Posted by Megan Oldcorn
3 September, 2018

Authenticity is a word we use a lot. It features regularly in discussions about marketing; particularly when we talk about branding.

We all know that authenticity is something to strive for, but how many companies actually communicate this through their marketing? And how many are turning consumers off with an identity that screams inauthenticity? 

When it comes to a product – let’s say a handbag – it’s reasonably easy to tell when you’ve got a fake. The manufacturing quality isn’t as high, the packaging isn’t as fancy, and the smell sometimes isn’t that pleasant. It’s not so easy to tell when a brand is inauthentic. It’s often a gut feeling, a jarring experience or a series of disappointments, but over time, we begin to realise that here, too, something stinks.

What does it mean to be authentic?

Ours is an era of information overload. Branded messaging and advertising is everywhere – from traditional formats like direct mail and magazine adverts to the digital realm and its plethora of email newsletters, blogs, videos, social media and websites. In fact, it’s almost impossible to get away from brands. 

The inevitable consequence is that younger generations are turning away from this and simply don’t want to be sold to. They’re tired of trumped-up claims, fake social responsibility credentials and unfulfilled promises. They can spot a sponsored post a mile off, and they intuitively know when you’re selling. As a result, they’d rather learn what their peers think, preferring honest reviews and consumer-led content (more on that shortly). In sum, they’re tired of inauthentic marketing and they’re too savvy to fall for it. 

We all know what authenticity means, but in a marketing context it’s harder to pin down. In fact, many companies come across as inauthentic without being aware of it. 

So, how can you make sure your marketing is authentic?

Someone writing on a whiteboard covered in post-it notes.

1. Have values – and know what they are

To be authentic, you first need to know who you are. It goes without saying that the way you present your company should ring true with everyone who encounters it and everyone who works for it. This is a where a strong brand identity is vital. 

Every brand should have values that it’s willing to live and die by. Perhaps you’re an eco hotel, created to offer sustainable tourism and a ‘closer to nature’ experience. In this context, you wouldn’t serve drinks with garish plastic straws or throw recyclables in the bin. Now imagine that a new member of staff joins the team and isn’t told how important this is. They could innocently stock up with chemical cleaners and single-use plastics. It’s easy to slip up when a company’s driving values haven’t been communicated. 

For a customer, having booked their stay based on the hotel’s eco credentials, the first disconnect between its marketing and their experience leads to a giant red flag. It doesn’t take much, but from this point it’s going to be hard to win back their trust and anything else that’s said will be viewed through cynical eyes. 

Your values may be less black and white than this, but you’re sure to have things that you care about more than others, and things that you know your company would never do. Working as a team, think about your audiences, your collective beliefs and the promises your company makes. Distil these down to a set of values, set them out in a document, and share it with every member of the team. From there, it’s easy to weigh up decisions based on your values, and to identify when something doesn’t ring true.

2. Be truthful about who you are

It’s simple but important: don’t claim to be something you’re not. Lying is an obvious no-no, but politicians’ answers, evasions and vague statements are also undesirable. Instead, try to be truthful and transparent about things. If you need a full week to respond to enquiries, don’t say you’ll respond in ‘a few days’ or ‘as soon as possible’. If you’re advertising an offer that doesn’t apply to all products, be specific about where the discounts are. Setting reasonable expectations is an easy way to avoid conflict and disappointment.

Are you an aspiring jack-of-all-trades? It might be better to master one. If you’re promoting a service, make sure it’s a quality service that’s really worth promoting – it’s better to do a few things well than cover too much and ultimately disappoint people. It’s fine not to offer everything if what you do offer is the best it can be and leads to repeat custom. 

Another way to avoid empty marketing is to back up the claims that you make. This leads back to the sage advice, ‘show me, don’t tell me’. Rather than saying you’re family friendly, give an example of how you are. If you’re award winning, mention at least one award name. That way, people will know that there’s substance behind your style. 

Photography is another area where it’s easy to go wrong. Of course you want to show your business at its best, so do shoot in conditions that achieve this – like a sunny day, a peaceful morning, or immediately after a coat of paint. But to be really authentic, try to avoid wide-angle lenses or image manipulation. This can lead to people feeling tricked, which never ends well.

The front cover of the wiro-bound prospectus for Mounts Bay by Nixon Design.

3. Let your consumer lead

Consumer-led marketing is likely to increase in popularity over the next few years. Essentially, this means what you’d think – letting your customers lead the way and guide your marketing, while harnessing the persuasive power of their words. It’s particularly relevant to Gen Z (the post-millennial generation), which researches companies, seeks peer opinion and isn’t afraid to be vocal when something isn’t right. 

Younger audiences don’t respond well to intrusive advertising and don’t want to be sold to in the first stage – the point we used to call the top of the funnel. Instead, they want to make an informed decision based on independent research and others’ opinions. What you can do is facilitate this research: make it easy for people to find out more by having clear signposting to important information. Choose content that informs without overtly selling, and provide thorough answers to frequently asked questions. It’s also useful to make yourselves approachable – have clear contact information and an invitation to get in touch if needed. 

If people are talking, it pays to listen to what they’re saying. This way, you can make alterations to your marketing and services based on their feedback. Set aside time to monitor your social media, searching for your name (and spelling variations) in posts, and check-in regularly to review sites. If time permits, write unique responses to both good and bad reviews, rather than copying and pasting from the same script every time.

To really embrace the power of consumer-led marketing, consider campaigns or collateral featuring user-generated content. From an initial run of postcards, Arts University Bournemouth has successfully created a magazine and podcast series featuring advice from its alumni to graduates. It’s a great piece of collaborative work and refreshingly relevant to students. We took a similar approach when creating a new prospectus for Mounts Bay Academy in Penzance, which celebrates the school’s differences through content contributed by its students.

4. Be relatable

One of the earliest adopters of authenticity in advertising was Dove, which launched its Campaign for Real Beauty back in 2004. Since then, many others have adopted a similar approach, with brands such as Nike, Missguided and Sport England choosing to feature plus-size bodies in their campaigns. A focus on authenticity is even apparent in bread company Warburtons’ television advertising, which saw real-life CEO Jonathan Warburton appearing as himself in scenes. There’s good reasoning behind this: a survey carried out last year found that 47% of UK adults preferred adverts featuring real people and were less likely to buy if an advert’s characters felt ‘unrealistic’ (Toluna). 

For most companies, being relatable is tied in with being truthful. Instead of obviously posed scenes or glossy-haired stock photography, go for a natural style of imagery. And while it’s obvious, consider who your target audiences are and what they care about. If you’re a family-friendly attraction, take photos on-site with a real family and write copy that acknowledges you’re speaking to parents. Luxury Family Hotels ticks all the boxes when it comes to unposed, relatable content – it quickly becomes clear that this is a brand that’s all about fun, carefree experiences for families.

A child on a bed at a Luxury Family Hotel. A mum and her son having breakfast at a Luxury Family Hotel. A girl and her dog running through the garden at a Luxury Family Hotel. Three children standing outside an LFH hotel, two holding leaves over their faces.

If you’re using stock photography, conduct a quick reality check when choosing images: are colours, facial expressions and scenarios natural? Does it look staged or artificially lit? Reject anything that’s exaggerated or unlikely. If you’re tight on time or resources, it’s possible to find decent stock images, but if authenticity is what you’re after, it’s better to take or commission your own. Planning ahead will help – create a content calendar so that you know what images you’re likely to need, and when. This will allow you to take or find photographs well in advance, rather than using something you know isn’t ideal because it’s last minute. 

5. Tell real stories

Storytelling is far more than a marketing buzzword (even if it is having a ‘moment’.) We’ve all engaged with stories since we were babies; they’re how we make sense of the world and communicate important – and non-important – information. A good story appeals to our emotions and stays with us far longer than any other kind of marketing copy. To give it a try, read our tips on storytelling

Of course, great stories are all around us and your business will be full of them. All you have to do is seek them out. If you’re a restaurant sourcing ingredients locally from artisan suppliers, celebrate this. Tell their stories through social media posts or a series of blog articles. Feature beautiful photography of fruit being picked or bread coming out of the oven – consumers care far more about this than they do about where your head chef worked aged 21. People want to get close to their food, so help them to see, touch and smell what you’re serving. All too often, brands get caught up in ‘we did this, we won that, we do so-and-so’ and don’t stop to ask: ‘Does anyone care? Does this impact them now?’ 

Where possible, talk about real stories, real people and specific places – don’t be afraid to focus on one story or detail, rather than resorting to vague, generalised text. Many marketers fall into the trap of trotting out the same clichés and adjectives time after time – phrases such as ‘stunning views’, ‘mouthwatering food’ and ‘time of your life’. These are so overused that they’ve become meaningless, and they immediately feel hollow. Instead, offer authentic description of sights and sounds that represents an experience. 

Bringing us bang up to date, social media stories are a modern form of storytelling in miniature. Available on Facebook and Instagram, ‘stories’ are temporary posts that remain visible for just 24 hours. Their transient nature lends itself to a more relaxed and less polished style that younger audiences love. Interested? Take a look at our guide to social media stories

Give it a go

As younger audiences reject in-your-face sales and subject brands to increasingly close scrutiny, authenticity is now more important than ever. With a strong and well-defined brand at your heart, it’s easy to take small steps to gain trust and credibility. 

Liked this? You might enjoy How to bring your brand to life and Brand loyalty – what is it really?