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Brand Management

Brand Transparency vs Brand Authenticity

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Whole Foods Brand Transparency

Last week, brand leaders from many industries gathered for The Blake Project’s annual Un-Conference at the Versace Mansion in Miami Beach. During a segment led by Mark Di Somma on Evolving Customer Engagement, one participant smartly reminded the group that transparency and authenticity are each unique.

Mark Di Somma offered this, “We quite rightly think of both transparency and authenticity as being about truth. The difference is that transparency is about being true to others in what you disclose while authentic is about being true to yourself in how you act.”

Transparency is a property of observation
For brands to be transparent, there must be an absence of hidden agendas and conditions, and a minimum degree of disclosure wherein transactions, practices, dealings and agreements are open to all for verification. While the operations of a business can be made to be transparent, it does not mean it creates resonance. The Edelman Trust Barometer findings in the US and Canada revealed an overwhelming majority of consumers felt the speed at which new pharmaceuticals and technologies were coming into market did so without adequate testing and trials. The curious insight from the Edelman study is that most companies had conducted adequate testing, well within required regulations and making full disclosures publically available. Given this level of transparency, why was there so little belief?

During the Un-Conference, Dr. Gerard Gibbons shared a compelling example of statistics illustrated as a well-designed infographic followed by a story which incorporated every data point from the infographic threaded as a narrative line in a video. By the time Gerard’s session was finished, nobody recalled the stats, but everyone remembered the story. The implication: While transparency requires that disclosure and data be made available, the data alone is not enough. Human beings do not communicate with charts and white papers no matter how well they are designed, we communicate with stories.

Authenticity is a quality of demonstration
To operate the brand with authenticity, a brand needs to connect emotionally and show empathy. This brings us back to the importance of story and how the brand voice resonates with authenticity. The stories these brands tell must include elements of (1) how their offerings make consumers’ lives better; (2) how the brand is committed to a customer’s well-being; (3) how the brand contributes to society as a whole. As with transparency, the communication is not what is most important, the reflection in how the human beings behind the brand demonstrate these qualities, is.

Consider brands that are both transparent and authentic:

  • Whole Foods
  • Ben & Jerry’s
  • Patagonia

The growing trend wherein the real and the candid are becoming the ideal is increasingly important to consumers. In particular, transparency in how brands procure and prepare ingredients is sought more and more. After all, these are the products we eat and drink, the products we use to clean our bodies, clothes and homes. It is equally refreshing to see transparency in the way corporations in other industries conduct business. The experience brands like Patagonia and REI offer similar degrees of disclosure.

Consider brands which are authentic but not transparent:

  • Apple
  • Nike
  • Coca-Cola

It’s not a negative. “Inventor” brands need to have a mythology behind the magic they offer, and we are irresistibly drawn to that kind of mystery. But there will be no positive curiosity without authenticity. The stories told by these brands are all about the feeling they want consumers to have when they experience their products and services.

Consider these categories which are often perceived as neither transparent nor authentic:

  • Financial institutions
  • Healthcare
  • Telcos

Brands in these categories are often plagued by a deadly combination of hidden costs, contracts and requirements, abuse of powers and corporate greed, and inflexible (terrible) customer service. New entries here by upstart challenger brands can create positive disruption driving dramatic changes in perception. But the big brands will have a more difficult time. They must consider the fundamental elements which form their purpose: Culture, organization, and strategy before they can commit to transparency and authenticity.

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