Brands that talk. Does authenticity have an expiry date?

As consumers have become suspicious of companies trying to sell them things using conventional marketing tactics, the idea of ‘authenticity’ has risen to prominence in marketing.

Despite evading definition, the concept is closely linked with relatability, integrity and trustworthiness. Research suggests that 86% of people think authenticity is important to them when it comes to deciding what companies they purchase from, and it’s no surprise that people want to do business with companies they trust.

It is for this reason that we’ve seen Burger King marketing a range of ‘Real Meals’ (including a Blue Meal), which was supposed to raise awareness of mental health. Frequently used to mean being true to oneself and ones values, authenticity is often linked with social responsibility and championing progressive causes.

But do people really believe that big corporates have these issues at their heart? Are consumers likely to view these moves as merely attempts to sell them things? To answer this, Professor of Marketing Research at Ulster University, Stephen Brown, invites us to consider how we got to where we are.

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, he says that, unlike those who grew up during the advent of marketing as a discipline in the ’50s and ’60s, the generations that followed, which had lived with brands from birth, were inured to the tactics of advertising’s golden age. Thus, marketing executives had to conceive of new ways to sell products. He lists three main ways in which they have done this successfully:

The first is Inclusion, whereby marketers attempt to inspire loyalty and initiate consumers into a brand community, often by cult-like methods, such as creating an enemy of competitors. Apple’s Mac versus PC ads of the ’00s come to mind.

Secondly, Nostalgia invokes fuzzy feelings of yesteryear and an idealised version of the way things used to be. This can even take advantage of consumers’ awareness of marketing past – think about Hovis referencing historic adverts in their more recent campaigns.

A third tactic is irony, which openly acknowledges consumers’ awareness of the ‘campaigners behind the campaigns’ as Brown puts it. Adverts often stray into the meta, with the audience in on the game. For example, BrewDog’s ‘Advert’ campaign last year saw a picture of a can of beer accompanied by the words ‘Advert on a Bus’.

Brown goes on to say that, in time, consumers have become desensitised to these techniques as well, leading to ‘authenticity’ becoming the Holy Grail for marketers. People want to buy from genuine brands, fronted by real people, often with a higher goal beyond profit making, in contrast to a faceless organisation.

An interesting side effect of brands’ quests for authenticity is their adoption of personas and personalities, exemplified by brands using first person pronouns ‘I’ and ‘we’ on social media – we are more likely to relate to people rather than companies. Similarly, smoothie maker Innocent started a craze of packaging that talks to people. It is likely a factor behind the rise of influencers.

But are consumers becoming weary of this too?

Burger King’s ‘Real Meals’ campaign was met with a backlash on Twitter, with criticisms centering on its perceived shallowness. On the other hand, a recent survey conducted via Twitter by North West celebrity chef and restaurateur Gary Usher, asking his followers which social media accounts that they liked, found that people were largely on side with the eye-rolling internet humour of the likes of KFC.

If Brown is correct and history is anything to go by, marketers will forever have to find new way to sell things as we become used to their latest contrivances. However, it’s worth considering that all of the tactics that he says people have tired of previously are still used successfully today, as demonstrated by the recent examples.

But is it really authenticity that people will tire of anyway?

Brown argues that you can’t be authentic by trying to be. Instead, he advocates that marketers acknowledge their ‘merchandise-moving ambitions’:

“Today’s customers are cognizant that underneath all the servile, sanctimonious, socially responsible rhetoric, marketing boils down to selling stuff,” he says.

The best way of being authentic is to be honest about having a product to sell and showing and telling people the benefits, truthfully. Ironically, brands that do this are more likely to be seen as authentic than those that make authenticity the objective of a marketing campaign.

That’s not to say companies shouldn’t communicate a purpose beyond this or have well-defined values, but they shouldn’t be determined as part of a brand building exercise.