According to the 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer Report, the tide is turning, with business seen as the only institution that’s both competent and ethical. This statistic has been on the rise for three years straight, illustrating that consumers expect a lot from brands. They expect honesty and bravery. They expect businesses to deliver a seamless customer experience. And they expect businesses to speak out on aligned social causes.
It might sound like a tall ask. But marketing authentically has been core to our approach since we opened our doors in 2008. And it’s delivered a ream of value for our clients.
So, here are the principles we embrace to ensure our marketing is always authentic.
First things first, what makes marketing ‘authentic’?
This shift to authentic marketing, which has predominantly come from Millennials, renegotiates the relationship between the customer and the business to one that’s based on shared value and transparency. Authentic marketing is consumer-centric. It places the buyer first – and above all.
Unlike traditional marketing, which has embodied a ‘sell, sell, sell’ mentality, authentic marketing prioritises connecting with the customer in a genuine, meaningful way.
It doesn’t begin with the business and what it wants to sell. But instead, starts with the customer and asks: What do they want? How can I provide value to them? How do my audiences’ values overlap with my brand?
It then uses the answers to these questions to inform its marketing strategies and campaigns.
‘Authenticity is achieved when brands are engaging deeply with audiences, building connections that feel personal, and making their customers feel heard and understood.’ (Source: NYTLicensing).
American marketing author, Phillip Kotler, even goes one step further, saying:
‘Authentic marketing is not the art of selling what you make but knowing what to make. It is the art of identifying and understanding customer needs and creating solutions that deliver satisfaction to the customers, profits to the producers and benefits for the stakeholders.’
So, while marketing typically comes after the product or service is developed, Kotler argues that it can even come one step before. In this way, it’s highly strategic, considered and connected to the consumer.
Now, onto the rules we follow to deliver authentic marketing.
1. Understand your customers
You can’t connect with your customers without first understanding them. That’s why the first step of authentic marketing is about getting to the core of who your customers are, including their values, needs and drivers.
The difference between prioritising or missing this step is the difference between a marketing campaign that works – and one that doesn’t.
Understanding your customer can look like conducting:
- Focus groups
- An empathy mapping workshop
- UX research
- Anthropological research
While each of these methods have different purposes, scopes and outputs, it’s worth investing in the more meaty, one-on-one research methods if time and money allows. An example which exemplifies the value in this is from the multi-billion dollar toy company, Lego.
In the early 2000s, Lego was on the decline. Seeking to revive it, the grandson of the founder handballed his role as chief executive to a McKinsey consultant, who unconventionally placed anthropologist researchers into US and German cities for months. They spent time shopping and playing with children, while also taking photos, compiling diaries and chatting to parents.
Contrary to the researchers’ assumption that children were now seeking instant gratification as a result of electronic games, the researchers found that children still had free time, enjoyed challenging problems and often behaved differently when unsupervised.
These unexpected insights went on to shape Lego’s next steps, and eventual, upturn. They also revealed the power of in-depth customer research, which can deliver more nuanced insights than a generalised approach of questionnaires.
Through understanding its customer, Lego ultimately achieved what Kotler believes is the crux of authentic marketing: ‘not the art of selling what you make but knowing what to make.’
2. Don’t sell, provide value
Clever marketers are focused on the long game. They understand that providing rich, meaningful and educational content is more fruitful than a swift sales push.
This is also a key part of authentic marketing. It approaches marketing from a place of value adding instead of selling. With authentic marketing, consumers should feel they are receiving indispensable value they can’t get anywhere else, in turn, building brand loyalty.
The Authentic Brand index, which lists the seven qualities that comprise an authentic brand, identifies this trait as ‘personal utility.’ That is, the extent to which the brand delivers real utility to users that they feel they cannot live without.
To identify what this is for your company, ask:
- How is my business uniquely placed to deliver value to its customers?
- What’s something we can offer that other companies can’t?
- How can we embed ‘adding value’ into our marketing strategy and content approach?
A stellar example of this is from outdoor recreation clothing company, Patagonia.
In 2011, Patagonia famously launched its ‘Don’t buy this jacket’ campaign, which ironically encouraged customers to consume less – instead of buying Patagonia’s jacket.
This campaign reinforced Patagonia’s sustainability credentials by making a statement about fast fashion and overconsumption. Although it was the antithesis of selling, the campaign was highly authentic, and thus strengthened the integrity and credibility of Patagonia’s brand to ultimately – and perhaps ironically – drive its financial success.
3. Be honest
At the heart of authenticity is truth. So, to market authentically, you must be – above all – honest.
Fail to be true and you’ll fail to capture the hearts and minds of your consumers. Or even worse, end up in a PR fiasco.
One government agency that made headlines for its inaccurate storytelling was the Department of Tourism Philippines. Its latest campaign, ‘Love the Philippines’, intended to reinvigorate its former ‘It’s More Fun in the Philippines!’ slogan.
However, soon after it was released, people took to YouTube and social media to note that the video was littered with footage of other countries, including Indonesia, Brazil, the United Arab Emirates, and even Switzerland. ‘Beautiful!,’ one YouTube comment wrote, ‘Looks just like Switzerland, Thailand, Bali and Dubai!’
This PR disaster, which was met with mockery, has damaged the reputability of Tourism Philippines. It reinforces the smarts of our customers and highlights the importance of always using accurate images, footage or other material to shape our marketing campaigns, even if it’s more expensive or complicated.
4. Embed humanity into your message
The final puzzle piece of authentic marketing?
Making it feel human.
Your message should feel far from manufactured, but instead, connect with your audience on a deeper level. This means:
- Using real stories from people with lived experience, where possible
- Presenting your message in an approachable way
- Speaking from the heart
- Embracing imperfections (where appropriate)
One example of this is our work for the Victorian Disability Worker Commission (VDWC) on its latest campaign, ‘The Safe Choice.’
Through featuring real people with disabilities, as well as their workers, in the environments they move in every day, we were able to capture a story that felt genuine, accessible and engaging. And most importantly, it feels authentic.