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PepsiCo and InterContinental marketers discuss how to humanize a brand in today’s authenticity-obsessed world

‘Authenticity’ is marketing’s buzzword du jour, thrown around at panels, conferences and events so often that it has essentially lost its meaning. So how does authenticity actually play out within a brand, both internally and externally?

At C2 Montreal, InterContinental Hotels Group’s Greater China chief commercial officer Emily Chang and PepsiCo Global Beverages Group’s senior vice president-brand management Carla Zakhem-Hassan discussed what authenticity means to them and how they are incorporating it into their brands.

Chang, who served as Apple’s head of retail marketing in Asia before joining InterContinental in 2014, said authenticity is something that brands should take into consideration not only for their target audience but their employees as well.

“One of the reasons I moved into hospitality was actually because we provide humans’ most basic needs: food, water and shelter,” she said. “I thought this would be a great opportunity to integrate a little bit more of my personal preference and social good side with what I do every day at work.” She noted that some of the hotel chain’s initiatives, like protecting the environment and providing disaster relief, are commitments she can easily get behind since she personally cares about those issues.

For Zakhem-Hassan, who said that “as a consumer, there’s nothing worse to me than when I can sniff out something that is not authentic,” the path to brand authenticity often involves getting out of the way and letting consumers define what a brand stands for.

“We’ve been doing this for a while now with Doritos,” she said, noting that for the past ten years the brand “literally gave over the reins to consumers” for its Crash the Super Bowl competition, which allowed fans to create their own Doritos commercial for a chance to have it air during the big game.

By letting consumers not only create the commercials but also vote on which one would ultimately air during the Super Bowl, Zakhem-Hassan said Doritos had “no control” over what would happen. “When you do that, you uncover some beautiful nuggets from consumers that allow them to just engage on behalf of your brand,” she said.

When it comes to social good efforts, marketers are often walking a fine line when it comes to authenticity. If consumers feel as though a brand is only supporting a particular cause to check off its CSR box or because it’s in vogue (think: femvertising), brands can end up in hot water if they’re not careful.

“It is really critical that you don’t just do things to do them, because consumers will absolutely sniff that out,” said Zakhem-Hassan. At PepsiCo, she said the company pushes a “performance with purpose” ethos to ensure that its social good efforts align with a set of brand values and aren’t just one-off attempts to try and win over consumers.

For example, she said in 2011 PepsiCo Philippines started working with the ‘Liter of Light’ program, a global movement that turns plastic water bottles into light bulbs for households without electricity. Since the company’s plastic bottles “aren’t without their own issues,” she said she feels this type of effort gives back to communities “in a way that is positive and relevant to our world.” She also cited the company’s recently unveiled content creation studio in New York City as an authentic aspect of PepsiCo, since it will allow artists and athletes to work on “passion projects,” not just branded work.

Yet for all the talk around authenticity when it comes to a brand’s social good and advertising efforts, Chang said being accessible as a marketer and truly getting to know the people who support your brand is another avenue that helps build consumer trust and ultimately leads to a better service or product.

“Consumers find me directly, as they always will,” said Chang. “And sometimes they come because they’re upset and they just want to find the person in charge and sort it out. But we’ve got probably five or six Spire Elite, our most loyal members, who have emailed me almost every time they’ve checked into a hotel,” she said, adding that they're eager to share their feedback - both good and bad - about wherever they are staying.

"They are the first ones to tell me when something is not up to standard," she said.

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