Wednesday, December 2

Being Authentic: Demonstrated, Not Stated


One of the most common bits of advice bandied about social media is for companies entering social media to be authentic. And as a result, many marketers have listened, making the claim that they are practicing authenticity for themselves and their clients or companies. We're authentic, they say.

"What bothers me now is that every time I hear a marketing pro utter the word 'authentic,' I cringe," says Olivier Blanchard, brand strategist behind The BrandBuilder Blog. "It's become dissonant."

Dissonant indeed. Blanchard's point, punctuated by the idea that authenticity is an outcome more than a practice, not only resonates but has research to back it up.

Can companies and marketers practice authenticity?

Sam Goslin, a psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin, suggests the answer might be no. He and his team analyzed 236 profiles of college-age types in the U.S. and Germany (from Facebook and StudiVZ, SchuelerVZ) and then established a baseline personality assessment by sending questionnaires to the owners in order to measure actual traits that individual thought would be ideal for them.

By comparing the social network profiles with the perceived and actual personality types of their owners, Goslin's team was then able to work out if the profiles did a better job of representing the actual or idealized personality traits. According to the Fast Company article, people either weren't trying to idealize their online persona or they were trying and failing.

How to demonstrate authenticity without saying it.

A simple takeaway from the Fast Company article for individuals is that they might learn to be comfortable with who they are. The same can be said about companies, which tends to be at odds with most marketing positions as recently illustrated by Richard Pinder, chief operating officer of Publicis Worldwide in the Guardian.

"Today's marketing imperative is to manage conversations about brands," Pinder said. "We are seeing a switch from being a brand manager to being a brand guardian and influencer. That is a very different place to be sitting."

As much as he is right, he is wrong. Attempting to be a brand guardian and influencer isn't sustainable unless the brand position comes from a place of authenticity. And for most companies, much like some people, they are not as comfortable with who or what they are as they might think.

Too many companies chase after digital tribes online, and then adjust their positions based on listening to those tribes in order to maximize their reach. The tactic, and it is a tactic, aims to create a package that appeals to a broad spectrum of prospects without considering that the contents might be more important to the consumer than the packaging.

That's not to say packaging isn't important. Packaging is important, but it requires some self-imposed constraints to ensure the packaging matches or is an extension of the contents. Nobody wants to open a diamond box and discover a rock. And most people would pass on opening a rumpled up newspaper, even if it contains a diamond.

This was the genius behind Gary Dahl's pet rock in the 1970s. It never needed to apologize for what it was. It was a rock and said so right on the outside of the box. It doesn't get more authentic than that.

And, as a result, pet rocks didn't need brand guardians or influencers. Dahl would have only needed those if he was trying to make the pet rock something other than what it was. Brand guardians or influencers, on the other hand, are most often charged with protecting the image of a company against the opinions of others, especially if those opinions are different, which is the opposite of authenticity.

Wasn't that the lesson Southwest Airlines once taught us? They didn't have to convince people or apologize for a boarding system that resembles cattle herding. They simply stated the organized chaos was reflected in the price rather than make claims it was a better boarding solution. Authenticity is demonstrated.

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