In the span of a few short years, social media platforms have all but deconstructed the seemingly impenetrable wall that once stood between consumers and their favorite brands. Today, a company’s (in)ability to “be real” for its consumers can either launch it to success or doom it to failure. It’s no longer enough to have a good product and decent customer service. Instead, brands have become almost like pseudo-celebrities -- they need to be liked, trusted, and, above all else, deemed “authentic” by their consumers.
But what does “being authentic” mean, exactly? The term is as nebulous as it is essential to modern businesses. An “authentic” brand orients itself as a defined character; it sells ideals and values alongside its goods and services. As one writer for the Harvard Business Review puts the matter, “a brand's authenticity is judged by the consumer's perception that a brand is driven by the need to be caring and responsible, its need to be loyal to itself and its customers, and its intention to support consumers ‘in being true to themselves.’”
In other words, an authentic brand needs to have a moral, trustworthy character that customers can align themselves with and support. The “persona” that a business takes must be at all times accountable, charismatic, consistent, and transparent -- and expressed at every possible customer touchpoint, from in-store interactions to public speeches to social media comments.
When companies achieve authenticity, they have it all -- customer support, popularity, trust, good reviews. Business researchers Chris Malone and Susan T. Fiske examined this trend in their 2013 book, The Human Brand. Interestingly, they found that customers tend to overlook business incompetence if they perceive the brand as being warm and welcoming. However, the same doesn’t hold for the converse; if a brand is competent but cold, consumers usually only visit when necessary.
Malone and Fiske’s findings highlight the importance of authenticity in business. While a company would ideally be both competent and likable, it is telling that a brand that expresses a positive, “real” character during its customer service interactions can overcome minor flaws in their product or service delivery. Other statistics uphold this; according to data compiled by Nextiva, Americans will pay 17 percent more to engage with businesses that have established reputations for excellent customer service. Millennials, in particular, value customer service -- unlike previous generations, Millennials tend to tell more people when they have a good experience, as opposed to a bad one.
With all this in mind, it becomes clear that the appearance of authenticity can provide an invaluable boost to a business’s bottom line. Losing the label, however, can be catastrophic.
Consider Facebook as an example. The social media giant has undergone a firestorm of criticism over the last several years, gaining notoriety for its (mis)use of user data and personal information, as well as its role in spreading fake news. In 2018, Facebook’s esteem in the public eye took a critical hit when the New York Times ran an expose about how the company had “allowed Microsoft’s Bing search engine to see the names of virtually all Facebook users’ friends without consent, the records show, and gave Netflix and Spotify the ability to read Facebook users’ private messages.”
The news was one more breach on a series of trust-breaking offenses -- some of which had already spurred the development of the #DeleteFacebook movement. The damage to the company’s perceived authenticity was so severe that later in the year, Facebook launched an apology campaign that, notably, positioned the company as a victim of its blunders and stressed the company’s intentions to return to its “real” roots.
“We had to deal with spam, clickbait, fake news, and data misuse,” the video’s earnest voiceover says. “That’s going to change. From now on, we’re going to do more to keep you safe and protect your privacy -- so we can all get back to what made Facebook good in the first place: Friends. Because when this does what it was built for, we all get a little closer.”
The video stresses the company’s wish to return to a place of authenticity and reforge trust with its consumers. It remains to be seen whether such a tactic will work -- however, Facebook’s struggles do show that it is easier to maintain the appearance of “real” character than rebuild it after a loss.
It isn’t easy to create an authentic “character” for a company’s brand -- but it is possible.
For one thing, prioritize transparency. In our digital-forward era, it’s all but impossible to hide morally-questionable behavior from the public. Businesses should establish their values early and live by them.
It may even be financially beneficial for brands to affiliate themselves with a social cause or purpose that their consumer base believes in. According to statistics published by Inc, over 80 percent of consumers would choose a company based on its philanthropy, given equal quality and prices. Maintaining a high moral standard in business and community service will help companies to establish themselves as brands that consumers want to align themselves with.
If a brand wants to establish a likable and authentic character in our social-media-driven era, it also needs to foster positive customer engagement opportunities online. Trust is earned, not given; if consumers can’t connect with a brand to air their concerns, they may feel that the image a company puts forth is fake or inauthentic.
One recent survey conducted by Microsoft found that 77 percent of customers view brands more favorably if they proactively encourage and accept consumer feedback. Doing so on social media will likely be particularly important in the future, given that nearly three-quarters of Millennials report that their opinion of a company improves when it makes an effort to respond to consumer concerns on social media.
Today’s brands do not have the luxury of ignoring criticism or locking themselves behind a PR wall. They must put themselves into the public eye and establish themselves as being transparent, consistent, and authentic in every customer engagement -- otherwise, they may never convince consumers that their brand’s character is “authentic” enough to meet modern expectations.