Taking a closer look at marketing’s favorite buzzword
“Disruption”. “Zeitgeist”. “Thumb-Stopping”. We all have buzzwords that we wish we could tune out. Mine is “authentic” - a word that I’ve described as the corporate equivalent of “moist”. Yet it’s a difficult one to avoid. It seems that every organization, publication, and thought leader can’t get enough of the adjective. Businesses and brands are regularly tasked with the impossible mission of looking, sounding, or just being authentic. And with the new year comes new projects and briefs to chase this intangible goal. Here’s the problem: brands are corporate entities, not people, and have no business trying to be authentic. In fact, most attempts to crack the elusive code of authenticity and “be relatable” often hurt more than help (see: the endless stream of cringey TikToks from tone-deaf brands).
I know what you’re thinking. “But look at the legacy of the Dove Real Beauty campaign! The rise of BeReal! Whatever DuoLingo is doing on TikTok!” There is a method to the madness, but it requires a closer look at larger trends.
Chasing an “authentic” human face
Ever notice how the term “sellout” doesn’t get thrown around the same way it used to? That’s because the term has shifted from a pejorative to an ideal: 86% of young Americans want to be influencers, a role that comes not only with clout and followers but brand deals and sponsorships. Being chosen as a guest at a corporate event or becoming a brand ambassador has become the ultimate status symbol. Practically, the choice makes sense for both parties. Influencers can monetize their content, while brands gain a human face, an attentive audience, and relatable examples of how their products can be used.
Aside from speaking through influencers, many brands now use their community managers and other employees as human faces for consumers to connect to. A scroll through TikTok shows many branded accounts not speaking about their products or participating in trends, but bemoaning restraints from their legal teams or their constant need to post content. Again, these are people who act as stand-ins for a business. But what if businesses were simply transparent about what they were? In an age where every brand is trying to appear authentic by using internet speak and filming their mascots doing dances, the most radical thing might be to honestly share what your brand stands for or is up to on a day-to-day basis.
It’s okay to not be authentic
If you’re reading this, I assume you’re one of Beyoncé’s 278 million Instagram followers, but just in case I can briefly describe her profile. Her grid is populated with stylized glamor shots, usually featuring only herself in designer outfits on sets, in mansions, and on yachts. Her photos rarely have captions and she follows no one. This behavior is a far cry from the mundane “authentic” mirror selfies and pleasant vacation photos posted by our friends. Yet it makes complete sense because Beyoncé is a multimillionaire and the most awarded singer in Grammy history.
Just as Beyoncé’s over-the-top social posts fit with her personal brand and lifestyle, so too can brands craft a presence that tells a story about who they truly are, all while being honest, distinct, and engaging.
Instead of “being authentic”, why not try…
Give people a look behind the curtain about how things work or the decisions your team is making. Better yet, give them a say in the decision-making process.
Answer questions or clean up confusion around your products, or teach your audience something genuinely useful to their day-to-day lives.
Understand the tensions in your audience’s lives and how you can solve them. Keep a pulse on what’s relevant and valuable to them.