This article was initially conceived as a look at the visual vernacular of authentic branding. We wanted to deconstruct the visual cues that say, “I am an ethical brand,” and share these with our clients, the majority of whom manage brands with strong values.
We wanted to deconstruct the visual cues that say, “I am an ethical brand,” and share these with our clients, the majority of whom manage brands with strong values.
But as we considered this topic, we recalled and discovered many examples of brands co-opting the visual tropes and language of value-driven brands, without an ethical basis for this positioning.
- Collaborate. Many minds, one integrated approach.
- Challenge ourselves and our clients
- Lead, learn, and educate
- Generate ROI
- Add value
- Celebrate success
- Enjoy the journey
We recognised a fundamental insincerity in marketing, where brands feel it’s alright to pretend to be something they’re not.
So, we quickly became uncomfortable with the idea of creating an article which could be used as a cheat sheet for brands wanting to don the mantle of authenticity, without any real authority to do so.
You might feel it’s hilariously naïve for an advertising agency to make this statement. You might say we work in an industry that has facilitated and perpetuated this dissimulation, and you’d be right to make that accusation. In the past, we’ve done work we’re not proud of. Not because the work wasn’t good, but because we were working for businesses we should not have supported. We went home at night, and kissed our families, knowing that we were feeding them with money earned in the service of brands that we did not like or value. That’s not a good feeling. We don’t want to be that business anymore.
Now we’ve made a conscious commitment to only work with brands that share our values. And we’re under no illusion. There are some tough conversations coming. We’ll need to choose between our values and money. We hope that by putting statements like this out there, our community will keep us honest, that you will help us when we’re tempted, and that you will tell us when we get it wrong.
So What is an Authentic Brand?
We’re defining an authentic brand as a business with strong, positive values that permeate all they do. Often they’re companies motivated by more than profit. They may be outward looking and firmly rooted in their community. They may be committed to minimising their environmental impact and improving their social responsibility. But most importantly, they are organisations that speak the truth.
At present, authentic branding is visually defined by the whole craft movement, and the renaissance of the artisan maker. The touchstones of this new wave of craft brands are often process, provenance and people. These brands went back to basics with their visual identity. Their visual motifs reflect their raw materials, their working environment, the makers and their suppliers. The resulting brands have a simplicity, honesty, organic appeal and humanity lacking in the slick designer brands of the nineties and noughties.
Another common theme became transparency. Value-driven brands consciously disclose their working processes, the provenance of their materials, the lifestyle of their people and their relationships with their customers. It’s the antithesis of the spin perpetuated by some global brands, who conceal poor environmental practices and lack of social responsibility to the people who make their products, behind a polished exterior.
Now this artisanal branding has been commodified into another design trend. And we’re seeing big brands borrowing this look, either by reworking their own brands, or by gobbling up small artisanal brands and adding them to their portfolio. The craft beer and organic food sectors are rife with these buy outs.
The World’s Most Authentic Brands?
PR firm Cohn & Wolfe recently ranked companies according to their scores on research and surveys answered by more than 12,000 consumers across 14 markets.
Consumers rated more than 1,600 brands on the three key attributes that make up authenticity, according to Cohn & Wolfe. They were scored on “reliability,” “respectfulness,” and “reality.” We'll leave the results of their ranking here for you, without comment.
The Top 5 Most Authentic Brands
Authenticity Score: 96.62
- BMW. Authenticity
Authenticity Score: 94.12
Authenticity Score: 94.04
Authenticity Score: 93.71
Do Corporate Acquisitions Devalue Authenticity?
When it comes to craft beer, the answer would seem to be a resounding yes. In August 2013, Time Magazine wrote that the US Brewers Association has stringent criteria that define a craft beer, and acquisition by a big brewer compromises many of them1.
In New Zealand, much loved craft beers like Monteith’s, Mac’s and Tuatara have been acquired by large brewing companies. A blind tasting2 comparing these brands with beers produced by genuine microbreweries, conducted by Dominic Kelly of Wellington cult beer bar Hashigo Zake, had predictably disappointing results.
The aggressive acquisition of craft beer brands by big liquor has coined the scathing term, faux craft. But does anybody care? ANZ Bank reported in 2015 that: “Craft beer is New Zealand’s fastest growing category of beer, our research suggests off premise retail sales are up 42% in the last 12 months, now accounting for 13% of total beer sales”3.
We thought we’d Look at a couple of examples where reality doesn’t entirely gel with the brand.
The 100% Pure New Zealand brand was launched in 1999. In 2009 Tourism NZ celebrated 10 years of successful marketing under the banner of 100% Pure. Chief Executive George Hickton wrote: “I believe the reason that 100% Pure New Zealand has been so successful is not just because it’s a great catch phrase, but because it is true.”4
Since then the 100% Pure New Zealand brand has been repeatedly criticised by New Zealanders and the international press for its lack of authenticity, citing New Zealand’s declining environmental record5, and accusing Tourism New Zealand of greenwashing. In 2013 TNZ corporate affairs general manager Chris Roberts stated that the campaign remained “the envy of every national tourism organisation in the world. A couple of times every year someone has questioned … whether the gloss may be coming off 100% Pure.” He then went on to state that 100% Pure is a tourism campaign and not a “brand for New Zealand”, and that the campaign continues to “resonate with the people who matter to us—those who are thinking about travel to New Zealand.”6
Kiwi As ...
However, the question remains, the 100% Pure positioning is undoubtedly evocative, but is it really an authentic, sustainable platform for promotion for New Zealand in this time? L&P is another example of a New Zealand brand that no longer feels authentic. Originally a small-town success story from Paeroa in the North Island, L&P is a lemon-flavoured soda marketed under the tagline, ‘World Famous in New Zealand’ and promoted with engaging campaigns that invoke the glories of kitsch Kiwiana (Stubbies anyone?) which is all kinds of awesome, apart from one tiny detail: L&P is now manufactured by multi-national Coca-Cola. Kiwi as, right?
There’s a wind of change blowing in the form of digital democracy. Brands can’t control their reputation anymore. The power has shifted. The proliferation of review sites, social channels and bloggers mean that if your business gets it wrong, people will let the world know. Add to this an over-exposure to advertising, the cynicism of Gen X and the much vaunted millennial desire for authenticity, and you have one hell of a powerful bullshit filter. It will become increasingly difficult for businesses to greenwash, obfuscate, or pretend to hold values they do not practice. Welcome to the keep-it-really real school of marketing.
The Advice We Give our Partners
We ask about their values. We ask how those values manifest in the way they treat their customers, their people, their suppliers, and their environment. Sometimes organisations don’t have clearly articulated values, yet when we dig deeper we find that they are guided by strong principles in the way they operate.
Sometimes we find the opposite, which is that a business may have stated values, but those values don’t really guide their actions, they’re simply words on a wall somewhere. So we ask them about ways they can activate those values. If the appetite for an authentic commitment to their values isn’t really there, then we may not be the best agency for them. When we partner with an organisation, our goal is to create a brand that feels right, a brand they can actually own because it feels like them, because it speaks their truth, talks in their voice, and tells their stories. So we ask our partners to be honest. To have the courage to own the good and the bad in public. Because we all get it wrong. Businesses that are pushing hard can fail hard too. Your failures and miscalculations are as much part of your truth as your wins and smart decisions. And until you’re able to own responsibility for getting it wrong, learning and moving forward, your brand will be dogged by that evasion.
We encourage brands to invest in telling real stories. Taking photos of their people, their producers, and their customers, rather than relying on stock imagery. This one’s a win-win, because not only is real imagery more authentic, it also converts better for sales7.
As a creative agency we feel strongly that we’re making a shift from creating an alluring façade for our clients, to undergoing a mutual journey of discovery. It’s a journey where we help them uncover their true strengths and align those strengths with powerful statements that resonate with the force of truth.
We want to hold up a mirror in which our clients can see their best selves, and shine a light that shows our clients what their customers really feel. We want to build authentic brands.
1. ‘That Craft Beer You’re Drinking Isn’t Craft Beer. Do You Care?’ Brad Tuttle, August 13, 2013. Time Magazine.
2. “The Truth About Faux Craft’, January 5, 2013, Dominic Kelly, The Ladder, The Blog of Dominic Kelly, Proprietor of Hashigo Zake, Cult Beer Bar.
3. ‘New Zealand Craft Beer Industry Insights 2015’, ANZ Bank.
4. ‘Pure as. Celebrating 10 Years of 100% Pure New Zealand’ Tourism New Zealand.
5. New Zealand’s ranking in Yale University’s Environmental Performance Index has fallen from 1 in 2006, to 16 in 2016. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report; ‘Environment at a Glance 2015’ ranks New Zealand poorly for waste disposal and greenhouse gas emissions. The Ministry of the Environment states “a ‘business as usual’ approach will not deal with the increased threats and opportunities. If New Zealand takes the wrong path, we risk damage to our domestic well-being and international reputation.”
6. “100% Pure Fantasy? Living up to our brand”, Matt Stewart, December 1, 2013, Stuff.
7. In 2011 Marketing Experiments tested a landing page using a stock image of a model pretending to be a call centre employee against the same landing page with a real person from that company. The real person version converted 34.7% higher. In 2010 the Neilsen Norman group ran eye tracking on website users, which showed that people treated photos of real people as important content, but skimmed over stock shots, “Photos as Web Content”, Jakob Neilson, September 2010. A 2014 study by Laundry Service showed that candid Instagram style images outperformed staged studio images by 25% and click through rates increased over 5%.
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