It’s kind of a woolly term, isn’t it, authenticity? No doubt it means slightly different things to different people. But broadly speaking, authenticity is about trust. And, these days, trust matters. As consumer surveys demonstrate, we seem to be getting more skeptical – not just of organizations, but also the media, governments, and other institutions. In this skeptical environment, brands that have a reputation for being genuine immediately differentiate themselves from the pack. So it’s no surprise that 86 percent of consumers across the US, UK, and Australia feel authenticity is a key factor when deciding what brands to support.
What makes a business authentic?
We can answer this question by thinking about the qualities that inspire trust. For me, the following attributes spark trust in a brand:
- Reliability – I want to know I can count on a brand and its products. So products with a built-in obsolescence, or companies that provide a less-than-great service are unlikely to earn my trust. Reliability also entails being a consistently authentic In other words, authenticity isn’t a buzzword to focus on for the next year.
- Respectfulness – by which I mean respect for people (including those involved in the making of products), cultures, and, crucially, our environment. This ties in with other key business trends such as sustainable operations and conscious consumption.
- Realness – authentic brands talk to me like a human being. The corporate guard is dropped, in other words. And this allows vulnerability and humility to shine through – meaning authentic brands are able to ‘fess up to their shortcomings and mistakes. This willingness to show that everything isn’t perfect really helps to build trust. It shows the brand isn’t trying to pull the wool over my eyes (which, as the overall decline in trust shows, is something that many people suspect is happening).
- Transparency – corporate transparency means being open and straight-up with customers, employees, and even competitors. So it’s no surprise that the most trusted, authentic companies in the world are transparent in the way that they operate. They have transparent values and processes. They’re also open about technology and how they use it.
- Taking a stance – as a conscious consumer, I want brands to believe in the same things I do. Authentic brands, then, often take a stance on issues – such as calling out racism or highlighting the climate crisis. In line with this, business leaders are also increasingly expected to stand up for their beliefs (more on this coming up).
Authenticity in action
There are many brands out there that successfully embody these qualities and inspire trust – brands like The Body Shop, Patagonia, and Toms. But let’s delve into one brand in particular.
Buffer is a social media management tool that, while it may not be a household name, does have a strong reputation for transparency among its fans. Indeed, transparency has been baked into the business from its early days, with “default to transparency” being one of the company’s core values. Buffer even has a page on its website dedicated to transparency. Take a look, and you'll see the many ways in which Buffer promotes transparency both internally and externally. For example, the company publishes salaries, its salary calculator, revenue dashboard, and internal metrics online. It's actually really refreshing to see so much of a company laid bare.
Authentic organizations need authentic leaders. And just as with brands, authentic leaders are those that connect with people on a human level, are transparent, and build trust. As a result, authentic leaders inspire loyalty in both employees and customers.
Some of the attributes frequently associated with authentic leaders include:
- Leading with empathy – the best leaders lead from the heart, meaning they recognize and respond to the humanness in others.
- Being honest – authentic leaders are honest, open, and transparent. And they’re comfortable discussing failures and mistakes, as well as successes.
- Having a strong ethical and moral compass – they have strong values and are not afraid to publicly stand up for those values.
- Being self-aware – authentic leaders are well aware of their weaknesses as well as their strengths and openly share those weaknesses. As part of this, they reflect on their actions, decisions, and experiences – both good and bad – and learn from them.
- Bringing your whole self to work – previously, leaders might have different personas – one for work and one for outside of work. But in today’s age, it’s really important to bring your “whole self” to work. Therefore, the public persona of an authentic leader reflects who they really are in private.
For me, that last attribute is key to being an authentic leader. That’s why you’ll often see authentic leaders using social media to show who they are and what’s important to them. To put it another way, building an authentic digital footprint is now an essential way to connect with customers and employees alike. It's a stark difference from the leaders of old, who might have relied on corporate comms to speak for them.
Dan Schulman, CEO of PayPal, is a great example of a leader using social media to highlight issues and support social causes. He has used his platforms to post about Black Lives Matter – and, importantly, followed up his words with action (PayPal later pledged $530 million to support black-owned businesses). Another example comes from Michele Romanow, co-founder, and president of fintech lending firm Clearbanc. Romanow posts compelling educational videos on Instagram about entrepreneurship and leadership, and during the pandemic, Romanow urged people to stay home and used her platform to raise awareness of fake news.
Bottom line, in this era of declining trust, authenticity is a way for businesses and leaders to differentiate themselves. It’s a way to build meaningful, lasting connections with audiences and employees alike.
Read more about these and other future trends in my book, Business Trends in Practice: The 25+ Trends That are Redefining Organizations, which has just been awarded Business Book of the Year 2022.
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