3 Steps for Building Brand Authenticity When Consumer Trust Is at Rock Bottom

Creating brand authenticity is a huge challenge. This is not only because it requires major coordination from all company functions, but it also takes highly focused discipline from strategy and planning to execution. Generating authenticity has three major components.

In my last post, I discussed how brand trust in the U.S. may have hit rock bottom and that marketers need to build brand authenticity. In this article, I would like to discuss a bit about how companies can address this challenge.

Creating brand authenticity is a huge challenge. This is not only because it requires major coordination from all company functions, but it also takes highly focused discipline from strategy and planning to execution. Generating authenticity has three major components: setting expectations, consistently meeting those expectations and actively managing failure. While these components seem simple, executing them well should not be easy. If it is, you are probably doing it wrong.

Step 1: Setting Expectations

When setting expectations, companies should remember that customers do not need you to solve all of their needs, just the needs that you can solve well. We have seen countless examples of companies entering spaces where they are out of their element, in search of new growth streams.

Many times, this ends in a poor customer experience and a huge financial hit. This is where the brand team should lead the conversation around what brand promises the company should make to its target markets. In this statement, “should” is an operative word; but it is often replaced by “want to” or “could,” in practice.

This happens because the market research identifies an unmet need or underserved segment. Then, the brand aspires to fill that gap without properly addressing its corresponding operational capabilities.

One example of how a company did it right is Domino’s pizza. Its well-documented campaign — apologizing for historically bad pizzas and promising a better experience — was bold and brilliant. However, it would have been a humiliating and epic fail if it wasn’t backed by a concerted and highly organized operational transformation.

Step 2: Meeting Those Expectations

Executing well is the next critical component, which has two managerial subcomponents:

  • measuring the customer experience; and
  • listening to the customer.

Companies primarily fail here, because they don’t know what to measure or where to focus. CX can be immensely detailed and complex. That can lead to overwhelming or underwhelming measurement strategies.

Assume you are managing a burger chain. You can measure how often you run out of key menu items or measure customer satisfaction with condiment packaging. Knowing where your priorities lie is important, but is often not as obvious as the previous example would illustrate. This leads to the second subcomponent, listening. Effective listening isn’t just about regular surveys or feedback. Customers of your burger chain may state they are frustrated by hard to open, messy ketchup packets. When looking at behavioral data, how often does that actually lead them to forsake the brand? How about when the menu item they want has run out?

Most market research, by its exploratory nature, is often exhaustive and can present many pain points which need addressing. While some methods, such as conjoint analysis, may help mitigate this issue, there is no substitute for analyzing real behavioral data.

Real listening lies at the intersection of what customers say and what they do.

Step 3: Managing Failure

Finally, brand authenticity requires that you have a prevention and mitigation plan in place, because mistakes happen.

Yes, it is important to “make it right,” and that should be done as soon as possible.

However, it also means knowing the difference between a mistake and a broad violation of the brand essence, or the brand’s core values.

Examples range from knowingly compromising on customer safety to highly public displays of brand hypocrisy. To avoid trust-destroying events, companies should conduct a brand trust audit and examine every compromise it makes that is counter to the core principals of the brand.

Some compromises need to happen, but when they do, they need extra oversight. For example, look at the college admissions scandal I mentioned in my previous post. Many believe that the elite colleges involved were victims. I disagree. Their primary proposition in the market is intellectual heft; yet there are clear avenues where they knowingly compromise on this proposition, such as athletic departments. The colleges should have been much more careful about monitoring that comprise and making sure it was not abused.

Compromises need to be made; however, once brands lose control over the quantity and quality of those compromises, the brand loses control over the values it claims to project.

Conclusion

I ended my last post by writing “Authenticity means saying what you will do, doing what you say and showing that you mean it.”

In retrospect, the statement seems to be focused too much on honest intentions (also sounds like a politician trying to sound folksy and humble.) I will not take back those words, because I also believe them to be true.

In this post, however, I acknowledge that much more goes into this than genuinely honest and good intentions.