Stop Dishing Out the Phoniness, Marketers

Standard of Authenticity: Five Key Elements That Can Help You Understand How to Represent Your Identity in the Marketplace

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Amid all the other issues advertising faces, there's a fundamental problem that has received too little attention: marketers' phoniness. Marketers and their complicit agencies can't help but exaggerate the fineness of every commodity, the greatness of every good, the superiority of every service and the memorability of every experience. Such phoniness has to stop.
Brand names: Meaningful names connote authenticity. Tops on the list are companies named after their founders, such as Ford Motor Co., DuPont and Levi Strauss & Co. These names refer back to the companies' origins, associating them with the real people who brought them into being.
Brand names: Meaningful names connote authenticity. Tops on the list are companies named after their founders, such as Ford Motor Co., DuPont and Levi Strauss & Co. These names refer back to the companies' origins, associating them with the real people who brought them into being.

In today's Experience Economy -- where people increasingly bypass commoditized goods and services to spend time with companies that stage engaging experiences -- authenticity is becoming the new consumer sensibility. Consumers purchase offerings based on how well those purchases conform to their self-image. People want real offerings from genuinely transparent sources.

To be perceived as real, therefore, every company should seek to understand its own identity, the defining characteristics that set it apart from every other company.

But there is a second standard of authenticity, one directly under the purview of chief marketing officers everywhere and one at which so many fail because of their advertising campaigns: What you say about your business and its offerings must match the reality people encounter.

There's an old saw in advertising circles: Nothing makes a bad product fail faster than good advertising. There should be a new one in branding circles: Nothing makes a real branding effort fail faster than a phony product. Phoniness results from representations that are detached from a company's actual identity.

For this standard of authenticity, there are five key elements that, though not exhaustive, can help you understand how to represent your identity in the marketplace.


Many meaningful names readily connote authenticity. Tops on the list are companies named after their founders, such as Sears, Roebuck and Co., Ford Motor Co., Kellogg Co., Harley-Davidson, and Levi Strauss & Co. Such appellations refer back to the companies' origins, associating them with the real people who brought them into being.

People also tend to perceive companies as authentic when their names place them in particular, well, places. Place-based names may come from regions, such as Land O'Lakes and Williams-Sonoma (which is a twofer, combining the name of founder Chuck Williams with Californian foodies' favorite valley); cities, such as Boise Cascade and Smithfield Foods; or even particular locales within cities, such as Saks Fifth Avenue (New York), State Street Corp. (Boston) and the Savile Row Co. (London).

Names also help render authenticity when they refer back to times when life was simpler, slower-paced and seemingly more authentic. Many firms, for example, have "Main Street" in their names for this reason. Others employ words that evoke previous economic eras, including "craft" (suggesting agrarian hands) or "works" (suggesting industrial labor), as if every offering were handmade by a skilled craftsman in a workshop or small factory.

Remember: Any designation -- for your company, your brands, your offerings, employee titles, places, props, promotions -- provides an opportunity to render whatever it describes more authentic.


Most companies express themselves via advertising. What you say in your ads still goes a long way toward influencing opinions about your authenticity or lack thereof. A prime example: Dove's "Campaign for Real Beauty," featuring full-bodied women under taglines such as "Real women have real curves" has challenged stereotypes about beauty (for example, that only the thin, the blond or the young are beautiful).

Websites have become effectively mandatory as a way for businesses of all sizes to express what they are, often explicitly; a Google search yields more than 350,000 websites with all three of the exact phrases "who we are," "what we do" and "how we do it."

What statements are you making about your company, your offerings, your customers, your employees and your suppliers? How is your choice of media enhancing or detracting from the perceived authenticity of those statements? Recognize that any message running counter to what's actually experienced by customers will tend to brand you as inauthentic.


The growing number of companies identifying with their locales shows the importance of place to authenticity, as we saw with assigned names. An emphasis on roots, with the sense of being extended into the earth in a particular place, lies at the core of place-based companies. Hence the rise of farmers markets, of restaurants serving locally grown produce and grocery stores selling it, of the French word terroir being applied to more than just wine -- and the decline of so many chains, in terms of perceived authenticity if not also in operations. It's easier for a small local company to accentuate its locale than for a large national or multinational one. Big companies all too often seem to be from nowhere, while chains become perceived as the same everywhere.
Out now: 'Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want,' Harvard Business School Press.
Out now: 'Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want,' Harvard Business School Press.

To avoid that fate, turn generic space into specific place. Hence the rise of "lifestyle centers," such as Country Club Plaza in Kansas City, Mo. (the original); Crocker Park and Legacy Village outside of Cleveland; Mayfaire Town Center in Wilmington, N.C.; CityPlace in West Palm Beach, Fla.; and the Grove in Los Angeles. Such places are open-air, and leisurely walking becomes a significant part of the experience. The Grove, for example, appears to rise organically from the adjacent 1930s-era farmers market. Developed by Rick J. Caruso, founder-CEO of Caruso Affiliated, the venue encompasses a trolley barn at one end; the commissioned statue "The Spirit of Los Angeles" near the other; and a wide pedestrian boulevard with antique lights, trees, benches and distinctive storefronts between. The Grove mixes in local businesses -- such as Bodega Chocolates, Surf City Squeeze and the Amadeus Spa -- with unique but multistore companies such as Anthropologie, Quicksilver Boardriders Club and L'Occitane, plus a few other chain stores, including the Gap, Barnes & Noble, and Crate and Barrel. The national outfits change their retail designs to fit in with the unique locale.


One form of declared motivation is a direct consequence of executives struggling with the company self and what to say about it; they aim primarily to enlighten and inspire employees and only secondarily (or often not at all) to inform or influence outsiders. These are formal statements -- credos, manifestos, declarations and other such proclamations -- that document a company's purpose, set forth its ideals and provide employees with incentives to live up to those ideals.

One of the oldest is the famous Johnson & Johnson credo, written on one page by its longtime leader, Gen. Robert Wood Johnson, in 1943. It has served J&J admirably over the past 60-plus years, most notably during the Tylenol scares of 1982 and 1986. Luxury hotelier Ritz-Carlton also has a credo consisting of only three easily memorized sentences, beginning with the company's purpose: "The Ritz-Carlton Hotel is a place where the genuine care and comfort of our guests is our highest mission." Hotel managers take employees through the credo or the basic principles derived from it every day.

What do you declare about why you are in business internally and externally? What are the ideals you uphold in public and the incentives you furnish to ensure everyone is held accountable to those ideals?


Don't slap "real" or "authentic" all over packaging; rather, render such representations to be perceived as authentic. Kraft Foods' Post cereal unit recently changed the packaging of Post Selects Blueberry Morning, for example, to eliminate all such references, instead saying, "Inspired by the taste of home-baked blueberry-almond muffins," with images of such muffins next to a bowl of cereal. By no longer screaming "real," Kraft has rendered it more so.

Because authenticity is personally determined, this perception will come (or not) more from your displayed appearances than from any other element. People may not think much about your names, they may ignore your statements, they may disregard your places and they may not even consider your motivations -- but they will take in your representations and hold you accountable for their perceptions of them.

That accountability now lies at the heart of every CMO's job. If you desire to be perceived as authentic, do everything in your power for your company, its brands and its offerings to be true to what you say they are.

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Adapted from "Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want."
Jame H. Gilmore (l.) and B. Joseph Pine II are co-founders of Strategic Horizons, an Aurora, Ohio-based thinking studio dedicated to helping companies conceive and design new ways of adding value to their economic offerings. They are co-authors of 'Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want.'
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