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shutterstock_3911599961876-9346-2-webBeing reliable, trustworthy and acting in line with a brand’s purpose is key to a brand’s authenticity, writes Brían Merriman.

It’s that time of year when people travel, passing through new airports, along new motorways, and down unfamiliar streets. Some of these people are tired, hungry, and emotional and they do not have the capacity to drive to another service area or trawl through the guidebook to find somewhere mind-expanding where they can buy food. Sometimes they just go into McDonald’s!

At times like this, brands are shortcuts that allow us to fulfil specific and acute needs without demanding enormous effort. We look for brands that are recognisable, reliable, and reassuring. Discovery research is about understanding people’s needs so that we can create authentic-brand strategies to meet those needs.

Even on less constrained occasions, people are still trying to fulfil important needs. For example, they need food brands that help them nourish themselves and their families. Consumers are bombarded with messages about food and health, told that a glass of red wine is good for us one day and bad for us the next. Investigative journalists and celebrity nutritionists are taking us behind the factory wall and into the lab to see what’s really in our food and what it is doing to us. In the face of such uncertainty, we need brands we can trust to have our best interests at heart.

Brands also have the function of helping us make judgements about purchase decisions. Where we’re weighing up options, we can think about all that we’ve seen and heard from these brands and draw conclusions about their quality and level of service.

We take into account our own experience of using the brand, advertising and promotions, and what others have told us about their experience, all of which is connected to the brand name. For researchers, finding out the associations consumers have with brands can help them stay relevant. Crucially, it’s only by finding out directly from consumers that we can understand the role of brand in their decision-making.

Once a consumer has made a purchase, they are associating part of their identity with that brand. People tend to turn away from brands that are associated with scandals or dubious business practices; the perception of Nestlé, for example, is still affected by the baby formula scandal that started in the late 1970s.

On the positive side, authentic brands today take a proactive interest in protecting consumers’ privacy and are socially and environmentally responsible. However, we’re also seeing a trend where donation to charity is no longer enough, so businesses are getting more directly involved. As evidenced by the Focus Ireland Shine-a-Light campaign, which sees companies stage sleep-outs in solidarity with homeless people and those in risk of losing their homes.

In the rush to establish authentic brand credentials, brand strategy can fail in the execution. Brands might assume that authenticity simply means having humans interact with their consumers, not robots. However, robots are cheaper than humans, so we are presented with weird robotic humanoid voices on customer service lines and with online chatbots that can’t answer simple questions.

It’s easy to spot poor technical execution, but the underlying cause is less obvious. It comes down to clarity of purpose: authentic brands have a clear vision of the change they want to see in the world, the values that will help them achieve the vision, and behaviours that directly underpin the values. What often happens, though, is that all the enthusiasm and effort goes into developing the purpose, vision, and values in the first place. There is often little focus on how the people in the company can make it happen and keep making it happen. We’ve all been in offices where the brand was written on the walls, but was not visible in the actions and attitudes of the people.

Brand authenticity matters for people inside the company too. It gives them a shortcut to see if they’re making the right decision day by day and hour by hour. It gives them goals and targets that go beyond bottom-line figures. When we measure internal brand affinity over time, it allows people to track the company’s progress in living its purpose and to identify areas where renewed effort is needed.

Brand authenticity, then, comes down to being reliable, being trustworthy, and acting in line with the brand’s purpose. There is no shortcut to building an authentic brand strategy, but an authentic brand strategy will be the only shortcut your customers and your people need.

Brían Merriman is research director with MCCP – The Planning Agency

First published in Irish Marketing Journal (July 2016)© to order back issues please call 016611660