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Authenticity is essential to brand building

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March 10, 2023

Ask 100 business leaders what the word “branding” means to them and you’re likely to get 100 different answers.

Probe a little further, though, and you’ll start to land on some commonalities such as: “It’s important to build a strong brand,” or “a brand needs to be authentic.”

Sound words of advice, but what does branding mean and why is it so important?  

What is branding?
In the purest term, branding is simply aligning your product or service to feelings that connect with potential consumers.

It’s tying an emotional element to an otherwise inanimate object and, when done effectively, can create a loyal customer base – one that’s willing to pay a higher premium as a result.

Companies like Apple and Milwaukee Tool are masters at it.

Don’t believe me?

Ask a loyal customer about their iPhone or someone who uses one of Milwaukee’s tools and you’re likely to hear phrases like “love it,” “can’t go without it” or some other emotion-driven sentiment.

Why is that?

Because these two companies, as well as other companies with strong brands, place significant emphasis on not just building their brand but also being hyper-diligent about not straying from the authenticity of emotions they’ve cultivated with their consumers. 

Why is that so important?
The answer is simple.
Today’s consumers are savvy, value-driven and well-connected to others via the internet.

They won’t hesitate to use social media to call out brands making claims they can’t – or choose not to – live up to. 

When this occurs, even the most recognizable brands can be tarnished, sometimes, irreparably.

For instance, compare apparel company, Patagonia, against vehicle manufacturer Volkswagen (VW).

Patagonia markets and sells outdoor clothing that adheres closely to its brand that specifically targets outdoor adventure seekers.

The company’s brand is 100% focused on selling the outdoor experience.

More importantly, Patagonia puts financial support behind environmental improvement initiatives around the world.

So, not only is their brand selling the user a “connection” with nature, but it also actively works to preserve that nature.

Patagonia’s customers appreciate this, support it and are willing to pay a higher price for it at checkout.

Conversely, VW had a somewhat similar brand message.

VW branded its vehicles as offering drivers the experience of the open road with destinations to the great outdoors.

However, in 2015, it was discovered VW purposely violated the U.S. EPA’s Clean Air Act by equipping nearly 600,000 diesel motor vehicles with computer software devices designed to falsely pass federal emissions tests.

The revelation caused a huge revolt from customers feeling betrayed.

By spring of 2016, VW’s profits were down 20%.

The fallout continued for years, with Fortune Magazine reporting in 2020 that the manufacturer “laid off 30,000 employees worldwide as it overhauled operations in the wake of the scandal.”

The harsh reality
Consumers are savvier than ever, and they despise being deceived.

And, when they feel deceit, they are quick to turn to social media to raise awareness and rally others to turn on a brand.
Clearly, VW is an extreme example of brand deception.

However, it doesn’t always have purposeful intent.

Sometimes, a misstep in messaging is all it takes, like when Dove, well known for its line of skincare products, launched its new “body-positive bottles” in 2017.

The limited-edition body wash bottles consisted of a variety of shapes designed to be a “body-positive” affirmation for women.
It failed miserably, and the backlash was swift with many women left feeling patronized, saying the bottles literally turn women’s bodies into objects.

What was supposed to be a well-intentioned show of support by Dove quickly turned into the need for an apology and an abrupt end to the campaign.

To avoid missteps like this, it’s up to each company to closely guard against casual or insincere claims that create distrust or resentment towards their brand.

Doing so means doing the research, understanding your audience and being certain to evaluate every message carefully to ensure it aligns with, and stays authentic, to your brand. 

Cole Buergi is vice president of Leonard & Finco Public Relations, Inc., a Green Bay-based, full-service PR firm with a North American client base. L&F specializes in issues management, media (traditional, trade online, social), marketing, branding and crisis management.

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