Business Management

Consumer Branding: Is authenticity enough?

Joshua Gan
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Consumers rely on brands to express themselves,
self-enhance, or self-verify. At the same time, consumers are confronted with increasing commercialization, an overflow of the fake and an omnipresence of meaningless market offers.
To overcome this meaninglessness, consumers look for brands that are relevant, original and genuine: they increasingly search for authenticity in brands.

- From EHL Associate Professor Florent Girardin’s co-authored article "Brand Authenticity: An integrative framework and measurement scale", published online in December 2014.

Brand authenticity – A flag all companies try to fly high to varying levels of success. What are the drivers behind perceived brand authenticity and how can it be achieved? How can service and luxury brands capitalize on authenticity to elevate the experience?

In an EHL webinar, Florent Girardin, EHL Assistant Professor of Marketing and Arnaud Frade, Chief Commercial Officer Asia-Pacific of Ipsos, dove deep into the topic of brand authenticity, both from the research and consumer insight perspectives.

Florent, what motivated the topic of your thesis? What is brand authenticity?

F: I was motivated by the question of how important perceived brand authenticity is in purchase decisions. We needed to have a clear and integrated framework to encompass the many definitions of brand authenticity. To do that, we decided to take a consumer perspective because, in the end, this is what matters.

We interviewed many consumers and realized that they were relying on three different perspectives in forming their brand authenticity perception:

Consumer Branding

  • The first is the Objective perspective and this relates to evidence-based authenticity: facts that can prove that the brand is authentic. It could be the localization of production, the quality of the material etc., things that are really evidence-based.
  • The second is more subjective. It's called Constructive brand authenticity, and this comes more from impressions – Does the brand look authentic? Brands that are not objectively authentic may still be constructively authentic if they have the authentic look, use codes of authenticity in their communication through storytelling, or talk about their values, etc.
  • The third is Existential brand authenticity, which comes more from the relationship with individual consumers. Here, authenticity is perceived when consumers can reveal their own identity when consuming a brand, and if the brand can help consumers find their true selves.

 

Arnaud, what are your thoughts on these three ways that consumers perceive brand authenticity?

A: Consumers don't necessarily perceive authenticity in quite a structured and organized way; it's a lot more organic and that means that it's a lot more open to trickery, as much as true authenticity. I think what we can say is that consumers today are becoming increasingly sophisticated. This is a huge shift; just a few years ago, it was possible to launch brands in all sorts of ways and to try to be authentic. Today, consumers are far more aware, educated, and extremely knowledgeable in their ability to spot and be conscious of these three dimensions activated by different brands.

 

What are the dimensions of perceived brand authenticity?

F: We interviewed over 2,000 consumers across seven different studies and came up with four dimensions that constitute brand authenticity as a multi-dimensional construct:

  • The first is Continuity and this relates to how a brand is true to itself. Is it aware of its roots – and is it still true to them today? Louis Vuitton is an example of a brand that has evolved through time and transcended trends, but still stayed true to its roots. For example, their product design has evolved a lot, but you can still find the same codes from the first original products. Heritage is important for this dimension, so well-established brands are higher in this dimension than newer ones.
  • The second dimension is Credibility. Credibility is about the honesty of the brand, its ability to walk the talk, to deliver on its promise and to be reliable. Victorinox came out in our research as a brand that is always reliable and delivers its promise in terms of quality and reliability.
  • The third dimension, Integrity, is related to the morality of the brand and the honesty in intentions. Is the brand driven by a purpose that is more than just profits? Is it honest in its intentions and values? Patagonia, since its founding by Yvon Chouinard, has always respected the founding values of the brand. You can feel that it's not just a profit-driven communications strategy, but it's really an intrinsic motivation of the brand.
  • The fourth, Symbolism, is perhaps the most important today because this relates not so much to the brand but to the relationship of the brand with its customers. Again, this relates back to Existential authenticity because Symbolism is the ability of a brand to help consumers discover their own identity.

Overall, these are the four dimensions that constitute brand authenticity. The higher you are on all these dimensions, the more authentic you are perceived as a brand.

 

Do brands have the same brand authenticity strategy across these four dimensions in different parts of the world?

A: Brands layer their presence and branding across regions in very different ways. Brands have segmented not only their target consumers but also the experiences they deliver. You might go to a store and that's your experience but then there are private rooms or there are stores in stores.

Access to products is another way to create a distinctive experience. You may have a very basic version of a product, or limited-edition items created with exclusive materials. I completely agree with Florent; he is spot-on in terms of the brands that are really building on something genuine because that's what matters. They're not building on a marketing model; they are building on true foundations of an authentic legacy or authentic message.

But in Asia, as with everywhere else, the smartest brands must evolve quickly, even if they have credibility in the market. For example, a brand like Louis Vuitton is constantly reinventing itself. It has entered the e-sports arena with the League of Legends. That's a huge reinvention. It has also entered the NBA (National Basketball Association) – That's another massive leap and it's a totally different type of consumer, creating huge opportunities to extend the brand. These brands are still where they are today because they have reinvented themselves without losing sight of that initial reason of being, their raison d'être. This is linked to the authenticity and purpose of the brand.

 

There seems to be a tension between the need to constantly reinvent oneself because of fast-changing trends and the initial raison d'être of the brand. How is this balance achieved?

F: You're completely right. There is a challenge for brands because they need to be simultaneously timeless whilst evolving and innovating. I like Arnaud’s example about Louis Vuitton because to me, it's one of the brands that has really identified the core of its brand identity, the brand DNA, the things that should never change. They can do new things, innovate, or use new technologies, but the core of the brand should always be there.

A: I think it’s tension if it goes too far in one way versus the other. There are brands that have gone way too far in one space, trying to innovate for innovation's sake, and in doing so, they've lost themselves. There's no real coming back from that, especially in an environment where consumers increasingly have a lot more choices.

Is brand loyalty dead?

A: Brand loyalty has declined over time because there are more options. However, some brands still manage to drive loyalty because they're anchored into these four dimensions of authenticity. But loyalty to bad brands – that's gone. It's a little like hearing about retail being dead. Not all retail is dead. In fact, some retailers are doing very well. But bad retail is definitely gone and it's going to be the same across any other sector, including hospitality.

Brands, regardless of the field, have become irrelevant because they've stretched too far, or they've been proven to not be aligned with their messages. We see that a lot now, and these brands are going to be in big trouble because consumers are no longer interested in tolerating the dissonance between a brand trying to be something and acting in a different way. This lack of congruence is at the core of what is going to destroy brands at an accelerated pace as we exit this first phase of COVID-19 and as we go into the new normal.

 

Arnaud, do consumers really purchase solely based on brand authenticity?

A: The question is, "Do new consumers today care very much about authenticity for the sake of it?" The answer is no. That alone doesn't get you a new purchase; it contributes to it, and in some cases, it's vital to it. With a brand like Patagonia, there are two reasons why you buy Patagonia. One, because they make outstanding products. You might know nothing about the company but when you go to a retailer and pick up one of their fleeces or their jackets, it's a top-quality product at a fair price. And if it gets damaged, they'll repair it. The integrity here is in the integrity of the products. The second reason is the second type of consumer: people that really buy the philosophy and want to wear that philosophy literally on their shoulders, and that matters a lot.

So, in some aspects, perceived brand authenticity does not matter as much in driving sales. Even if you have a great legacy, if you're no longer relevant, you're just no longer relevant. That's where innovation kicks in, like the Louis Vuitton example of their League of Legends partnership. They're constantly reinventing themselves and shifting without losing grip of the anchor of authenticity.

F: Building on what Arnaud said, a consumer who buys a brand because he adheres to the brand philosophy is much more loyal than a customer who buys it because of product quality. Because if another product comes with better quality, then this consumer will switch to the new brand. If you really believe in the values and the intentions of the brand and you adhere to them and use it to express to others your own identity, then you are much more loyal and this is really powerful in terms of brand equity.

A: The big shift is no longer, in my opinion, towards just authenticity. It's towards brands that are human; brands that are not perfect because we're not perfect. Brands are starting to take a much more human persona, meaning they do get it wrong – but when they get it wrong, for example, they don't issue a press release with lots of marketing lingo because everybody can see through this now in an instant. So, what they do is they apologize, they fix it, and they do that with integrity and honesty.

 

With brands becoming more human, does that also mean that the human representation of the brand, the employee, will also become more central to how brands are perceived?

A: Completely. I think smart brands today will over-invest in their employees. If you have a big brand and you talk about how it's all about luxury or the quality of service, and I turn up in your store and your employees are disengaged or not knowledgeable, that's dissonance. Immediately, you've broken the rule of authenticity and you're out of the picture.

It is the same for hospitality – At the heart of it, hospitality is a genuine feeling of warmth and being welcomed. It's not about the processes and the efficiency of it. That’s a huge challenge – If you're a big chain, how can you maintain that? Well, the short answer is simple -- through the people you’ve hired. That housekeeping lady who has been doing the same job for 40 years – she's not a cost. She's a phenomenal asset because she's going to bring the first experience to the guest in the hotel. She could be fun and interactive, leading to great guest experiences. If she is grumpy and does a bad job, my impression of the hotel that is worth $100 million is completely corrupted.

F: I fully agree with you. We also found that employee behavior is the key to communicating authenticity. Employees not only need to be aware and knowledgeable about the brand DNA, they first need to believe in it – they need to live the brand promise and be brand ambassadors. This is the best way to communicate brand authenticity because those customer touchpoints with employees, as you rightly said could be anyone, are what will make the difference. Another way is through brand anthropomorphism: the way a brand is humanized. The more a brand is perceived as being human, the more it is authentic, so I completely agree, because we saw in our research that this human aspect is becoming increasingly important to convey and enhance perceived brand authenticity.

 

How are the service and luxury brands capitalizing on authenticity to elevate the customer experience?

A: The focus on experiences is probably the single largest trend in the last 5 to 10 years in the luxury and luxury hospitality industries. There is a complete shift; consumers will no longer just spend money on things. The key is to steep what you design in the authentic reality of where you are, the culture you're in. Consumers do not travel, especially in the high-end segment, just to be in a group of 200 people or wait in line to see sights. You want to be just with a few people, to meet local culture to understand it, to educate yourself and if you're traveling with children, you want them to experience the true nature of what the local culture is.

It's also about crafting things that are relevant. Some companies or brands are experts, but also, some people are experts at that and the best example of this is Shinta Mani by Bill Bensley. That is outstanding in terms of creating something that is so truly anchored in its surroundings that it's no longer ‘authentic’. It is 'it.' It is the country or the region that it represents and I think that transcends the need to talk the ‘marketing-speak’ that we do as a business, and it touches on the very fundamentals of the mission that the brand has set to achieve.

 

Florent, please explain another element of your research, the framework of cues.

F: Indexical cues are evidence-based facts, so they relate to the Objective authenticity perspective. For example, consumers will use brand quality features to judge whether a brand is authentic. The reliability of the product may also increase perceived brand authenticity. Employee behavior is of course important and also the location – the "Made in" aspect of the brands. These are indexical cues.

Iconic cues refer more to the brand’s communication style. If a brand communicates a lot about its history or moral values, it becomes more authentic in the minds of consumers. For example, luxury brands are expressing their flagship stores as museums to create an experience. Luxury brands have a huge opportunity to elevate the customer experience by using their history and heritage to immerse their customers in their brand universe, and technology like virtual reality will further enhance this.

The last cue, Existential cues, are related to the customers themselves. If customers have the same values as the brand, they will identify with the brands and use them to express to others who they are. In this aspect, a brand that is more human will have better chances of being used by customers to reveal and express their true selves through the consumption of these brands. These are the three types of cues that increase perceived brand authenticity.

Consumer Branding 2

We spoke a little about marketing fatigue and how consumers today are savvier and more sceptical towards marketing communications. Therefore, marketing scepticism decreases the impact of communications. They will double-check if the communication is honest or if it is just marketing ‘blah-blah’.

Another realization in our research was that the effect of perceived brand authenticity has another important brand equity concept: emotional brand attachment. The more a brand is perceived as being authentic, the more it will generate an emotional brand attachment with consumers.

We also found that consumers who are authentic people themselves value the authenticity of brands more, and consider authenticity as an important purchase criterion. For people that are not authentic, it's not as important for a brand to be authentic and they rely on other purchase criteria.

A: Not every brand needs to be ‘authentic’. Some consumers don't really care – they just want to buy or experience something that is cheap or cheerful or fun etc. For example, if your message is, "We're a brand new hotel chain, we're all about fun and engagement and experience for singles on a budget," that's totally alright and very authentic in itself – authenticity doesn't just mean history or legacy. Authenticity is telling the truth. And that becomes the key judgment element for consumers: "Is the brand telling the truth? Is it aligned to its values?” And that's good enough.

 

How can new brands present themselves as authentic?

F: We talked a lot about history and heritage but when you build a new brand, you don't have such history and heritage to build on, so what is important is the Integrity dimension. You need to be passionate; you need to have a brand purpose that is authentic in a way that is not driven by profits, but by a true passion. We see well-established authentic brands are those founded by people passionate about their businesses, like Gabrielle Chanel or Yvon Chouinard. My advice to people who are building new brands is to have a true purpose, believe in what you do and create a brand because you really have something you're passionate about. Otherwise, it will be very difficult to achieve authenticity.

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Written by

Regional Director, Asia-Pacific at EHL

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