Consumers expect the real deal – how can brands be authentic in championing a cause and where do they have permission to play?

Panel discussion on brand authenticity

People are aligning themselves with brands that share their values and aspire to a greater purpose beyond their product. Nielsen found that 66 per cent of consumers will pay more for products and services from companies that have committed to making a positive social and environmental impact.

But how does a brand remain authentic in its pursuit of purpose? How does a brand establish where it has a right to play? By portraying solid values and standing for something more than their products, according to industry experts at a panel event, chaired by The Drum's editor, Stephen Lepitak, in association with Microsoft.

In a fast-paced world where innovation happens quickly, brands cannot rely on product differentiation to connect consumers with their brand. As Kathleen Hall, Microsoft’s corporate vice president of brand, advertising and research notes: “The differentiation becomes more dependent on how these brands differ from each other. What’s become more important is the “value system” portrayed by brands to consumers.”

Gary Reisman, founder & CEO at Leap Media Investments, agrees with Hall. “A lot of products have matured. You have to do more than that and stand for something. The consumer must feel they can align with your brand.”

This point is conveyed by Peter Carter, marketing director at Procter and Gamble, as he compares Pantene’s “Not Sorry” campaign with its Super bowl ‘Strong is Beautiful’ campaign. The former was about female empowerment but had nothing to do with hair. The latter was all about hair but still retained its female empowerment message.

He explains the lessons learnt: “It’s not just about doing good stuff, it’s about doing good stuff and getting [consumers] to buy products.”

Suzanne Powers, global chief strategy officer at McCann, says brands can “create a system of authenticity” by establishing their purpose in a consumer’s life. “Once you know your role, it creates a platform for everything. It might be stories or behaviours, things that you are doing that actually deliver on that role.”

Jill Cress, CMO EVP at National Geographic, reveals how the prevalence of social media makes it easy to connect people in an authentic way.

“At National Geographic with things that are important to us like climate or wild places, we are able to connect people with those passions. They have a place to gather and make the things that matter to them a part of the conversation,” she says.

When it goes wrong

Earlier this year in April, Pepsi’s commercial featuring model Kendall Jenner faced a huge backlash for mocking the Black Lives Matter movement. In the advert, Jenner offers a can of soda to a police officer as a peace offering but it was criticised by civil rights activists for co-opting the visual language of resistance movements. So how did Pepsi get it so wrong?

Hall says Pepsi made several rookie errors which could have been avoided had Pepsi used external agencies and partners to help them see what was wrong with the advert.

“There has to be an authentic product truth somewhere, so that was missing. And it used every possible stereotype you could think of. You can’t just look inward. The benefits of using external agencies and partners is; they will call ‘BS’ on you,” she says.

Carter agrees that the use of external partners could have helped Pepsi avoid the debacle that followed. “We use external partners because they bring us new ideas that we wouldn’t think of on our own. They know how we operate, they know what works - and they really add value,” he says.

On Hall’s authentic truth point, Carter also shares an example of Tide which washed clothes for victims of Hurricane Katrina. The first year the ‘Loads of Hope’ program washed clothes for the hurricane victims and it was very successful. But when Tide built houses the following year, it was a big flop.

“Tide doesn’t build houses and therefore there was no connection to the product and it was not authentic for us to do that. Even though it was a nice charitable thing to do and the people who got their houses were very happy - it just was not connected to the product enough,” he explains.

Final lessons?

Overall, the panellists agree that brands need to establish their purpose in a consumer’s life and create stories based on this knowledge. But they should also make use of external partners wherever possible to keep their creativity in check. This becomes especially important when separating your emotions from the creative. As Carter says: “You get so enamoured with your brand, that you can’t see what’s going on.”

Cress recalls how she wishes she had made more use of partners to “help keep her honest” about her creative work. “Some of the creatives that I’ve done over the years flopped because we fell in love with our own story. I’ve done ads that I am not proud of but you get too close to them. It’s really hard to say we are not going to use this.”

Hall agrees that having a “fresh and unburdened perspective” is important. At the same time, she does not want to see brands overthink and in turn, become too cautious. “Spreading the word about what your brand stands for through authentic communications gives people something to buy into.”

On what brands can do better, she says: “Brands can tell better stories just by knowing themselves. When you take it down to the core and essence of who you are and what you believe in, it makes for the best brand storytelling.”

Watch the full panel discussion below.

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