What Does Brand Authenticity Look Like in the Era of Fake News and Fake Followers?


several employees giving each other a group fist bump

Trust is a critical part of marketing. It doesn’t matter how earth-shattering your claims of performance are, or how amazing your storytelling is, or whether you nail your persona and audience targeting across digital channels—if your prospects don’t believe what you’re saying, they’re not going to be any more likely to buy from you.

It’s more important than ever to ensure your business is trusted by the people you’re trying to sell to. The public cares more than it ever has about whether or not a business is trustworthy, and they’re less likely than ever to trust you naturally. And that should be no surprise—from “fake news” to fake followers on social media, what was once regarded as truth is being called into question each and every day.

So how can your business cut a path through all the cynicism and deception and show your customers that you are really, actually authentic, and not simply trying to get their hard-earned money to improve your own profit margin? Well, an authentic brand presentation is a good start. Let’s talk about the problem in a little more depth, and then consider how we might move towards a solution.

The Problem: People think we’re all liars.

A number of recent studies show us some pretty damning data about how consumers feel about brands these days. In short, they think we’re all liars. Here are some fun examples of just how much confidence the public has lost in marketers and business:

  • According to a survey conducted by McCann’s Truth Central unit, 42% of Americans find brands and companies less truthful than they did 20 years ago. At least some of this is wrapped up in the increasingly fractious political climate in the country—Steve Zaroff, chief strategy officer of McCann North America, said that the study wasn’t intended to focus on politics, but “the people in America would not let [them]” ignore it, as politics has “risen to the level of popular culture.”
  • In a late 2017 study, Forrester found that consumer trust is at an all-time low; customer experience scores have stalled, with no brands significantly improving trust or experience scores over the previous year.
  • It’s not just Americans, either—consumer trust in brands is at its lowest point in the UK since the market crash of 2008, according to the Reputation Institute. Trust in brands to “do the right thing” dropped by 10% last year, while the likelihood of giving brands “the benefit of the doubt” dropped 13%. When it comes to recommending brands, only 38% of consumers said they were likely to recommend a brand, a decrease of 7% from 2016.
  • Finally, according to a study by Trinity Mirror and Ipsos Connect, 70% of consumers don’t trust advertising, and 40% distrust brands, seeing them as part of the “establishment,” arrogant, and “self-serving.” Consumers see brands claiming to serve a higher purpose, but rising cynicism means 58% don’t believe them until they’ve seen genuine proof that they’re actually doing it.

So yeah, things aren’t great. How did we get here?

What happened to consumer trust?

One of the reasons why consumers aren’t as trusting as they used to be is simply because they’re paying more attention. It’s far easier to get information in 2018 than it was in 1958, after all. Back in the day, you couldn’t just look up a business on Yelp (or even Google)—you had to make do with what they said to the public through advertising, as well as word of mouth from other consumers and newspaper reports and the like.

Today, everything that pretty much any business does—good or bad—is available to all, quickly and easily. And consumers take advantage of that. You can’t simply hope people will overlook a scandal, or even a misbehaving employee.

Most brands have leaned into this shift, attempting to help shape the narrative by being active online—from the obvious activity, like building and maintaining a website that informs customers and (hopefully) drives leads and conversions, to more participatory efforts, like leveraging social media and digital advertising to listen to and engage with their customers.

These are positive developments, because they give a business the opportunity to meaningfully engage with its customers in ways that were previously not possible. But these new channels can also cause issues. The significant increase in the number of interactions between people and brands doesn’t just create opportunities to build brand loyalty; it also provides opportunities to create dissatisfied customers. A bad tweet can turn the public against your business, or at least create a big mess for your PR team to clean up. In other words, more touchpoints mean more places you can screw up.

Digital advertising is a big source of consumer frustration. Despite the fact that digital advertising has now been around for over two decades, the pace of change has led many brands to develop bad habits. They’ve fallen into “budget brand” behaviors that wouldn’t cut it in more traditional channels—habits like aggressive retargeting. According to Trinity Mirror and Ipsos Connect’s research, 40% of consumers think of brands as “pushy,” and 57% of adults think brands should be more careful where they place their advertising.

Other research has found (not surprisingly) that social media is the least trusted channel of all, as 63% of respondents said they would respond more positively to the same ad if it appeared on a more traditional advertising channel than if it was on social.

Does this mean we avoid social and other digital marketing? Of course not. But it does mean that, if you’re not diligent about meeting high standards, shoddy digital work can easily turn prospects off from wanting to work with you or buy from you.

The Solution: Prove to your customers you’re worthy of trust.

So what can we do to regain the trust of the people we’re trying to sell to? We have to show them that, despite how they may feel about brands in general, yours is worthy of trust—that your brand is authentic, not just a try-hard. Note that I say show, because that’s very important—simply telling people how great you are is not going to break through the wall of cynicism. If anything, it’ll only make it worse.

Here’s how you can pull it off.

Find your authentic “why.”

Remember earlier, when we saw that people don’t believe brands when they say they’re trying to serve a deeper purpose than profit? There’s a good reason for that—a fair number of brands aren’t really devoted to their supposed mission. It’s more there as window dressing to make them seem more appealing. That’s probably one of the worst things a brand can do.

What you need to do is find an authentic “why” behind what you do. You’ve probably heard Simon Sinek’s TED Talk before (if not, we’ve talked about it before, go ahead and watch it). And the reason marketers talk about it so much is because it’s great advice! But again, it only works if it’s real. Hopefully, you already have a good idea of what your “why” is, because it’s the real motivator behind what you do every day. If not, go through the exercise of finding yours.

Then truly live it. Back up your words with action, and practice what you preach.

Provide value, both in price and otherwise.

Discounts are great, at least for your customers. Who doesn’t like paying a little less for something they need than they expected? But for your business, they aren’t always so helpful in the long run—people are wary of deals that might not be as good as they sound, and too many deals can erode their confidence in you. Still, though, discounts can be a useful tool when used sparingly and intelligently.

But that’s not the only way to provide value for your customers. You can make sure they get more than they’re paying for without dropping your prices. Loyalty programs, personalization, and partnerships with other related businesses can all give customers a little more bang for their buck—and keep them coming back for more.

Be truthful with your customers—show how the sausage is made.

Transparency is critical in pretty much every facet of your business. It’s important internally—actually, transparency is one of our core values at Element Three—but it’s also important to be transparent with your customers.

That’s easy enough when things are going well. When your business is firing on all cylinders, of course you’re going to want to share that with people. But when things aren’t so great, that’s actually when transparency is most important. If you show your customers you’re willing to be frank with them about negative things, they’ll know that they can trust you when you talk about anything else.

Openness is a great antidote for mistrust. Let people know what’s going on, and they’ll be more likely to listen to what you want them to hear.

Don’t ignore feedback, and respond to problems.

It’s easier than ever today for customers to provide feedback after interacting with your business. There are tons of avenues just online available for praise and complaints, and frankly that’s a good thing. Whether it’s a phone call or a Facebook comment, it’s easy to know where you’re successful and where you could use some improvements.

It’s important not to ignore that feedback, and to make changes based on what you’re hearing from customers. But it’s also important to make sure customers know they’re being heard. Especially when feedback is given publicly (again, think about Facebook comments) it’s a good idea to respond. It shows the complainant that you care about their issue as you work to resolve it, and it shows everyone else on the platform that you’re diligent in providing great customer service.

Prove to people that they should trust you.

A much shorter way of saying all of that: words alone are never going to pop the cynicism balloon. You have to take action. Build trust in your brand by showing again and again—every day—that you’re worthy of trust. Prove your value, respond to your customers, be truthful and open, and always make decisions based on your “why.” In today’s world, where truth and trust are more precious commodities than ever, it’s critical that you do everything in your power to affirm your integrity to your customers. It could be the difference between success and failure.

Plus, you probably expect the businesses you support to do the same for you.

Thomas wears a few hats—writer, editor, and European soccer expert—but his passion is content creation. When he's not crafting thoughtful content, he's coaching high school running, watching the Mets, or talking up Indianapolis to anyone who will listen.

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