Good relationships are built on honesty. Sounds cliché? Sure, but only because it’s true. But more to the point, this statement applies to business and marketing as much as it does to personal relationships.  

Want proof? According to the 2017 Consumer Content Report, 86% of consumers (including 90% of Millennials) cite authenticity as the most important factor in deciding which brands to support. Also, a recent study by Bonfire Marketing concludes that 91% of customers are likely to support brands who are authentic in their social media posts.

Simply put, if you want your customers to love your brand, you need to keep it real.

But why does brand authenticity matter?

Why, indeed?

The answer is simple: Consumers are tired of BS.

Think about it: Before the digital age, brands had more control in influencing the purchasing behavior of consumers. Print and TV advertising was the order of the day, and consumers had no choice but to be relegated to their role as the captive audience.

It was a one-sided affair and brands knew it. Some took liberties by doling out pushy, disingenuous ads. This strategy worked for so many years… until it didn’t. It came to a point where most consumers have had enough. After all, a jaded audience can see a spin from a mile away. In fact, 84% of Millennials say that they don’t trust traditional advertising anymore.

So, what has changed? The internet happened, for starters. Now that we have Facebook, Twitter, and smartphones that let us broadcast live videos around the world, consumers are now in full control of how they interact with brands.

And if you want to turn them into loyal brand advocates, you better not be up to any funny business. Because the buying public not only crave brand authenticity, they demand it.

So, how exactly can a company or brand stay authentic?

Create an authentic brand story

You can start with a story—a brand story to be exact.

First, a short refresher on what a brand story is. Simply put, it’s the narrative created by your brand. It encompasses everything your brand does and what it stands for. Your brand story encapsulates the experience you’re creating for your target audience, serving as the backbone of every piece of content you and your company are creating and publishing.

Most of all, a brand story is a promise you’re making to your customers—a promise to make things better, to ease their burdens, and to effect a positive change in their lives.

And this is important: A brand story is not something you can pull out of thin air. If you want the story to earn the trust of your customers and connect with them on a deeper level, it needs to draw from something personal and meaningful and real. Otherwise, how can your brand stand out from the competition?

In other words, your company has no business (pun intended) pretending to be something that it’s not.

Critically-acclaimed writer Neil Gaiman says it best:

“Start telling the stories that only you can tell, because there’ll always be better writers than you and there’ll always be smarter writers than you. There will always be people who are much better at doing this or doing that – but you are the only you.”

So, how do you create a brand story that is authentic? By drawing from your (or your company’s) back story, of course!

In her Story-Driven framework, branding expert and author Bernadette Jiwa unpacks how a business can use its back story to drive its storytelling. This framework comprises of five levels, which answer the following questions:

  • What’s your backstory?
  • What are the values and guiding beliefs that helped your company get to where it is now?
  • What’s your company’s purpose for existing?
  • What is your vision for the company? What are your company’s aspirations for the future? What are your customers’ pain points? How do you ease their pain? How can your product and services improve their lives for the better?
  • What are the opportunities, plans, and behaviors that align with your brand’s vision?

Once you have a branding story established, you’ll have a deeper well to draw from.

Build relationships with your prospects and customers

At its core, a business is a relationship between a brand and a customer. If I may be blunt: If you don’t take the time to build relationships with your prospects and customers, you don’t have a business running a business.

Genuine relationships, however, don’t happen overnight. It’s a form of courtship comprised of many stages. Asking a potential customer to buy an annual subscription to your marketing automation tool at the first touchpoint makes as much sense as asking someone you just met to marry you.

So, how do you build an organic relationship with your customers?

Simple. You engage them in genuine conversation. That includes social media, email newsletters, face-to-face conversations, and just about every interaction with prospects and customers. According to a study by Forbes, 62% of Millennials say that they’re more likely to stay loyal to brands who engage them on social networks.

So show up where your target customers hang out. Be friendly and make yourself approachable. Ask them about their concerns and always respond in kind by providing actionable advice and answers—with no strings attached.

Engage. Inspire. Help. Educate. Most important of all: Listen.

Relationships are only scalable if they are built on a strong foundation of genuine engagement. If your idea of engagement is to cold call a prospect during lunchtime, don’t be surprised if you get shrugged off like a winter coat on a summer day.

Protip: One effective way to nurture your relationships with your customers is to publish user-generated content (UGC). This not only makes them feel involved in your brand story, but it also makes them feel they’re a part of the big change you want to make in the world. If you ask me, user-generated content is the best word-of-mouth marketing there is.

Be transparent

If you want your customers to commit to your product or service, your brand must be worthy of trust. Your brand can try being transparent to them, for starters.

To bring home the point, a study by Label Insight shows that 94% of customers are more likely to be loyal to brands who offer transparency. The same study cites that 73% of consumers are willing to buy products from companies who put a premium on transparency.

Countless companies have benefitted from showing transparency in their marketing and advertising efforts. Buffer, for instance, took transparency to another level by making the pay rate of each of their employees available to everyone via a publicly-available spreadsheet.

“We got [around] 2,000 applications after our salaries went live,” says Buffer’s Head of Public Relations, Hailey Griffis. “One of the things we heard from a lot of people was that they loved our transparency. It didn’t feel good to work at an office where you’re always wondering if you’re being paid fairly.”

In 2012, McDonald’s Canada dispelled the many myths and misconceptions about what goes into their food via “Our Food. Your Questions,” an online campaign inviting the public to ask any questions about the company. By April 2013, the popular fast-food chain had answered around 20,000 questions. While none of McDonald’s menu items is replacing your low-calorie diet any time soon, the bold campaign has cemented the organization’s reputation as a trustworthy brand.

When you mess up, fess up

Businesses are run by living humans with beating hearts. Which is to say that brands are bound to make mistakes along the way. However, in this increasingly connected world, a distasteful tweet published at the heat of the moment can cause your reputation to go crashing down around you before you can press “delete.”

If you commit a mistake, say sorry and say it like you mean it. Promise to do better and do your best not to screw up again. It’s the best thing you can do to regain your customers’ trust over time. Besides, showing a sense of accountability is one of the most human things a business can do, and customers will appreciate that.

If you’re looking for a cautionary tale, look no further than Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries, who once remarked that he doesn’t want overweight people wearing his company’s clothes. As expected, the insensitive remark didn’t go well with the public.

Jeffries’ response is a study on how NOT to apologize. It’s a sobering reminder that playing the taken-out-of-context card will get you nowhere.

The controversial CEO might learn a thing or two from Apple. Remember back in 2015 when Taylor Swift boycotted Apple Music for offering free trials without compensating artists?

To right the situation, Apple Music took to Twitter to own up to the mistake, announcing that they will start paying artists even during the music streaming service’s free trial period. Before long, Swift was featured in an Apple Music ad. No “bad blood” (Taylor Swift pun intended) between the two!

Be consistent with your branding

Humans are pattern-seeking animals. As such, they expect a level of consistency and dependability from the brands they support.

There are no two ways about it: branding consistency inspires and maintains trust. Whether it’s a company logo, a social media post, or a web page’s color motif, you need to be clear and consistent with your brand story across multiple touches, devices, and platforms.

If your company is sending out mixed signals, how can they trust that you’re sincere in your efforts to help them?

Protip: Implementing a Digital Asset Management (DAM) solution company-wide can do wonders for maintaining brand consistency. By serving as the “central source of truth” for asset management, a DAM helps creatives and marketers across multiple departments look through the lens of your brand story while creating, editing, producing, and publishing digital assets.

Stand for something and take action

The best way to prove your authenticity as a brand is to show that you care.

In a recent survey by RetailMeNot, 87% of retailers said that taking a stand on pressing social issues is worth the risk. 83% of respondents also said that failing to take a stand can negatively impact your bottom line.

The consensus is clear. If you want your customers to continue supporting your brand, one of the worst things you can do is sit on the sidelines. After all, your corporate vision, along with its attendant core values, will sound hollow if it’s not tied to some form of social responsibility.

By adopting a social cause that aligns with your brand’s vision, mission, and values, you can show the world that you’re doing what you do to improve the lives of others—that you’re not in it for the profit alone.

More importantly, you have to follow through. Actions speak louder than words, as the old saying goes.

Patagonia is one shining proof that a business can turn a profit while standing up for a social cause. Support for the brand soared thanks to the clothing company’s consistent efforts to promote ecological sustainability through the years. This unflinching desire to save the world helped the brand triple its profits from 2008 to 2013.

What’s next?

Brand authenticity is not something you can measure. There’s no metric for it. But without it, your brand has no way of cutting through the noise. In this era of fake news and misinformation, people expect more transparency, honesty, and empathy from brands. You want their undying loyalty? Start by putting your heart where your mouth is. Your customers will love you for it.