite ran a blog last year advising companies that authenticity rests on their ability to connect “more and more on a personal level with their audience,” while a collection of infographics on authenticity from Business2Community added the importance of social responsibility: “While touting ecological sustainability, Patagonia’s revenue jumped to $600 million.” Admittedly, some of these traits may be genuine ingredients of an authenticity that hasn’t been watered down and bastardized into nonexistence, yet their continuing proliferation nonetheless evinces how ‘authenticity’ has mutated into a magical bucket-term used to signify everything remotely positive about a company.

That it’s such a bucket-term is perhaps its greatest strength, since it can convey a multitude of diverse characteristics as simplistically and as resonantly as possible. However, it’s also its greatest weakness, because the conflation of any and every positive characteristic into one giant melting pot will, in the long run, only cause confusion, misunderstanding and disappointment. This threat can already be glimmered, for example, in how the Cohn & Wolfe Authentic 100 has ranked the likes of Disney, BMW, Microsoft, Amazon and Apple largely according to how reliably they deliver their products and how well they treat their customers. That this ranking has been called a ranking of ‘authenticity’ will mean that, somewhere down the line, casual readers of the news outlets relaying this ranking will suppose that all the highest-ranking companies on this list are ‘authentic’ according to other interpretations of the term as well. They will suppose, not simply that BMW and Amazon provide high-quality goods, but that they are somehow true to their pasts, honest about their business practices, and ethically conscientious.

Wanting Brands to Do More So We Don’t Have To

Because of this misapprehension, consumers may very well be disappointed by their ‘engagement’ with supposedly authentic brands, hoodwinked into thinking that they’ll be supporting venerable traditions and ethical conduct when in fact all they’ll end up doing is buying a nice object. Still, this possibility of disappointment hasn’t apparently stopped us from expecting more from companies than mere products. Cohn & Wolfe themselves report that “Nearly 90% of global consumers will reward a brand for authenticity,” while a 2015 blog from Bonfire Marketing cited data showing how “63% of [consumers] buy from authentic brands over competitors that hide their true selves.” Clearly, we expect our brands to ‘show their true selves,’ and even though the Authentic 100 insinuates that this ‘showing of true selves’ amounts mainly to offering superior products and customer care, there are signs that we’re coming to associate it with other virtues as well.

For one, Cohn & Wolfe’s survey teaches us that, while not quite on the scale of wanting a good service, we also gravitate towards brands that are principled and act ethically. 59% of its respondents stated that they perceive as ‘authentic’ companies that are clear about their beliefs and stay true to their values, while 55% reported that they consider a company’s social and environmental responsibility when evaluating its authenticity. Similarly, Mintel found in a recent study that 76% of UK adults “pay attention to the ethical and green credentials of products,” that 64% of US consumers “claim they expect companies to be more environmentally friendly,” and that 91% of Brazilian consumers are drawn towards brands that are mindful of the environment.

Given these statistics, it becomes all-too clear how multiple parallel expectations might confuse the notion of authenticity, and how as a result we might make an inaccurate assumption or generalization when hearing of how a particular brand is ‘authentic.’ It might have been awarded this stamp of approval simply by virtue of its green credentials, for instance, yet the mere application of the magic word authenticity might lead us into assuming that it possess many other redeeming features. We therefore perceive it as being something it’s not, as being honest and sensitive to tradition when it’s sensitive only to carbon emissions.

Above all else, such a misperception highlights how the very confusion inherent to the concept of ‘authenticity’ ultimately serves to promote business as a whole, allowing for the easy transfer of reputations, cachet and virtues from one company to another. It’s as though the concept is one big, messy pot that gets passed around from one company to the next, with each company adding only one or two (or no) positive qualities to the pot before passing it onto the next, but with each of them being able to benefit from all of its contents. This community effect was hinted at in a January blog post by Margot Hauer-King, a strategist at Brand Union London. In this post, Hauer-King referred to American fast-food chain Chick-fil-A, who despite remaining “a far cry from champions of both social and environmental issues,” invoked the superficial trappings of authenticity in a recent marketing campaign that focused on sustainable living, using the shared, popularized imagery of ‘authenticity’ to inexpensively heighten its brand.

But things don’t stop there, because aside from revealing how it functions as a jumbled store of credibility for all brands, the emergence of ‘authenticity’ in the past few decades also reflects a massive shift in society and what it demands from its corporations. More specifically, it reflects the demand for corporate social responsibility (CSR) that began in the 1960s and reached a new peak around the turn of the 20th Century, and in conjunction it reflects the weakening of popular civic engagement that also began in the 1960s and reached a new peak around the turn of the 20th Century. Both phenomena are related, with the reduction in individual participation in public life creating an increased demand and opportunity for corporations to pick up the slack, to compensate for the decline in individual engagement by becoming engaged in public issues themselves.

This inversion has been great for private organizations and their marketability, but whether the informal privatization of public concerns has actually been good for the public is another matter entirely. There’s no guarantee that the efforts of Starbucks and Google to be ethical will preserve the public interest if the public itself doesn’t also act to preserve it. This can be seen in the numerous missteps companies have made in their attempts to be more authentic and relevant, including Starbucks themselves with their notorious “Race Together” campaign from last year, as well as McDonald’s with their ad used a montage of ‘heartwarming’ messages displayed underneath their entrance signs to cheaply invoke 9/11 and the Boston Bombing. These blunders underline how the corporate understanding of social responsibility can be gapingly adrift from the public understanding, and how, rather than simply criticizing offending corporations on social media and expecting them to get it right next time, the public would be better off if it took a more active social role in promoting its own good.

More Authentic to Forget About Authenticity

Despite this danger, we continue to expect companies to be ‘authentic’ to public values and the common good, possibly forgetting that the existence of a bottom line involving the escalation of profits might lead them astray on a regular basis. As the Cohn & Wolfe Authentic 100 attests, and as do numerous other surveys, we don’t just want our brands to supply us with dependable merchandise and first-rate customer service, but also to look after the environment, look after society, and stand up for values that few of us actually retain ourselves.

While there’s certainly nothing wrong with expecting and wanting companies to uphold a range of positive traits, the increasing tendency — exhibited mostly by the PR and marketing industry — to lump almost all of these under the bracket of ‘authenticity’ is decidedly misguided and misleading. It risks deceiving us into believing that companies labeled as ‘authentic’ mainly for their reliability, for example, also possess all of the other characteristics associated with the term, duping us into thinking that we’re supporting wider causes when we’re buying their products. Even worse, just by having ‘authenticity’ bandied about and applied to exceptional corporations as if it were common fixture in the business world may sway too many of us into presuming that this world as a whole is more h0nest, scrupulous and ethical than it really is. As recent scandals involving Volkswagen, Turing Pharmaceuticals and Toshiba all show, such a presumption would be a glaring mistake.

But more fundamentally, it’s also a glaring mistake to assume that a brand could ever really be ‘authentic.’ Perhaps companies can operate in continuity with their traditions, and perhaps they can be honest and environmentally friendly, but their brands are essentially marketing constructs that can only ever place their activities in a more positive frame. Even when they tell the truth, they can never tell the whole truth, leaving out much that would contradict the rosy image they draw for their companies. This is why — despite its increasing traction in the marketing and business realm — the very idea of an authentic brand will always remain something of an oxymoron. Perhaps it would be more authentic if companies dropped it altogether.

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