We all know a phony when we see one: someone who is talking himself up, showing off, trying hard to be something she’s not. It’s an immediate turnoff. Humans crave honesty, and we gravitate toward people who are authentic.
In much the same way, people flock to businesses that are authentic—companies that clearly communicate what they stand for and stay true to those values. Consumers want to do more than buy a logo in a one-off transaction; they want to build relationships by connecting with brands they admire in a meaningful way.
In fact, a whopping 80 percent of consumers say it’s important that a brand be real, authentic—and 77 percent say they are more likely to spend money such a business than one they don’t, according to a 2021 survey of nearly 10,000 consumers. Specifically, respondents considered brands authentic if they were moral, brutally honest, transparent, rooted in their values, consistent, and if they were an expression of who the consumers were—or wanted to be.
Faking It is Not Making It
Clearly, in today’s business world, faking it won’t cut it. So how can a business demonstrate authenticity? Here are five strategies.
1. Use storytelling—and don’t skip the scary parts.
Just as we get to know other people through the intimate stories, we also get to know a business through the stories it shares about its journey. We don’t care for tall tales that are embellished or scrubbed of every dirty detail, either.
So don’t tell an overly polished story. Allow some cracks to show, reveal problems the company has encountered—and demonstrate how the business has persevered despite those challenges. People will relate because they have encountered bumps in the road, too.
For example, the Tito’s Handmade Vodka website tells the story of founder Tito Beveridge, who couldn’t convince investors to finance his product, so he put $88,000 on credit cards and built a one-man distillery in a cluttered “one-room shack.” Far from experiencing overnight success, the website confesses, “it took the company more than eight years to really find its legs.”
A story that feels genuine is bound to capture more interest than a squeaky-clean one.
2. Connect with your audience on a personal level.
Years ago, Dove soap set out to change the collective conversation about what it means to be beautiful. The company’s ads—an honest portrayal of people of all sizes confidently revealing wrinkles and other flaws—connected with the public in a way no airbrushed photo of perfectly smooth skin on a size-zero model ever could.
“Beauty is not defined by shape, size, or color—it’s feeling like the best version of yourself,” Dove’s website says. “Authentic. Unique. Real.”
Dove connected with its audience on a deeply personal level by assuaging people’s insecurities about their appearance and helping them feel accepted just as they are. In building confidence in others, the brand assumed the same posture of authenticity that it encouraged its customers to embrace in themselves.
3. Find ways to meet people’s needs.
Businesses can build authenticity by figuring out what their customers need and fulfilling those wishes.
Warby Parker recognized that people’s lives are hectic and found a way to ease the load by saving them time, effort, and stress. The company lets customers pick out five eyeglass frames that it mails for free, allows five days to try on the glasses, and take their time figuring out which ones they like. Once they decide, they can order glasses online and ship back the test frames at no cost.
The company uses direct mail not only to save people the burden of shopping in-store, but to spare them the pain of making the big decision about which eyeglass pair they prefer on the spot. By mailing the products, the company not only saves people time, it takes the pressure off, giving customers the space to weigh their purchases, all in the comfort of their own homes.
4. Give back.
Businesses can boost their authenticity by developing clear corporate social-responsibility goals aimed at giving back to society in some way, be that donating a portion of their profits to charitable causes, championing human rights, or reducing their environmental impact.
At a time when people are tossing their own plastic water bottles and cardboard boxes in recycle bins at home, consumers have come to expect that companies will also do their part to minimize their carbon footprint.
Patagonia has stayed true to its mission to be environmentally responsible and is transparent about its production and supply-chain processes, noting on its site that 94 percent of its clothing line uses recycled materials. In 2011, the company put out a Black Friday ad that read, “Don’t buy this jacket,” a move that showed the company wasn’t all about sales, but was also invested in making the world a better place.
5. Fess up when you stumble—and take steps to fix the problem.
People aren’t perfect, and companies aren’t either. If a business makes a mistake, whether it’s a high-profile blunder or a minor faux pas, it can regain authenticity by admitting the mistake and working to prevent it from reoccurring.
When a Starbucks manager called police on two black men who were waiting for a business meeting at a store in Philadelphia in 2018, Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson not only apologized, but he took action, briefly closing all Starbucks stores to provide training to employees on racial bias and inclusion.
Business leaders need to not only clearly communicate what the business stands for, but they must follow through by walking the walk, even when the going is difficult. Doing so breathes authenticity into the brand, demonstrating it remains true to its values. And that builds trust with consumers, making them feel proud to do business with such a company. And that’s what keeping it real is all about.
Dina Gerdeman is a writer and editor based in the Boston area.