Wednesday, 13 April 2011

So you want your brand to be authentic? Here’s how

The West Midlands has a rich history of authentic brands. Think for example of AGA, Pashley Cycles, Land Rover and Jaguar. Michael Beverland, Professor of Marketing at University of Bath, is an expert on the subject of brands. Here he provides Interiors & Lifestyle Futures companies with a brief exploration of the topic, including his seven steps to an authentic brand.

Why should brands be authentic?
The desire for the real, true and genuine (or authenticity) is a reoccurring theme in human social history. Individuals and groups seek to project their identity through various rituals, objects and practices. Historically, in Western societies, identity was found in notions of place, class, status, religion, and other social institutions (such as community groups, sports teams and so on). Although these institutions still matter, globalisation, immigration, and increased fragmentation have seen a decline in their role as shared identity markers (in fact many of these traditions more often than not alienate people).

In contrast, brands are both ubiquitous and open to all. As a result, consumers have begun to use brands as marketers of their desired identity. For example, I desire to be seen as creative. As a result, I adopt certain brands (such as Apple, Wacom, Chuck Taylor and Moleskine) to reflect this desired identity. Such a process is called self-authentication—or an activity that reveals the desired self. Since most people understand how these brands are positioned, my identity is reinforced socially through their use (sadly I am not in the least bit creative, so my desired identity is never achieved).

For marketers, this has many benefits. Leaving aside the obvious (such as ease of product placement and loyalty), research reveals that authentic brands attract and retain a higher proportion of high income consumers, enjoy high levels of word of mouth support, and are more likely to be purchased than brands positioned solely on functional performance. That is, authentic brands earn higher margins at less cost than their competitors.

How can brands be authentic?
Authenticity is hard to fake - in fact it is hard to create since ultimately consumers decide whether a brand is authentic or not. But, there has always been tension between the commerce and authenticity. The very self-interest inherent in commerce undermines the purity associated with authenticity. Artists or designers that overtly adopt commercial motives or practices often lose authenticity and eventually sales as they are viewed as selling out (Iggy Pop and Insurance anyone?). Despite these claims, many of the greatest artists in history have gained enduring commercial success, while the claims of authenticity made by European winemakers and other bearers of tradition often mask the reality of a very industrialised, commercially-driven operation. Brands it appears can be authentic, but to do so, they need to underplay their commercial motivations and marketing prowess.

Here are seven ways in which brands can achieve authenticity and endurance:

1. Tell Stories
Stories unite people because they seem true and brand-related stories are useful for connecting like-minded people.

2. Appear as Artisanal Amateurs
Take great pride in your work, but be humble about your skills when talking to consumers.

3. Stick to your roots
Authentic brands never ignore their past; instead they understand that their past is the one thing no one can copy.

4. Love the doing
If your staff love doing what they do, consumers will respond in kind, precisely because they themselves ultimately desire to follow their dreams.

5. Immerse yourself in your market
Firms can swear (hand on heart) that their products are derived from inspiration or feeling—a powerful marker of authenticity in an age when even so-called conviction politicians focus-group their ideas.

6. Contribute to something greater
The brand has been part of history in the making, and retains a powerful aura of authenticity.

7. Encourage cult-like devotion in staff
Behind every great brand lie great employees. Authentic brands go further than most by drawing a connection between the brand and real, everyday people. The lesson here is simple—in an age of mass production, putting a real face and story to your product provides a human connection to the brand.

Michael Beverland and his book 'Building Brand Authenticity'

To conclude
The key lesson from this article is that while your consumers ultimately give authenticity to you, brand managers also play a central part in creating authenticity. To do so, they must rethink many of their learned practices and habits, including the belief they know best, they are in control of the brand’s story, and staying on message is central to brand success. Instead, authenticity comes from being open to the new, focusing on substance and style, solving accepted trade-offs and immersing yourself in your consumers’ world. Consumers use brands to find meaning in their lives—are you prepared to keep it real?

Interiors & Lifestyle Futures exists to help West Midlands companies develop their business, including their brand. Please keep an eye on our events calendar at ILFutures for announcements of our next branding workshop or for details of how we help businesses grow through our other workshops, action groups and events.

For more about enhancing your brand’s authenticity, you can also check out Michael’s Building Brand Authenticity: 7 Habits of Iconic Brands at Amazon.