What the Heck is an Authentic Brand, Anyway?

I should know this. I’m a brand specialist.

But again and again, I find myself throwing authentic brand around in conversation, enjoying the feeling of gravitas it lends, without actually understanding what the heck it really means.

Go ahead, smart guy, you tell me. See?

A term like authentic brand comes along every once in a while, and grabs all of us tired brand stewards by the collar with its promise of revitalization and redemption.

We jump aboard, vowing to build greater authenticity (or synergy, or innovation, or whatever the mot du jour is) into our brand. Inevitably, our enthusiasm wanes and we get back to worrying about pressing things like channel strategy and website bounce rate.

I put this down to the fuzziness of the term. Fuzzy terms may impress for a while, but then they sound dated and over.

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I didn’t want authenticity to suffer this fate. So I decided to go back to basics: what defines authenticity in life? Perhaps by understanding this, we can begin to apply these principles to brands.

Happily, that subtle shift cleared the air. When I pondered about how I’d like to live, I had no trouble hammering out seven principles that would leave me smiling, content, and feeling, well, more authentic.

Here they are. I hope they help you, your brand, and your cocktail conversation.

Understand who you are, and why you’re here

Why the heck was your brand born in the first place? Somewhere back in the fog of history, somebody must’ve felt a burning need for something. Your brand was invented to scratch that itch.

I’m always surprised by how many brand stewards don’t know this stuff – especially if the brand predates their tenure with the company.

Brands are never born just because. Dig into your roots, and you’ll probably find a rich history of people driven to bring your brand to life, and people whose lives were enriched because of your brand.

Brands are never born just because.

I’m certain it will make you stand a bit straighter, help you make brand decisions with a bit more conviction, and feel you have a purpose. Purpose is a good thing. It beats shiftless meandering hands down.

Know what you value – beyond money

If you can’t think of a reason to exist beyond getting rich, you’re just sad.

The problem is, when people describe what they (or their brand) value, they inevitably come up with a list so pathetic, they may as well just put down ‘we love money’.

You’ve seen the list:

1. We value people
2. We’re passionate about service
3. We push for excellence!

The problem is, if you asked someone to put together a list of what they really value, they’d have a hard time squaring it with the brand they represent.

1. I love my family
2. I want to help my kids, my wife, and my friends
3. I want to die knowing I at least tried to make a difference

But let’s turn the tables. Let’s say you read an annual report, and discovered the people behind your favourite deodorant / mop / air freshener did everything they could to help their employees maintain a great family life? What if they played an active role in their community – beyond the ‘Hey let’s volunteer one day a year!’ PR stunt.

What would you think of that company? Good guys, eh? Sort of guys you want to support.

Maintain your humility and vulnerability

I saw an absolutely awesomely dumbass window display a while back. It read ‘On the Eighth Day, Chip invented Lululemon.’
I love Lulu. But mannnnnn, if you want to invite the wrath of God, put that kind of arrogance in your window.

In brands, as in life, I think it really pays to listen to others’ stories, rather than talk about yourself. The less I talk, the smarter people think I am.

In brands, as in life, it pays to listen to others’ stories, not talk about yourself.

And when I do talk, I like to talk about unfinished ideas. Get feedback. Put stuff out there that may seem hare-brained, but could be better if others just help me with their genius insights. People like genuine invitations to help and brainstorm. No arrogance. Just enthusiasm for making things better.

Vulnerability is disarming. Humility is in short supply. Make them your differentiator.

Have an open mind, never stop learning

I’m a big Bowie fan. Yes, I love his music, and the way he keeps pushing beyond his comfort zone and challenging fans. But there’s more. From what I understand, Bowie has never lost his enthusiasm for digging into the cool stuff other people are doing. He’s shamelessly curious and wide-eyed.

If you put this in a brand context, don’t you love brands that aren’t afraid of trying new stuff? Think of the flak Apple took when they jumped beyond computers into readers, and music. No, of course you don’t. All we remember is their wild success and the richness that exploring new territory lent their brand.

Don’t you love brands that aren’t afraid of trying new stuff?

A note of caution here. Leaning and trying new things is wonderful. But be prepared to fail. Not every new thing will fit with your brand personality. The point is, it’s better to put a clanker out every once in a while. Much better than being too afraid to try.


If you show up 364 days a year in khakis and a Brooks Brothers shirt, then show up on the 365th day in rubber fetish wear, people will think the cheese slipped off your cracker.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s wonderful to have an open mind and try new things. But it’s spooky to behave one way, then radically shift your behaviour. Schizophrenic, I believe they call it.

How does this apply to your brand?

I was doing a workshop with a group of execs a while back. We were on the topic of company values. One exec spoke up “You want to see a company’s values – check the staff toilet!”

It’s true. If a brand is all love and happiness when they talk to consumers, but treats their employees like dirt, that’s schizo. So check your staff toilet – does it reflect the same values as your show window?

You want to see a company’s values – check the staff toilet!

I bet Kathie Lee Gifford wishes her endorsement team had thought of this before they had her shill sweatshop goods.

Open the kimono

Transparency is probably the second most overused term in current brand lingo – right behind authentic.

But jeez, it’s hard to tell the world everything about everything you do. I mean, nobody’s perfect and do we really have to tell folks how we had to lay off all those people because we got our projections wrong?

Transparency is hard. But people value it immensely. It shows vulnerability, imperfection, and all those traits that will enable humans to beat the cyborgs in the Singularity Wars.

Try it. You’ll find the more you do it, the more you’re rewarded. And the more people share right back.

Trust your intuition

I hate politicians. Everybody hates politicians.

We all hate politicians because they’re on point, scripted by pollsters, and absolutely devoid of spontaneity.

Chances are, your brand wasn’t created by pollsters. It was created by real people with a credit card and a napkin pitch. People who trusted in their intuition.

Chances are, your brand wasn’t created by pollsters.

The problem is, this spontaneity gets drummed out of brands the more successful they become. Preserving brand equity becomes Job One. That means taking as few risks as possible. Helllooo, Kodak.

Did that help?

I hope so. But I’m certain I gave short shrift to some points, or forgot others completely.

If so, let me know. Heck, I’m only human.


This story first appeared on Linkedin June 25th, 2015.

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