A former boss once asked me if I knew what the most important word in the English language was. “Perspicacity?” I offered keenly. “Persiflage?” He shook his head and with great sobriety said: “Authenticity.” I can think of other words that might be more important (love, defibrillator, and plunger come to mind), but since that day I’ve seen authenticity become a buzzword among branding agencies and their clients.
It makes a lot of sense. Generation X is filling the “prime earning years” cohort being vacated by Baby Boomers, and it’s hard to find a more cynical bunch. I know – I’m one of them. And the Millennials’ need for fulfillment extends beyond their leisure activities to their work lives and their consumption choices. I know – my brother is one of them. Authenticity is a desirable and admirable quality. But, just like “cool,” “modest,” and “funny,” it’s one of those elusive attributes where if you have to say you are it, then you’re probably not.
So what’s a brand to do? First and foremost, it must realize that pandering to what focus groups say stakeholders want to hear is a recipe for disaster. Employees, recruits and consumers are sophisticated detectors of bullshit. When BP claims to have moved ‘beyond petroleum’, but scrimps on safety at refineries and engages in market manipulation, bright young engineering graduates are going to smell fresh greenwashing.
On the other hand, take a company like ING. This low-cost bank isn’t for everyone, but by closing the accounts of customers who demand expensive high-touch service, they’re walking the talk in a way that resonates logically and viscerally with the audiences they target.
Organizations and products have to connect with consumers who want them not just to say the right things, but to do the right things. Building a strong brand today isn’t about how you look. It’s about who you are. It requires a clear definition of organizational self. It requires a shared sense of internal purpose. And it requires processes that teach, encourage, and reward employees for putting that purpose into practice. Only then is it worth looking for creative and compelling ways to express a brand’s promise to the world. It isn’t fast and it isn’t easy, but it’s the only way to demonstrate true authenticity and create a brand that both you and your customers can believe in.