How to be an authentic brand

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The overuse of the term ’authenticity’ in brand communications is damaging its true meaning, new research seen by Marketing Week suggests.

How to be an authentic brand

Different brands are considered authentic by different groups, according to the survey of 1,000 consumers by agency Firefish. For example, Apple scores more highly among women due to its design and vision, while the Samsung and HTC brands have greater credence among men for their technical excellence.

Fashion brands such as Burberry and Topshop are rated as more authentic by women than men, but car brands such as VW, Land Rover, Ferrari and Ford do not show much gender differentiation.

The research also finds that 18- to 24-year-olds bestow higher authenticity rankings on technology brands, which highlights the significant role they play in young people’s lives. However, Twitter, Facebook and Google are considered less authentic by older audiences.

Top ranking authentic brands

Familiarity with a brand and its story is an important driver of authenticity and, following interviews with marketers and consumer focus groups, the researchers argue that brands need to break down the concept of authenticity into its constituent elements in order to become more effective in their communications. According to the study, the eight values comprising authenticity are the abilities to be genuine, original, unique, expert, visionary, passionate and honest, and finally integrity.

“Authenticity is a word you see so much it almost loses meaning,” says Francesca Alberry, research director at Firefish. “When you talk to people about what authenticity is they find it difficult to articulate because the word is so broad and subjective. [Brands should] start using values and words that are fixed in people’s minds in communications, rather than relying on the umbrella of ‘authenticity’, which is in some ways so subjective it becomes a bit meaningless.”

Cultural relevance

Top five brands in the measure of authenticity

Authenticity is based on being culturally relevant to the target consumer. Google, ranked fourth in authenticity in the research, is not afraid to use its branding to comment on culture and make statements, even though this often means modifying its logo, which is key to its brand.

For example, the search engine used its Google Doodle facility, whereby it changes the logo on its homepage to celebrate key dates, to make a statement protesting against Russia’s anti-gay laws at the start of the Sochi Winter Olympics.

Indy Saha, director of creative strategy at Google Creative Lab, says: “Marketing wisdom dictates that your branding should be consistent, but Google changes its logo on its main product almost every day, and is not afraid to offer its point of view on the world through this.”

Bob Cook, director of innovation at Firefish, believes authenticity depends on how the brand story is received and where it is coming from, and that brands “have to understand what the culture is – of the times or geographically – in  order to generate authenticity”.

He adds: “The meaning of your story will change depending on the culture of the times and the mindset of the audience you’re appealing to.”

The qualitative parts of the research show that authenticity is one of the ways consumers assign value and navigate choice. It strengthens emotional relationships with brands, the appreciation of them, and the degree to which customers are prepared to become ambassadors.

The study also suggests that when something is authentic, consumers value it more highly and feel better about using, buying and relying on it.

The rules of authenticity

Cook says: “Another aspect of authenticity is when it becomes something that influences a person to use, consume or talk about it because it benefits them socially.”

There is a measure of self-investment in protecting one’s belief in the authenticity of something valued. Becoming important enough to consumers to form this relationship is one of the practical steps brands can take towards being more authentic (see checklist, below).


Heinz baked beans
Top authentic brand Heinz uses data to check its innovations

The research shows the potential for a brand’s authenticity to be damaged in the innovation process. It suggests that, while brand ideals can be challenged, any extreme deviation from a familiar story can lessen the feeling of authenticity.

“We are not saying don’t evolve or change,” says Alberry. “There’s room within authenticity to be flexible but you need to take the audience with you and make sure that if a brand is innovating, it is doing so in a way that is true to itself.”

The advice to a brand seeking to move away from its current positioning is to carefully consider changes that may compromise the core of its story so that any innovation remains true to the spirit of the original.

Amy Holdsworth, UK marketing director at Tetley Tea owner Tata Global Beverages, says: “There’s always a risk, which is why I believe it’s key to have a clear innovation roadmap, but also to be flexible enough to recognise when the brand has permission to extend to new areas and ensure that entering those new areas will benefit the brand, not dilute it.”

For the brand’s recent launch of its green tea range, it was essential for Tetley to communicate its use of real fruit rather than flavourings, in keeping with its ethos.

Holdsworth adds: “Some of the ideas our development team have are brilliant, but the brand might not be ready for them, so we need
to be as brave about parking innovation as we are about progressing it.”

Land Rover, however, believes that “the risk is in not innovating and allowing the market to leave the brand in the past”, according to global brand director, Robin Colgan.

He says: “We haven’t done that, but we have managed to progress while staying true to our values. It just means we have to work a bit harder than everyone else.

“With products like the Range Rover Evoque, Land Rover created a new market segment, and the Evoque is now the fastest-selling Land Rover of all time.”

In terms of the steps brands can take to ensure their communications are authentic, Firefish’s Alberry suggests it boils down to being human.

“If you look at the values of honesty, originality and integrity, you would like to have all those things as an individual,” she says.

The research suggests that brands should make a concerted effort to emulate these human traits in order to become truly authentic, rather than just claiming it.

Marketers’ reponse

Giles Jepson

Giles Jepson, Vice-president of marketing, Europe and CMO, UK & I, Heinz

As long as you’re clear about what you stand for you can remain authentic. The Heinz brand is down-to-earth and part of the fabric of UK life.

Initiatives should build on the brand’s DNA to continue this tradition and innovations should build on core values. We test them to ensure there is a strong brand fit at least, and ideally that they build our equity.

Innovation should, by its very nature, bring new benefits, so refer to your brand positioning throughout and look at ways to build on your distinctiveness.

However, you need data to track performance; we use a community to understand how consumers feel about our brand, including innovations.

Amy Holdsworth

Amy Holdsworth, UK marketing director, Tata Global Beverages (owner of Tetley)

Since the Tetley brothers started out 175 years ago the brand has been dedicated to sourcing, blending and selling quality tea. People can’t help but recognise the brand’s commitment to that, which is reflected in its authenticity score [it ranks 18 among UK brands].

Authenticity is fundamental to us. In a category such as ours, where the relationship between drinker and cup of tea is emotive, it is essential consumers trust and love their brand.

For us, authenticity comes from everyone in the company, from sales to legal, having the same purpose. In this way, it is instinctive whether something is or isn’t true to our values. This internal ‘divining rod’ is important for when we innovate either in marketing or product terms.

Brand Authenticity Checklist

It is important to remember the power of — and desire for — a strong and consistent story that reflects identity.

Deviation from the core narrative is possible, but it is crucial that a consistent thread ties any modern iteration to the original.

There is a need to confirm and reinforce ideals consumers already have, while providing something new and unique — all without reverting to stereotype.


Firefish ran a national survey of 1,000 people investigating the perceptions of 50 brands selected from the BrandZ list of most valuable brands, benchmarking them against five values of ‘authenticity’: being original, honest, visionary and credible, and having a sense of purpose.

In addition, a qualitative study involved interviews with marketers, creatives, entrepreneurs and academics. These were split into three age groups: 18 to 24, 30 to 40 and 50-plus.

The study also involved two weeks of social media monitoring by Bakamo Social.

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