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Ben Fahy on brand authenticity. Plus an excerpt from the book

Brand trust is as its lowest ever level. Corporate cynicism is rife. Yet authenticity is craved by marketers. So how, when the taint of commercialism is seen as an anathema to authenticity, can brands obtain it?

This is the question Michael Beverland, professor of marketing at RMIT University in Melbourne (and sometime Idealog contributor) asks—and answers—with Building Brand Authenticity: 7 Habits Of Iconic Brands, an important book that should find favour with marketers, business owners and lovers of underdogs, storytellers and artisans.

With case studies and anecdotes about Zippo, Jack Daniel’s, Morgan Motor Company, Dilmah, Virgin, Apple and many others, a huge amount of personal research and plenty of academic hat-tipping, Beverland details how some brands are able to achieve market success while denying their commercial motivations.

He implores marketers to avoid standard branding advice; “to stop revelling in their expertise, stop playing safe and reject consistency of message”. Instead, he shows how the warts are just as important as the all; the quirks, conflicts, history, creation myths, narratives and failures are all part of his more human approach to brand authenticity. After all, people don’t just join brands, they join clubs.

Of course, it’s impossible to state your brand is authentic. Becoming ‘real’ takes time and, more often than not, he says, a brand’s perception is shaped by consumers and society (for example, Jack Daniel’s, adidas and even Dunlop Volley shoes in Australia). And the smart marketers can seed the cloud.

Seeking sub-culture

From the introduction to Building Brand Authenticity: 7 Habits of Iconic Brands by Michael Beverland

Would anyone care if your brand disappeared? As I write this, the Morgan Motor Company is about to celebrate its centenary. Morganeers around the world, including New Zealanders, are shipping their ‘Mogs’ to the village of Malvern Link to take part in this once-in-a-lifetime celebration of a brand that many business consultants predicted wouldn’t see out the end of the 20th century. At the same time, the Big Three—Chrysler, Ford and General Motors—are receiving financial aid from the US government, much to the consternation of the American taxpayer. The contrast in fortunes between the two sets of companies is as obvious as the contrast between their respective resource bases, including budgets for marketing and research and development.

In its 100-year history, Morgan has released seven different models of car (and you can still buy cars that were effectively designed in the 1950s), whereas barely a year goes by without a new model from the US automakers. Over the last 100 years Morgan has done little in the way of marketing and only recently started formalising its brand position with the strap line ‘Driven at Heart’. In contrast, the US automakers have invested enormous sums into marketing and design. While Ford, Chrysler and General Motors were regularly exemplified in MBA classes, business books and the Harvard Business Review, Morgan gained little attention from those seeking to identify best practice. In fact, at one time Morgan was pilloried as an example of “all that is wrong with British industry”. What’s going on here?

Not everyone was oblivious to the enduring nature of the Morgan brand. Prior to his death, Soichiro Honda predicted the car industry would eventually consist of just six manufacturers. He then paused and said, “Oh, and Morgan”. Similar examples abound across the globe. Remember Michael Dell’s comment about closing Apple and returning the money to stockholders? Which stock would you rather own now? Why do consumers pay exorbitant sums for collectable Altoids tins, proudly display their Dyson vacuum cleaners as taste markers, get tattooed with Apple or Harley Davidson logos, trek to the ends of the Earth to pay homage to their favourite brands of beer, whisky and wine, and so on? What is it about these brands that make them so attractive to large numbers of consumers while more conspicuous brands (such as Microsoft, Ford and Pepsi) struggle? How is it that brands which profess to ‘hate marketing’, ‘do no market research’ or ‘make nothing for the customer’ endure, while those that prostrate themselves before customers struggle (or are at best regarded as functional necessities)? Consumers love these brands because they are authentic.

But wait a minute—isn’t the notion of ‘authentic brands’ contradictory? Doesn’t the very act of branding render a person or object inauthentic? How can one have authenticity when one is tainted by crass commercial motives? The fact is that a large number of brands manage to simultaneously achieve market success while denying any interest in marketing, branding or commercial motivations. The people running these brands paint themselves as perpetual underdogs, fighting against the blandness produced by modern marketers and the standardisation of modern life. Rather than investing heavily in marketing, these brands focus on getting on with the job of making great products, seeking perfection, solving difficult problems or offering great service.

There is an alternative to standard branding advice. I suggest marketers stop revelling in their expertise, stop playing safe and reject consistency of message. Instead, marketers need to imbue their brands with a warts-and-all humanity and use the tools at their disposal to tell, and help others tell, stories. As global managing director for Jack Daniel’s, Gus Griffin says: “Brands can have multiple storytellers. In our advertising, the brand is the storyteller. However, the most powerful storyteller over the history of the brand has been pop culture. The stories told by pop culture have very effectively communicated the independence and masculinity values of the brand, while much of our advertising has communicated the values of authenticity and integrity.”

Just as Jack Daniel’s has gained iconic status by becoming part of popular culture, so too other brands have prospered from allowing consumers and society to become co-authors in their meaning. Adidas’s rebirth in the 1980s provides a compelling example. Largely viewed as a football brand, the adoption of the three stripes by hip-hop act Run DMC breathed new life into the ailing icon. Touring North America, the band noticed that many of their fans were wearing adidas gear to their concerts. The band invited some adidas marketing executives to their Madison Square Garden concert and during the performance of their song ‘My Adidas’—which is not actually a homage to the brand, but an attempt to counter the view at the time that street culture was synonymous with gang violence—they encouraged fans to wave their adidas shoes in the air. The marketing team was smart enough to realise what was happening and promptly signed a sponsorship deal with the band.

The brand was reborn—from preppy lifestyle brand in the 1970s to edgy streetwear in the 1980s and beyond. By allowing the brand’s story to be shaped by a hip-hop group, their fans and the street subculture, adidas’s ailing fortunes were reversed, at relatively little cost.

Still not convinced? If examples don’t suffice, hopefully consumer research will. A recent study conducted by my colleagues identified that brand authenticity is a better predictor of purchase intentions than brand love, trust and credibility. Therefore, more authentic brands have higher levels of equity in their category than other comparable brands. Other research supports these findings, with a brand authenticity index identifying that authentic brands are more likely to attract a higher share of big spending consumers and gain word-of-mouth support. That is, authentic brands gain higher margins at lower promotional cost (it is not unusual for many of the brands covered here to do little or no advertising).