How Authentic Is Your Brand ?

June 23, 2009

Authenticity is a term we hear bandied about a lot these days, but it’s one that you need to pay particular attention to. In a recent post “What Marketers Can Learn From The Obama Campaign — Part 2,” I talked about the importance of authenticity in the Obama campaign. Authentic means honest, real and not manufactured–adhering to facts and supported by experience. And it’s increasing in importance because of several key factors.

What’s Driving The Need for Authenticity ?

  1. Crisis — The economic crisis revealed that things aren’t exactly what they seemed. Or, as Warren Buffet puts it: “when the tide goes out, you find out who’s wearing bathing suits.”
  2. Digital — The web has democratized information and consumer sharing. Brands are increasingly unable to hide as consumers uncover facts, inconvenient truths and rapidly share information. Advergirl.com has an excellent post on this at: “Social Media Demands Authentic Brands.
  3. Marketing Excess — An awful lot of Marketing feels like used car sales. Companies exaggerate their product benefits and often avoid the reality of their product experience. Marketers are partly responsible for consumers becoming jaded and less trustworthy of their messages.

Financial services marketing is a case in point. Battered by the economic crisis, subject to negative sentiment across the web, and Marketing that tells people to trust and be confident. In the land of happy, content, retired people walking on the beach and playing with grandchildren, few brands stand out as being different — and authentic.

Charles Schwab — An Authentic Brand

One brand that does is Charles Schwab. No doubt you’ve seen the unusual looking Schwab ads:

The Charles Schwab Brand -- An Authentic Marketing Message

The Charles Schwab Brand -- An Authentic Marketing Message

The ads have the air of authenticity. Why ? Because the Schwab brand:

  • Is irreverent– willing to say what other brands would rather not have you hear.
  • Shows real people saying what they think– and connecting with consumers real world experience.
  • Encourages a conversation: “talk to Chuck.” How can a brand be authentic without conversation ?

Becky Saeger, Head of Marketing at Charles Schwab notes:

“One of the most important and challenging things financial services companies are faced with today is rebuilding the trust of consumers. This principle of authenticity is central to rebuilding trust and conveying that you are trustworthy: You cannot TELL people to trust you, or even convince them to by telling them why they should. Every manifestation of your brand–from communications to products to human or web interactions–needs to be true to the promises of the brand, and deliver the actions that are proof of those promises and collectively signal trustworthiness. The only way I know to do that is for your brand and your marketing, and therefore all of the above, to be grounded in the authentic purpose and values of your company. Yes, this is a huge and potentially lofty goal, maybe even more an aspiration. But how else can you trust that your brand–buffeted about in the wild and crazy, social, digital, consumer-in-control world we live in–will rise above the fray and earn the trust of those very savvy and often disappointed consumers?”

Authenticity and Creativity

A final point. Authentic doesn’t equal boring. The Schwab campaign is very differentiated in the financial services space. The use of rotoscope animation enables the campaign to both feel authentic and look differentiated at the same time. A real creative hat trick and one that other Marketers could learn from.

So how does your brand rate on the authenticity scale ?

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What CMO’s Can Learn From the Obama Campaign — Part 2

June 9, 2009

In an earlier Blog post, I asked the question “Can politics teach Marketers anything?” and answered with some learnings from David Plouffe, the chief architect of President Obama’s election campaign. Plouffe recently spoke at the M50 CMO Summit I attended.  To summarize that post, I said Marketers could learn two important lessons from the Obama campaign:

  1. The importance of staking out a brand position and sticking with it. Consistency counts.
  2. The ability to leverage the brand’s strategic message across all relevent marketing touchpoints in a coordinated and integrated manner.

These are Marketing truths often forgotten in even the best Marketing organizations. But what else can we learn from the Obama campaign?

Brand Obama: A Consistent Message Across Media Channels

Brand Obama: An Authentic and Transparent Brand

Plouffe outlined how transparency and authenticity, both of which are discussed in depth in the excellent book “Radically Transparent: Monitoring and Managing Reputations Online,” were the twin character traits to the Obama campaign. In Marketing terms, these would be Obama’s “Brand Character,” or personality. The two are related and both speak to what is required for a brand — Obama or otherwise — to inspire trust and confidence.

Authenticity

Obama, according to Plouffe, wanted the campaign to be “authentic.” Over time, they learned — sometimes painfully — about authenticity and what it really meant to voters. When Will I Am came forward with the idea for his “We Are The Ones” song, the original idea was for the Obama campaign to produce and promote it. While control can be a good thing, Obama rejected the offer because he felt it wouldn’t be authentic. So Will I Am produced the song and it was a huge YouTube sensation with 3.5 million views–an authentic tribute to Obama.

In another example, Plouffe developed short video clips explaining to supporters various campaign topics–e.g. the Obama strategy in Florida; how they would use the web; etc. After several low production hand-held videos, someone in the campaign naturally decided the videos there was a need for more professional video. This led to new slicker, high production value video–which immediately prompted a barrage of complaints from supporters. Low tech was good–and authentic.

Transparency

Plouffe held a contrarian view when it came to campaign strategy and tactics–to be completely open and transparent with supporters.  He did so with the full knowledge that the McCain campaign would ultimately see the communications and understand the Obama strategy. He felt the benefits outweighed the risks. 

Example:  the Florida strategy. Plouffe developed a video which outlined exactly how they intended to win supporters, how much money they would need, and how it would be spent. Of course, the Republicans learned what the Democrats would do in Florida. But transparency was part of brand Obama and the video helped energize and ultimately win the Florida campaign.

Interestingly, the Obama administration is now extending transparency beyond the campaign with the launch of Data.gov, a website designed to disseminate government data to voters

What Marketers Can Learn

First, understand your consumer.  The Obama campaign understood that American voters were looking for authenticity and transparency in their president. Like good Marketers, they understood their consumer–and had a clearly defined brand character to address their needs.

Second, communicate in an authentic manner.  Authentic means honest, real and not manufactured–adhering to facts and supported by experience. The Obama campaign had a clear message, but beyond this, they communicated in a tone and style that increased the believability of their message.

Third, communicate with transparency.  Transparency means telling people exactly what’s happening and what they would like to know–even when there is some risk in doing so. Obama’s strategy for Florida was very clear to Democratic supporters–and Republicans as well.

So what did Obama gain with authenticity and transparency ? Trust and confidence. When people believe they are being told the full story, they’re treated as adults, and being told the truth, they’re more likely to trust and have confidence–something in very short supply for many brands these days.