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Authenticity: Marketing’s Biggest Phony

September 10, 2018 — Vannett Li

Authenticity is the latest and annoyingly overused marketing buzzword — it’s slowly grating my will to live. Every brand claims to be authentic. It’s a word that has been prominently featured in nearly every client brief that’s crossed my desk in the last three years.

In a 2017 Forbes article titled “How Unilever Is Winning With Millennials And Gen Z”, Rob Candelino, VP and general manager of Unilever Hair Care, U.S. credits their success to “[engaging with their consumers] in genuine, honest and authentic ways.” When talking about Budweiser’s America stunt where Budweiser brazenly swapped its name for “America” on its cans and bottles, the brand issued a press release stating the purpose behind the campaign was to “celebrate America and Budweiser’s shared values of freedom and authenticity”.

I get it, the world is yearning for it. We’re drawn like moths to a flame for people or brands that are genuine, real, raw. We celebrate their bravery and their “don’t give a fuck what you think about me” ballsy-ness. Think Anthony Bourdain. Think Beyonce. Think Donald Trump…

Brands are recognizing this and being rewarded for it. Cue the slew of client briefs where every single brand manager has the same brilliant idea where “authentic” is a brand personality or an essential part of the brand foundation — the most hollow marketing word in existence that literally means nothing.

To be authentic is to be true to who you are. However, you can’t be true to who you are if you don’t have a strong sense of who you are in the first place.

The goal of branding is to identify a brand’s true and compelling essence and broadcast that to the world in an aspirational and relevant manner. By achieving this you are paying homage to your brand’s authenticity. Penciling in the word “authentic” in your brand foundations/key/star/personality/etc. is not the same thing. Saying your brand is authentic without first defining the undisputed qualities of your brand is the equivalent of being true to a blank piece of paper.

Yes, please act authentically. Yes, please champion authenticity. But please recognize and respect the commitment it takes to get there. If you start with a deep understanding of the true nature of your brand, you might just figure out how to embrace authenticity without ever having to describe your brand as being “authentic.”

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