Beyond the Hype: Authenticity in Action

There’s a lot of talk these days about brands and authenticity. The advice goes something like this:

– Be honest.
– Be intelligent.
– Be more than a money-grubbing machine

In essence: Don’t be a turd.

Part of me understands why this conversation is necessary. A bigger part of me thinks “brand authenticity” has been overblown into a trendy idea, as if someone had an “Aha!” moment and decided being genuine was a clever way to get people to like them. But authenticity isn’t an idea or a skill or a tactic. People have been doing it accidentally since the beginning of time.

When did we become so disingenuous anyhow? Have we become so morbidly accustom to being taken by gimmicks, bait and switch, slick advertising “glam” and marketing “positioning” that it’s impressive when someone tells the truth?

One of the most famous campaigns to tell the truth and rattle a bunch of brains is the Avis campaign of 1962. Avis was in the red for 13 years. They were second behind the big hitter, Hertz. They knew it. Everyone else knew it. So they embraced who they were and turned the statement, “We try harder because we have to,” into their business manifesto, a philosophy that changed their organization and turned them into a powerhouse.

If you’re in the writing business, you’ve probably heard about the much lauded tagline that’s still used today: “We Try Harder.” It’s received a lot of attention. As brilliant as it is, the tagline alone is just that: a tagline. Three words. But the success of the campaign was not in the words. Authenticity is so much more than the ability to express something honestly. Three words cannot embody a philosophy, just like three words can’t save a brand. Three words did not move Avis marketshare from 11% to 35% in just three years.

What did? It’s much less sexy. It was a lot of work. Sweaty is a more appropriate adjective. It was sweaty.

You don’t hear much about what Avis did behind the scenes. Before releasing the “We Try Harder” campaign to the public, Avis executives traveled to all the branches and met with every single employee face-to-face, explaining how the success of the “We Try Harder” campaign hinged on providing superior customer service. In 1963, the first point of contact for prospects and customers was client services. The people. If the first point of contact didn’t embody the brand’s philosophy—if the authentic experience didn’t match the authenticity of their value statement—the tagline would’ve been nothing more than empty advertising speak.

Flash forward 50 years. The first point of contact for prospects is no longer customer service. It’s a screen. It’s a blank search bar. It’s your website, your videos, your tweets, your infographics. It’s your holistic web presence: all of your brand’s digital content.

So…does your web presence embody your business philosophy, or do you simply have a well-crafted mission statement? Are you experts hiding your expertise behind a registration wall? Do you design for trends, or do you design for people? Do you write for web spiders, or do you write for humans? And are you giving people the information they need to help them make a buying decision, or are you talking incessantly about yourself?

Authenticity is no longer a novelty. It’s an expectation. Customers expect this authenticity through value-laden content and online experiences that deliver the information or services they need. How well a brand meets this expectation will determine its success. Not a tagline.