Authenticity is a seductive concept. So much so that marketers are conjuring ever more inauthentic ways to try to sell it. The good news is that authentic marketing needn’t be an oxymoron. You just have to be brave – and… drum roll… actually mean what you’re saying…
By Dave Waller
Another morning on planet Earth, waking up in her pink and grey bedroom. Time for a photo. Frame in the pillow with the word ‘DREAM’ stitched on it. And the board next to it saying ‘Good Morning’. And there she is, immaculately made up, sat in her PJs with her feet up on the bed and a nice cup of coffee. Yay. But, it seems, the cup is empty. And her plate of strawberry-topped pancakes is actually a pile of tortillas. All those heart-shaped balloons surrounding the bed would surely terrify anyone waking up under them. As would that blanket – it seems to feature a giant selfie of the woman, stood in front of a load of pink roses. Bit weird. And everything in the room is so disturbingly immaculate that the bottle of Listerine she’s casually left on the bedside cabinet sticks out like a wonky tooth.
The photo in question is of 24-year-old Instagram influencer Scarlett Dixon. It did the rounds earlier this month. It was, of course, a branded partnership, with a certain mouthwash brand. Needless to say, the ruse backfired disastrously, the cumulative preposterousness catapulting it viral. Listerine caught a bad case of reputational halitosis in the process – becoming the latest example of a brand failing desperately to grasp that elusive, distinctly modern marketing grail: authenticity.
“‘Have you been round Scott’s?’
‘I think you'll find it's quite authentic.’”
Scott Williams, head of marketing at Uncle, a London-based residential rental company, is on the phone, and has just been informed of an online article drawing the line between authenticity and the resurgence of vinyl. After 20 years working in digital marketing, and even longer avidly collecting records, it’s enough to set his head spinning. Now he’s tearing the idea to pieces. “It’s madness. How many meetings about authenticity have people had in the last year, globally? Probably thousands. What's the point? It's a complete waste of time. The only things that come out of meetings about authenticity are lies. Just be more honest: ‘We're here to make money, and we want to be successful, doing these things.’ Put that in your advert.”
It’s not hard to see why people question how marketing and authenticity can really be bedfellows. Marketing is the packaging of information with the express purpose of getting people to pay attention you. Authenticity involves doing what you’re doing regardless of whether anyone else gives a shit about it. Brands may like the notion that online influencers are the real deal, but if you’re paying someone to market your mouthwash in a staged photo that they then share on Instagram, authenticity has clearly opened the distressed pink sash window, leapt out and legged it.
Not that such an exit would count as hasty. The idea of authenticity in advertising has been kicking around for years. Consider DDB’s Think Small campaign for Volkswagen in the 1950s and ‘60s, which was designed to tap into Middle America’s bubbling frustration with the all-American ideals they were being fed. It spoke to them on a more casual, more direct level than the other ads of the time. And that approach has continued, right through Dove’s wildly successful Real Beauty Sketches clip, lauded for changing the conversation around women’s beauty.
But even with these examples, the problem is staring at us from the bedside cabinet. “The paradox in the VW ad is that you’re selling the counterculture, selling a reaction to a certain type of advertisement and lifestyle,” says Neil Simpson, senior planner at Edinburgh’s Leith Agency. “It’s almost a reaction to selling. That’s ironic, when the purpose of your ad is still ultimately to sell cars. You still hear about people asking for ‘Dove-style’ ads. What that tends to mean is something that’s clever and emotional, and which grabs people’s attention while making them feel good about themselves. But often what's really being asked for is an ad disguised as something else. And that's not really authentic.”
There’s little doubt that the brains behind the VW or Dove campaigns would happily be called inauthentic, as the accolades and viewer numbers are ample proof of their success. Yet everyone remains fixated on authenticity. Emmanuel Faber, chief executive of Danone, was at the CAGNY industry conference in February saying how “millennials want committed brands with authentic products”. While Andrew Geoghegan, Diageo’s global consumer planning director, recently pointed to authenticity as a “huge trend”, and that he’d “seen it coming through in the last 15 years in areas like craft beer”. Disregarding the obvious question of exactly how craft beer is ‘authentic’, it does make sense: the cracks in the capitalist promise that everything is going to bigger and brighter in the future are becoming increasingly visible all the time, so of course people of all ages would grow tired of any false claims. If they’re willing to look beyond them.
Doing the conscious thing
“Everyone hates insurance, and there are good reasons why,” says Chris Sharpe, over the phone. Sharpe is the founder of Kinsu, an app-based insurance business that’s trying to correct what he sees as a fraught relationship between the industry and customers. He clearly likes a challenge.
Sharpe’s first step was to get accreditation as a B Corp [link to Post Cool article], legally committing the company to measuring and showing the impact it has on its staff and customers, the environment and community. “In order to do that, you need authenticity,” he says. “It’s not enough to simply say you’re not just interested in money. You can’t just say you’re purpose-led and behave in a different way – that’s really key.”
But Sharpe’s next question was how he could market that. When he realized there was “something icky” about paying for people to click on banner ads for a purpose-led business, he had to come up with something else. Kinsu is now running a campaign where it partners with a charity, which because of the shared values, is happy to promote the app to its community. So instead of Kinsu paying Facebook or Google for exposure, it will give the money to the charity.
“It cuts out the money that feeds these hugely deep pockets and leads to all this confusion and the charade that we all partake in,” says Sharpe. “It suggests an authentic way to market if ever there was one – sharing values with a community that has a need and likes what you do, to everyone’s mutual benefit. Advertising doesn’t feel like that – it’s just getting people to buy shit. I’ve no idea if it’ll work or not, but it’s quite a lovely idea.”
If it’s hard to see how it’d ever work, certainly at scale, Sharpe is astute enough to see that without having this story to tell, it would be harder to get interviews about his business. It’s also a compelling tale to tell prospective partners. And, he says, “it happens to be true”. And while he may be heading down a longer, bumpier road to gaining a following, at least he’s never has to call a meeting to define his company’s authenticity.
“The idea and drive to be a purpose-led business, with authenticity, comes from the founder,” he says. “You know what the purposes are when setting up. A lot of people pay lip service to it, but you don’t have to scratch too far beneath the surface to see if it’s not coming from the center of the organization and it’s purely marketing. Customers can smell it a mile off.”
Brands are there to make money and that’s ok
Indeed, one of the hurdles facing brands is the tendency to confuse authenticity with some lofty social mission – they feel pressure to show they mean things they don’t. Starbucks somehow manages to propagate its socially conscious image inside its stores, even as it was paying only 2.8% tax in Europe last year. But most businesses don’t have Starbucks’ muscle. Or they don’t want to go around saying one thing and doing another. The good news is you don’t have to. It’s enough to know what your business is for, and to do that properly.
Williams has an analogy for that – he calls it the ‘boasting nurse’. “All brands want be perceived as nurses,” he says. “To show that they’re caring and genuine, and helping to save lives. But you never meet a nurse who starts shouting ‘I saved 20 people this week’ on Facebook or Twitter. If you spend all your time hiring really smart people doing really good work, you don't really have to do a lot of marketing. Google became really, really powerful because they just made really good shit. There's something to be said for that.”
Indeed, there are other striking actions that will convince people more than simply telling them you’re authentic (which, as Simpson points out, is about as effective as telling someone you’re funny). Buffer, the social media management platform, has a stated commitment to transparency. It honors this by publishing employee salaries and equity and other company financials on its website. It’s powerful stuff.
Others have flipped the marketing model and managed to make a more honest approach work. Take Adam&Eve/DDB’s work for Harvey Nichols, which ran counter to the habit of appealing to people’s loftier instincts with its Christmas ads, turning the story from one of selfless giving into an appeal to our baser, more selfish instincts: Christmas as a chance to get the stuff you want. That’s not going to save the planet, but it’s hard to question the authenticity: it’s calling out a true hypocrisy, while not hiding what the brand’s true purpose is.
“At its root, a brand is a thing in commercial society that’s designed to sell products,” Simpson says. “That’s no bad thing. And authenticity is about being true to what you are. But it’s interesting how many people working in marketing feel embarrassed by what they do, and so shy away from the fact that an advertisement is about creating demand for a product or service. Some of the ads that are seen as the most authentic admit to selling stuff, and even play with the idea.”
Simpson points to irreverent ads by Old Spice, Kiss Lip Plumper and Dollar Shave Club as examples. Then there’s Oasis’ ‘refreshingly’ frank summer ‘we’ve got sales targets’ campaign.
So can we expect more brands to open up about what they’re doing and why? Probably not. It seems odd to say it, but to be properly authentic takes bravery. There’s no shortcut. Those at the core of the company have to be totally genuine about what they’re up to, and clever and patient enough to let that radiate out. Or not. Just sell good stuff. It’s worth remembering what winds people up: it’s not the selling; it’s the attempt to mask the fact that something is being sold.
And they’re increasingly quick to call bullshit when people try it. Hence we wind up with the Chevy Real People campaign – a series of meta ads dressed up as focus groups researching a potential Chevy ad. It was so desperate to not be seen as inauthentic that it actually included the line: “So what you’re saying is you don’t want us to build an ad that appeals to you; you want us to build a car that appeals to you.” Exactly. The online audience tore that ad to shreds too.
If there’s more to your company than selling things, brilliant. If not, that’s fine too. But if you wind up tying yourself in knots trying to prove your authenticity, you might want to consider doing something else.
“Mental health at work is a monumental issue, so instead of marketing, spend your time making sure that people feel good about coming to work on a Monday morning,” says Williams. “Do that. That's authentic. That's being generous. You read a load of brand values espousing kindness and empathy, then you work there and everyone turns out to be Machiavellian or sociopaths. Authenticity is about the relationship you have with yourself, and subsequently other people. That's what authenticity is. It's got fuck all to do with marketing. Marketing can't be authentic – because if it was, it'd say: ‘The CEO's a multi-billionaire and a bit of a dick.’ Put that on the poster.
“People in the business would be like: ‘I'm never going to do that.’ Well, stop fucking talking about authenticity then.”