Authenticity Brand Strategy Marketing

The authenticity paradox: how to navigate brand strategy without getting lost

By Alexandra Aviv, Director of Creative Strategy

MAS

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August 15, 2023 | 7 min read

Alexandra Aviv of agency Mas has identified a paradox at the heart of brand strategy: keen to be authentic, brands turn agile and follow the market wherever it leads – and risk their true authenticity in the process.

A winding road leading through a mountain, seen from above

Brand strategy isn't a straight path - but can authenticity keep it on track? / Jack Anstey via Unsplash

Crafting a brand strategy today is like sculpting a masterpiece from a shape-shifting block of marble.

In today's world, almost everyone and everything is a brand. Generic toothbrushes and no-name deodorants are becoming scarce, and even individuals are transforming themselves into brands. For consumers, this abundance of choices is exciting, as everyone vies for your attention. But for brands, this scenario poses challenges: increased competition and scrutiny from consumers.

Over time, consumer expectations from brands have risen significantly. Brands are now expected to behave like humans, staying true to their core values and maintaining an authentic identity.

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According to a report from SproutSocial, when asked to reflect on their relationship with brands, two-thirds of consumers equate feeling connected with trust. Consumers seek brands that align with their beliefs, and they quickly disengage from those they perceive as disingenuous or inconsistent.

Authenticity has thus become the foundation for strong brand-consumer relationships. But the quest for consumer loyalty often leads brands to dilute the term ‘authenticity’ and inadvertently repel consumers, giving them the ick. And with the advent of digital expansion (which grants unlimited access to trends, products, brands, and content), consumer preferences are undergoing rapid transformation. This dynamic landscape presents a daunting challenge for brands seeking to keep up with ever-changing consumer desires.

Here’s where brand strategy comes into play.

The primary objective of brand strategy is to facilitate meaningful, authentic connections between brands and their consumers, helping them stand out in a competitive market. Consequently, brand strategists find themselves in a precarious position. How can they assist brands in striking a delicate balance between staying true to their identity and adapting to the ever-evolving demands of their target audience?

I refer to this delicate balancing act as ‘the authenticity paradox’. Brands are encouraged to be agile and responsive to market trends, but this pursuit of constant adaptation can result in becoming mere followers instead of leaders, lacking the stability required for long-term success.

Fortunately, though, there are steps that strategists and brands can take together to navigate this paradox successfully.

1. Resist chasing trends

In a world where trends change rapidly, brands must resist the temptation to chase fads. Instead, they should focus on cultivating a steadfast sense of identity. The most effective brand strategies recognize that pursuing fleeting desires ultimately leads to a loss of authenticity. True strength lies in being authentic to the brand’s purpose, values, and long-term strategy. If a trend aligns with these elements, then by all means leverage it effectively.

2. Embrace incremental changes

Navigating the authenticity paradox requires a thoughtful and gradual approach. Brands should avoid abrupt pivots and focus on incremental changes that align with their long-term vision. Just as humans grow and evolve over time, brands should also evolve gradually.

Regular check-ins, small adjustments (such as visual updates or tone of voice tweaks), and a healthy responsiveness to consumer needs can ensure meaningful and sustainable evolution while preserving authenticity. Incremental changes foster enduring emotional connections with consumers.

3. Marry your business objectives

Brands are no longer separate entities from the business they represent; they are intrinsically linked. A successful brand strategy should not be detached from the overall business objectives; instead, it should be a driving force behind them.

Consumers don't merely purchase products or services; they buy into a larger story and purpose. Brands that prioritize authenticity and integrate it into their business strategy have a unique advantage in this era of transparency. They can create a seamless experience in which the brand’s promise aligns with the business’s delivery — reinforcing each other in a virtuous cycle.

4. Engage in cross-industry collaborations

Strategic collaborations with brands, influencers, or creators outside their vertical can open new avenues for brands. These partnerships can tap into new audiences, reposition the brand, or contribute to mainstream conversations. However, such collaborations should be rooted in shared values and purpose rather than driven solely by the desire to increase market share or ride the zeitgeist wave. Inauthentic partnerships can backfire, eroding the trust and authenticity carefully built by the brand. In short, don’t forget who you are.

The authenticity paradox presents both challenges and opportunities for today’s brands (and my fellow brand strategists). Authenticity, when driven by a brand's values rather than external factors, has the power to influence consumer purchasing decisions and foster brand loyalty.

Just like sculpting a masterpiece from a shape-shifting block of marble, brands must embrace change while retaining a clear sense of their vision. Instead of rushing to keep up with trends, they should step back and observe the masterpiece taking shape — even if it turns out slightly different from the initial plan. That would be okay. In fact, it would be authentic.

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