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22.11.02 + Branding

The Trouble With Branding's Most Overused Word

by Director of Creative Strategy Mika Saulitis

Sit in any brand strategy brainstorm and one word is bound to surface: authentic. It’s the attribute that nearly every brand wants to own, but it’s a word that is often hollow.

Merriam-Webster defines authentic as, “true to one's own personality, spirit, or character.” That sounds great; who wouldn’t aspire to be real or genuine? And to that point, it makes sense why so many brands seek to incorporate authenticity into their strategy.

But there’s a glaring problem with this approach: you can’t be true to your character if you don’t know what that character is. “Authentic” isn’t a personality trait, it’s the act of fearlessly, consistently owning it.

Look at Levi’s and Duluth Trading Company. Both are apparel companies. Both offer similarly priced products. And both have been described as authentic. But this authenticity takes shape in vastly different ways, and connects with vastly different consumers. For Levi’s, their brand centers around self-expression and individuality, while Duluth takes a more rugged, salt-of-the-earth approach.

None of that would have been articulated, established, or understood by consumers if they simply planted their brand flag in authenticity. To what? To whom? There’s no there, there. On its own, there’s a lack of nuance to “authentic”—it’s one-note, and begs for more context.

So if you want to be thought of as an authentic brand, where do you begin? Your audience. Know who you want to relate to, appeal to, speak to, and build out from there. What do these audiences value? What do you offer? And where is the crossover?

For Levi’s, they offer apparel in a variety of fits and styles—perfect for their Gen Z and Millennial audience who view clothing as a powerful form of self expression. For Duluth, they offer durable “workwear” in fewer fits and styles—perfect for their no frills, blue collar audience who values dependability over variety.

Duluth has even published a book that outlines how they built their brand, and in the description, mention that, “A simple premise, ‘There’s got to be a better way,’ formed the foundation of an authentic and successful brand.” Authenticity is the result of their brand promise, not the promise itself.

Which begs the question that any brand should be able to answer: What is the spirit that we want to be true to? The answer isn’t easy and requires internal discussions, debate, and alignment. As such, “authentic” is sometimes used as an all-encompassing workaround.

More often than not, brand teams intuitively know the intangible ingredients that make up their core DNA, but these traits can be difficult to put into words or reach consensus on. It’s a “know-it-in-your-gut-and-just-call-it-authenticity” kind of thing. But these are exactly the elements that need to be spotlighted. After all, if everyone claims authenticity, how does anyone stand out?

To be completely transparent, I’ve found myself using “authentic” as a default descriptor in the past. It’s one of those tempting brand words that’s ever-looming and ever-tempting, so I developed a workflow to get past the authenticity hump.

It goes a little something like this:

Step 1: Freewriting

  • When I find myself tempted to use “authentic” when building a brand strategy, I spend roughly 10 minutes writing non-stop around what it is that I’m trying to get to the root of. Without using the word, what do I mean when I say “authentic?” I describe a feeling, an emotion, a person that captures the spirit I’m trying to put into words. I don’t stop writing, and I don’t edit.

Step 2: Distilling

  • Next, I decode all of the chicken scratch I just put on paper by highlighting words, phrases, or attributes that stand out. And they don’t have to be thematically similar; sometimes bringing together a strange concoction of words makes for the most ownable recipe of authenticity. Delightful yet defiant? Sure. Offbeat and outspoken? Why not.

Step 3: Acting

  • It’s one thing to put something intangible into words, it’s another to actually live it. In order to be true to the spirit that has been distilled, it’s important to build guidelines for how it manifests externally: brand voice, brand design, content strategy, initiatives. Patagonia is a great example of walking the walk and putting their sustainable ethos into practice., I would argue, is on the other side of that coin; they’ve planted their flag in bravery, but haven’t done anything to live that spirit. It’s a brand begging for its own Red Bull Stratos space jump, but it hasn’t crossed that bridge yet.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with authenticity. Heck, we could all use a little more of it in our lives. But let’s move beyond just calling every brand that resonates with its target audience “authentic,” and get to the root of why.

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