Lately, it seems like whenever I have a discussion about branding, the word authenticity comes up, no matter what the category or age of the target audience. It seems like authenticity, and the desire to portray a brand as authentic, is on everyone’s mind. So what is authenticity? Essentially it’s the quality of being genuine or real, but often we use the word to mean true to its origins, unadulterated, or uncompromised. Based on research from Iconoculture, a top U.S. consumer trends firm, a strong majority of U.S. consumers agrees that "being genuine and authentic is extremely important for me and for the things and people in my life." Also of note is that authenticity is one of the top 10 values that is deemed personally important across all generations.
Though all generations value authenticity, what makes a brand authentic to each varies. While many Millennials may not be able to put into words what makes a brand authentic, they know it when they see it and often have a visceral reaction to things that don’t feel authentic. For them, being authentic is about being comfortable with your identity -- knowing who you are, owning it consistently, and not trying too hard. So how does that translate to brands? Here are four key ways brands are effectively owning this value with Millennials:
According to a 2013 report from Trendwatching.com, “... human nature dictates that people have a hard time genuinely connecting with, being close to, or really trusting other humans who (pretend to) have no weaknesses, flaws, or mistakes.” This is not only true of human connections; it’s true of our relationships with brands. Millennials expect brands to behave in a consistent way that is true to the values they are trying to promote, but they realize that that sometimes brands aren’t perfect. In these instances, it is critical that instead of hiding from or covering up the problem that brands embrace their vulnerability. They need to hold themselves accountable and be transparent (through the good and bad). It is that behavior that will earn them the respect and trust of Millennials. Domino’s Pizza is a noteworthy example of this; it embraced its flaws and made accountability an integral part of its marketing strategy, becoming a trusted brand with this generation.
Being True to Tradition
Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey is a great example of a brand that is appealing to Millennials by being true to tradition. It has been making its whiskey using the same charcoal mellowing process in the same location (Lynchburg, Tennessee) since 1866. Its website prominently features a timeline where years are used as chapters to tell a story about the independent spirit of its brand and craftsmanship of its product. Another sweet example, Ben and Jerry’s, has consistently introduced new funky flavors while staying true to its traditions. It has connected with the community for almost 70 years by hosting a free film festival and giving away free scoops on the anniversary of its store. It’s a small gesture that has had a big impact.
Brands are also seen as more authentic by this generation when they are simplistic in the process and ingredients they use. Millennials especially have a desire for honesty and transparency; they value things that are as close to their real form as possible. A growing fast casual chain I work with is embracing this; its menu is simple. It makes only hand-crafted personal pizzas and salads. All of its crusts are made fresh daily and its toppings are hand-chopped. Its interactive ordering process allows you to see your pizza being made from start to finish, and you can load up an unlimited amount of toppings for one set price. The Honest Co., co-founded by Millennial actress and mom Jessica Alba, also fits this mold. The company’s goal is to create better home and personal care products that are unquestionably safe, eco-friendly, beautiful, convenient, and affordable. For every product, it calls out what the product is honestly free from (usually listing a bunch of scary chemicals) and provides a list of ingredients (with a layman’s definition of what that particular substance does).
Being True to Themselves
This only works for those brands that already have a strong sense of place in our culture, but it does work as long as the brand doesn’t fall into the trap of trying to be everything to everyone. Case in point, Taco Bell. The chain doesn’t serve authentic Mexican food and everyone knows that, but it is a brand that is authentically itself. It’s known for boldly flavored late-night indulgence, and when it delivers that, like the Cool Ranch Doritos Locos taco, Millennials love them for it. Another example of this is Apple; it is incredibly consistent and true to its brand values despite the diversity of its product portfolio.
The good news, if you are trying to establish the authenticity of your brand with Millennials, is that they don’t look at the value in terms of absolutes. What they deem as being authentic can take a variety of forms; so as marketers, the key is to clearly define your brand, to own it consistently (behaving in an honest and reliable way), and to not try too hard.