“Authenticity” has been a marketing buzzword since the late ’80s, yet like a pesky bee, it won’t buzz off. From TV host Katie Couric and Pope Benedict XVI to politicians Hillary Rodham Clinton and Michele Bachmann, everyone with a message seems to lay claim to authenticity.
So why has the quest for transparency become the new normal?
“You can blame our increasingly fake and intentionally staged world,” said James H. Gilmore, a marketing trends forecaster and co-author of “Authenticity,” in an interview with CMO.com. “Authenticity has become the dominant lens through which consumers decide to buy something, just as quality and price were previously.”
Credit these six reasons why candor in marketing not only won’t go away, but is more important than ever.
1. Marketers Have Lost Control
Ads used to be one-way messages directed at consumers, who replied with their wallets. Then the Internet arrived 20 years ago, transforming marketing into a back-and-forth conversation. Today, people have the power. A click, hashtag, and a few words or photos are all shoppers need to express their thoughts and experiences via social media, YouTube, Web sites, chat rooms, blogs, email, and anywhere else.
“Everyone has a smartphone and can shoot a video or a picture of whatever experience they’re having–and those messages can spread like wildfire,” said Andy Gamm, brand director at Dallas chain Pizza Patrón, in an interview with CMO.com. “This forces companies to be more transparent and truthful.”
2. A Tell-All Society Creates A Believe-Little Audience
Our faith was shaken to the core starting in the ’70s by scandals from church (Catholic) to state (Watergate), said Ted Wright, CEO of word-of-mouth marketing agency Fizz. “Since then, we’ve had many examples of institutions big and small that say one thing, even advertise it. But we find out it’s false–and we lose trust,” he told CMO.com.
Shocking revelations from Big Oil to Big Pharma further eroded our naïveté, and now that bogus claims can be torched with a single elevator video or 140 characters, consumers have become even more savvy and cynical.
They’ve even lost faith in shilling celebs such as Sofia Vergara and Jennifer Lopez, who rarely are seen in the attire they endorse (and lend their names to) for huge retailers. Web sites from TMZ to Jezebel reveal even “reality” TV stars from the Kardashians or the Real Housewives retouch, re-enact, or create new moments for the camera.
And as more viewers bypass ads via mute buttons and DVRs, a brand no longer is what marketers tell consumers it is, but what consumers tell each other it is, added Wright, who is also author of “Fizz: Harness the Power of Word of Mouth Marketing.”
“We’ve moved from the theater of broadcast to the coffee shop of conversation,” he said. “Authenticity churns the commercial engine in North America today, and has become the holy grail of marketing.”
3. Consumers Trust Those They Know Most
Word-of-mouth has become the most lucrative currency of influence. Indeed, 84 percent trust and take action based on recommendations from friends and family, according to a 2013 Nielsen Global survey of 29,000 people. Consumer opinions posted online are the second most trusted (68 percent) and acted on (70 percent). Just over two-thirds of respondents said they take action “at least some of the time” based on TV ads (68 percent) and branded Web sites (67 percent).
Trust and action dropped for newspaper ads and signed-up-for email (both 65 percent), followed by newspaper editorial content (64 percent) and magazine ads (62 percent). Least trusted of all are online video ads (48 percent), online banners (42 percent), and mobile texts (37 percent).
“Stuff gets sold in America because one person recommends it to another,” said Wright, who witnessed the power of word-of-mouth while a student at the University of Chicago School of Business. “I was sitting in the dark computer lab using Netscape and swearing at it. The guy next to me said, ‘You should use Google.’ By the end of the day, everyone in the lab had switched to Google, which lit the room white. TIVO got adopted the same way.”
Those same search engines reveal many channels that can speed and spread word-of-mouth chatter, said Matthew Sawyer, a strategic market developer and managing partner of Rocket Market Development. “It’s not a new process, but it has been accelerated,” he told CMO.com.
The goal is to have your brand among the 56 that consumers tout weekly to friends and family: Those referred by loyal customers have a 37 percent higher retention rate, Deloitte Consulting reported.
With chaos from so many competing channels, marketers get attention and create customer-to-customer chatter about products by making “a seemingly complex world more understandable,” said Jeff Pundyk, The Economist Group’s VP, content marketing and strategy, and CMO.com’s Digital Disruption blogger.
“It’s a lot like dinner conversation,” he told CMO.com. “If all someone talks about is himself, you tune out. But if he’s interested in you and maybe offers guidance, you’re more open to what he has to say. You must build your relationship and trust before you can sell–and you do that via addressing their challenges.”
4. The Ugly Truth Is Ugly Doesn’t Work
Banana Republic touts its latest “authentic” campaign featuring “real-life couples,” but they all are slender models, actors, and songwriters.
“The truth is we only want ‘real people’ up to a point,” said Patti Pao, founder and CEO of Restorsea, an exclusive skin-care line marketed mainly by word-of-mouth. “I spent millions of dollars on clinical testing, and when I posted before-and-after photos, people objected to looking at women they considered ‘ugly.’”
Complaints ceased after she populated her Web site with attractive friends who were product fans. “You don’t have to be drop-dead gorgeous, but people want to see pretty people,” Pao told CMO.com.
Still, the standard of beauty is diversifying, as proved by “Dove’s Real Beauty campaign,” she said. “It’s a delicate dance of being as honest as you can be but in a way consumers will accept,” she said.
5. Acknowledge Your Errors
Companies no longer can hope mishaps–big or small–will fade away if ignored. Worse, denials fall apart, as when passengers trapped overnight on a plane convey the truth via Twitter and Instagram hashtagging the airline.
Inaction alone can tarnish a company’s rep. After Canada’s Sons of Maxwell musician Dave Carroll watched baggage handlers for United Airlines crush his custom guitar on the tarmac at Chicago O’Hare in spring 2008, he battled the airline for a year without success.
When it finally refused to reimburse him for his guitar, the Canadian wrote “United Breaks Guitars” and posted a video of the song on YouTube. Days–and 50,000 views–later, United changed its tune, offering compensation.
The song has endured as a symbol not only of dissatisfied customers everywhere, but also their power in a social-media adept world. The original song now has 14.2 million views, a follow-up has 1.8 million, and a third, 718,000.
So the quicker you rip off the bandage by trying to apologize and rectify mistakes, the more successful you’ll be, said Jean McLaren, EVP and CMO of MARC USA, a top 10 independent full-service communications agency.
“Truth is so hard to find that when a company makes a mistake, owns up to it, and takes full responsibility, they may come out stronger than before,” she told CMO.com. “It burnishes their reputation because people are so shocked when institutions correct their actions.”
Most impressive is when your customers defend you, Pizza Patrón’s Gamm said. “Occasionally, we’ve had people say online they’re offended by something we’ve done–and our customers will chime in, ‘What’s the big deal? Chill out, have fun.’”
6. Know Who You Are And Stick To It
As Polonius said in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” “This above all: to thine ownself be true/ And it must follow, as the night the day/Thou canst not then be false to any man.”
That’s the secret to authenticity, McLaren said. “Be clear who you are, make a promise and don’t break it,” she said, pointing to Jell-o, which, despite being mostly sugar and artificial coloring, has succeeded. “We know what we’re getting. It only becomes a problem if they claim it’s wholesome and it’s not.”
Our truth comes from our core identity, not necessarily our surface, she said. Thus, it’s irrelevant that fashion designer Ralph Lauren was born in the Bronx or changed his last name from Lifshitz. “His brand is based on who he really thought he was. He stands for classic, patrician, and quality. As long as his merchandise fits that, it’s fine,” McLaren said.
Pizza Patrón succeeds by knowing its customers–blue-collar workers born in Mexico whose preferred language is Spanish–and delivering what’s meaningful to them. Thus, it peppers its social media and ads with Mexican slang, Gamm said. “Anytime we can remind people of home, it’s a good thing,” he said. “It creates a solid connection to the brand.”
Thus, Pizza Patrón calls its super-spicy pizza “La Chingona,” or “Bad Ass,” even though some might find the word controversial. “Chingon is a strong word, not something you’d say to your grandmother, but you’ll use it freely among friends,” Gamm said. “We’re willing to put our neck out, and we’re proud to be who we are. That goes a long way to giving us credibility with our customer–and brings a really solid connection for the brand. Those who complain don’t understand and weren’t going to be our customers anyway.”
But those who believe in the philosophy write Pizza Patrón, asking the chain to open franchises in their cities or states. “They don’t know what our product tastes like or costs, but they say, ‘I’ll be your customer for what you stand for.’ It has become personal to them,” Gamm said.
For more on the importance of authenticity, read “The Power Of Authenticity” on CMO.com Europe.