Authenticity in branding
by Aneta Bogdan
Dana invited me to write about branding for pr-romania.ro, a tempting invitation as I feel professionally and structurally rather close to PR as a discipline and a communication and networking practice. Simply put, I see PR more related to branding than it might look at first glance. Dana even suggested to me a list of topics that would interest PR people that I was initially tempted to discard; however, when I looked closer, my eyes fell on “authenticity and integrity in brand building”. Ouch! Dana couldn’t have struck a more sensible chord!
In any case, the subject will be treated in two different episodes: Today I shall write about authenticity and in a future essay about integrity. I have to warn those who read me for the first time that I have an undisguised capacity to kill sacred cows—I don’t do it to shock, but rather from a pragmatic spirit that which forces me to put aside whatever blocks me in any way (and for some intellectual entertainment too… to be honest).
Authentic—means true, real, original, veritable, precious through its very uniqueness. So far so good, since how could we build a brand if not by truth and uniqueness?
I decided to look at the authenticity from two perspectives: that of “the truth," “the original” and the other of the “preciousness” through “uniqueness”.
The truth, the original, bona fides, etc., means in branding the capacity of a brand to identify with an idea, with an objective, with a meaning. A natural truth accompanied by a natural intention, if possible original. Words so big that either frighten or leave you with a cynical “yeah, right” grimace (most of us will opt for the grimace, I know!).
Branding starts with an identity clarification and when this does not happen or is badly managed, the brand performance will be seriously affected. To be sure, one of the toughest challenges of brand management is the identity.
Although easy to understand in theory, it is hard to deal with as long as our entire modern society unveils under a trend of flattening, plasticization and leveling. If you think about it, almost everything around us follows certain recipes and all we are taught must follow a pattern; suddenly, we are all models to follow, and although we have “only been dancing for a summer” as they say, we can even stir cultural revolutions (for instance, note what is happening in social media). And where else to look for authenticity if not in ourselves, as owners or creators of brands?
If we start being less and less authentic ourselves, how can our brands be authentic?
The identity of a brand lies in the way in which it expresses, sincerely, something internal—a belief, a spirit, a character, a promise—and by no means, the obsession for an external form. The external form has to be intrinsically, even umbilically related to the internal truth. The identity of a brand gets sealed in its DNA, where the vision, rhetoric and visual expressions must create a coherent whole. A brand identity is easier to clarify on entrepreneurial underlying structures than on corporatist ones and the factors that influence it are its vision in business, the character and personal beliefs of the owners but also the idiosyncrasies of the field it acts in, to which perhaps a “historical heritage” is added, if it is the case.
As PR practitioners, I am sure that many of you have had to deal with “no identity” brands, with beautiful outsides and empty insides, and that you understand how hard it is to work with them. On the other hand, I am also sure you know how easy things become when you deal with brands with a clear and visible identity.
Veritable, precious through uniqueness is the other perspective of authenticity. And this is perhaps more understandable if authenticity is related to art. If we acknowledge that what is authentic in art—that is, its uniqueness—is therefore valuable, then we can also accept that an authentic brand is a valuable brand.
Someone that lives in Moscow told me that Vuitton handbags have become such an obsession for the middle class to the extent that it generated an entire social anthropology case study. And yet the question is, how many of these women dreaming for a Vuitton bag or actually wearing one really know something about the essence and the truth of this wonderful brand, which albeit absolutely authentic, paradoxically generates mass-leveling and by no means the differentiation we would expect. People who wear it want to borrow some of its authenticity, of its spirit, or at least the hope that it will generate attractive and positive references regarding their social life. The Louis Vuitton brand thus became an artifact of a certain lifestyle rather than one of veritable distinction, and is in danger of losing its inherent power of attraction: if we all wore Vuitton we would no longer feel so authentic, after all.
So how do you get the precious and the veritable in branding? The surest way is through innovation, however, if only such a thing would be more at hand! A more approachable path is to present unique, unexpected, relevant and seductive promises for the consumers and make use of a, well, exceptional design (whether it is graphic design, architecture, product design, environment design, location, etc). “Well,” because design is the Cinderella of our modern Romanian society, as very few managers, intellectuals and business owners are aware of its importance or use it as a tool for differentiation and value added.
One of the most famous brands that stands for authenticity for everybody on Earth is Apple, with its entire portfolio: iPhone, iPad, iPod, iMac, etc. Why? Because it bears in itself the truth of a breakthrough innovation, because it promises the opposite of what technology fought for so far, because the design is breathtaking and resets your behavior, because these objects became a “can’t do without” and you’d want everybody you love to have them.
In branding, authenticity is not overrated. The lack of authenticity not only affects the value of the brand, but also its credibility. Nevertheless, this does not mean that there can’t be a good business if the brand behind it is not authentic. Thinking for instance of private labels or own labels of a big retailer: a bit less careful and you’ll take the own label for stains removal of a big retailer for Vanish of Reckitt Benckiser. Well, about how ethical is to capitalize on “trust pink” is another question , and will be dealt with in the next essay about integrity in branding.
As for local brands, I rate authenticity as the key tool in the fight against global brands.
Again, easy to say but hard to do, because it is not the form that is convincing, but the truth behind it. And this truth entails a vision, certainty, will, things quite hard to find in our modern Romanian society. With a leaf taken from an image bank we will neither be able to convey a spirit, a character or a truth of such a complicated economy sector as tourism is, and nor impress through uniqueness and truth.
In conclusion, I ask: how easy is it to build authentic brands? How many brand owners can do it? How many brand consultants really know how to do it? How many designers can help to it? What I’m trying to say here is that, although largely accepted as a must in brand building, authenticity becomes nowadays rather a fatality.
What can be done? Nothing else than become aware of how hard it is and strive for solving the problem of identity and uniqueness in our projects with more wisdom, more care, more intelligence and much more emotional involvement. Cynically speaking: how hard can that be?
Your call! :-)