The role of authenticity in branding
What makes a brand real and resonant with its target audience? You may hear brand experts talk about finding the “essence” of a brand or a brand’s “DNA.” The fact is, while many brands rely on elements of authenticity to build their brand, others are quite successful without it and may appear to be just as real.
Marlboro cigarettes are a classic example. Prior to the 1950’s, Marlboro cigarettes were positioned toward women complete with pink packaging and the slogan “Mild as May.” Mae West was one of their spokespersons. But Marlboro wasn’t selling well and in a re-branding effort, the product was shifted to a more masculine brand image, which soon began to center on cowboys, the West, and life on the range. The “Marlboro Man” became an icon of macho branding, but there is not a shred of authenticity to the brand’s essence. Yet while most consumers could tell you that the Marlboro brand image is fabricated, the story that creates the brand is essentially accepted as real or authentic by most of us.
As we are fond of saying, branding is about telling stories, and as consumers we love a good story. Whether it is true or not is secondary. While many brands build honest-to-goodness reality into their brands, others fabricate it. Coors Brewing Company has a genuine connection to the Rockies (and the pure, melting snow that makes its way into their beer); Haagen-Dazs is made in New Jersey. Frank Perdue was the head of Perdue Farms (as is his son, Jim, now), Frank Bartles and Ed Jaymes were fictional characters who thanked us for our support.
Elements of authenticity are frequently over-used. “Family-owned” and “50 years of service” claims are common, offer little distinction in many cases and are often important only to the egos of the companies’ owners and their employees. On the other hand, cyborg brands like Marlboro require heavy media weights to achieve the kind of awareness that lead to an accepted place in our mental brand libraries. When crafting your own brand, choose elements that build a sense of authenticity, but be aware that what’s real and compelling to your target audience may not be as obvious as it seems.