Authenticity

Believable internal branding

Marketing isn’t always brutally honest. At best, it tends to exaggerate the upside and ignore the downside. At worst, it resorts to hype, slickness and even deception. This leads many consumers to consider most marketing communications phony.    

Cynical consumers are more difficult to reach. So serious brands are cultivating authenticity as a remedy to prevent consumer skepticism and apathy. When companies adopt a marketing approach that is authentic, genuine and truthful, it helps build consumer confidence, especially when that approach aligns with a consumer’s experience. 

Measuring authenticity

Authenticity simply means real, reliable and genuine. Not phony. So how does a consumer know when a brand is making authentic claims?

Marketing researchers try to quantify authenticity to understand its effectiveness. Often, they look at two types of signals that consumers receive from a brand called “indexical” and “iconic” cues.[1]These cues are the evidence by which consumers evaluate a brand’s claims.

Indexical cues are those experiences/evidences that are real and measurable—800 thread count for a set of sheets. Indexical cues are verifiable and not subjective. They either are true or not.

Iconic cues are those that resemble the object, as in “these sheets feel like liquid silk.” These are cues marketers use to represent the actual product or experience. These claims are subjective. Yet they are verifiable through the consumer experience. Authenticity hinges on the gap between the two cues.

So soft

According to Becker, et al., it’s not the object (sheets) that create authenticity, but the messages and other signals sent by the brand. The reality is fixed. The sheets have an actual thread count, and either are or are not soft.  The expectation of “liquid silk” is created in the mind of the consumer. When the two align, authenticity is established. When the claims are exaggerated, authenticity is damaged. 

Authenticity is easy (if you’re a marketer)

Creating authenticity should be a simple task for most marketers. Simply deliver on brand promises. A shoe seller need not be perfect. They just have to sell shoes that meet or exceed the expectations they set. 

Five-dollar flip-flops won’t be inauthentic if they’ve blown out by the end of a long beach weekend. They’ve fulfilled their implied $5-shoe brand promise. 

However, a $95 pair of Allbirds, which claim to be the “Worlds most comfortable shoe,” sustainable, and 100% washable because they’re made from wool, has a much higher bar than the flip-flop. Allbirds had better feel great and come through the wash like a champ. If they don’t deliver, they lose authenticity.

Work and play

Compared to internal communicators, marketers have it easy because the consumer’s exposure is limited to the brand and its products. 

When I buy shoes, I neither know nor care if the person packing my box is a miserable crank, the break room smells like reheated cabbage soup, or the corporate culture is toxic or chaotic. All of that is invisible to me as a consumer. I have no direct experience with the internal workings of the organization. So my sense of a brand’s authenticity is easier to build and maintain.

Unfortunately, things are not so easy in employee communications.  

Workplace challenges to authenticity

“A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown.”

This phrase is shorthand for the phenomena where one’s talents are not appreciated by those closest to them. This lack of respect can come from many places. 

Sometimes we have relationships to persons/situations that are removed from what makes them special. Tom Brady’s kids don’t care about his Super Bowl rings, they just want him to sit down and watch Frozen again.  

Sometimes, we’re close enough to see the real situation or person, warts and all. Close proximity often causes situations and people to lose their luster.  As essayist William Hazlet put it, “Familiarity may not breed contempt, but it takes the edge off admiration.”

Remember, employees experience the organization as it actually is, not as we depict it to be. Employees spend eight or more hours a day living and working inside indexical cues. This hardens them to iconic cues that don’t line up with their experience.

Employees know the true score; who’s the office crank, how the break room smells and how well the organization treats them. They also have memories built on internal brand promises made in the past. All of that informs credibility whenever you craft a message or campaign.

That isn’t to say that employees won’t buy into aspirational and motivational communication. They certainly will. Employees want and need forward-thinking leadership to stay hopeful, happy and engaged. But, they won’t believe messages that ignore today’s reality. Own the reality to make your messages authentic. 

Authenticity is critical to long-term success and healthy corporate cultures. Shading the truth and over-promising leads to cynicism and disengagement. A firm foundation of truth and reality builds employee trust and increases leaders’ ability to engage and challenge them. 


[1]Becker, M., Weigand, N. and Reineartz, W. (2019). Does It Pay to Be Real? Understanding Authenticity in TV Advertising.

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