Storytelling, Authenticity and Shared Values. Sound Familiar?

The New York Times piece published last Sunday, "Quenching Consumers' Thirst for 'Authentic' Brands", had a familiar ring to it for many of us who work in this field. However, as I read the article I found myself wishing that the Grey Lady had allowed a richer and more detailed investigation of the topic at hand. For those of us who have been advising clients and our employers for a long while the importance of brands reflecting their most-valued customers' values, it was a somewhat glib overview of a trend that has been several decades in the making. I’ve written about these topics at length on my personal blog several times, and Fast Company had a great cover story recently on the ways that today's corporate leaders and leading brands are connecting purpose to profit.  And of course Michael Porter has been talking about the notion of “shared values” for decades.  In the spirit of advancing the discussion - and perhaps filling in a few gaps where the article may have left curious readers hungry for more examples - I've decided to ring in the new year with a few additional thoughts that build on some of the reporting shared in the 'Authentic Brands' article...

First, though, a quick review of a few key points germane for today's consumer marketers that the article addresses:

People are interested in knowing where their products come from, how they are made, and who makes them. (See One Degree Cereal)

Post-recession, consumers are increasingly demonstrating a bias towards products made locally and services connected to their regional communities. People are spending again, but more sharply aware than they were pre-recession about the benefit of keeping their spending local, and as a result they are seeking ways to stretch the benefit of their everyday expenditures by finding new ways to do so in their own communities rather than always at the big-box retailer down the highway. (See Airbnb's local impact story)

The “authenticity playbook” has been overused. Concepts of “local”, “artisanal”, and “heritage” have seeped into nearly all product categories - and are occasionally being over-used by global brands out of a desire to harvest local-spend-bias mentioned above (which feels disingenuous to smart consumers, when they figure out the global/local 'bait and switch' that is going on). (See "Let's Gather" from Chick-Fil-A)

Storytelling really does work- people love to hear stories especially ones that offer them nostalgia, a shared value- some sort of emotional connection to hang onto. (See The Serial)

Sincerity matters! (Just ask a Millennial to help you gauge your brand fake-o-meter, if you're in doubt - their generation has the sharpest eye and ear that I've ever seen when it comes to this.) Today's leading brands are all using "social media brand health research" as one means of evaluating their brand regard and authority, but the best brands also know that aggregated, machine-scored brand health metrics don't usually tell the full tale. Which is where experienced generation segment insights research and 1st-party ethnographic research techniques come into play... 

So I'll give the Times credit for touching on several important points and highlighting some of the top-line trends that *all* of today's B2C brand marketing leaders had ought to be thinking about vis-a-vis their own brand reputation. However, I'd also like to offer some additional points of view on the subject matter. 

What the article leaves out - and what, in my opinion, you should be thinking about also - is as follows: 

Origin Stories and brand 'roots' are effective ways to create "Velcro points" between your company and your consumers -- but only to a degree. Founders and Origin Stories are the nucleus of the narrative, but the rest of the history of the company and brand matter even more. What is of special importance to today's savvy, values-driven consumers is how the past and the near-past of your company connects to the near-future of your customers.  In other words, marketers must identify not just what mattered most to your company way-back-when, but determine what elements of those founding principles are still relevant to - and valuable to - today's buyers. You must hire people to grow a company and brand who live the company values, so that the story arc continues and remains authentic in both the products and the company culture. You must hold on to the pillars of the company's beginnings, but also demonstrate how the company has iterated and adjusted to new consumer and societal needs as these have changed over time. I often talk about this point with clients: think of your consumers as investors (which, in an indirect way, they actually are). They want to know what is ahead, what their input will be, and what role your brand will be likely to play in our shared future. This consumer interest in the future includes having information about - and input into - your present company core operations ( See: Apple:Supplier Progress Report),  "future" products (See: McDonald's My Burger Competition), employee treatment (See: Microsoft CEO recent misstep), and many other core business operational areas previously only addressed in annual Shareholder Reports. 

Today's buyers - particularly younger, fickle consumers - are looking for evidence that the company which makes their products or provides their services is managed and run by people who share their personal goals, values, ambitions, hopes, dreams, interests, and vitality. Increasingly, it is A-OK for companies small and - yes, it's true - large to show that they are approachable, passionate, and comprised of individuals who strive for the same experiences in life as their customers. For a stellar example, look at Bryce Phillips, founder of Evo. He has a great story - true integrity and drive.  He recruited a  passionate crew who were inspired and wanted to help build and grow his company, he created physical and online spaces that live and breathe the company heritage and the brand continues to build community based on all of the original initial inspiration.

In the sharing economy/society - where something doesn't seem real unless we share it, (like it, tweet it, post it, etc.) - the storytelling really belongs predominantly in the consumers hands. Brands can tell their story and then facilitate ways for consumers to tell theirs. While heritage and origins are important, what truly  quenches humans' ultimate thirst is the opportunity to talk about themselves and what a brand, product or company  means to them.  (See Expedia's ongoing successful campaign "Finding Yours" which has the Expedia product in the background and the realizations customers have while traveling front and center. Also, have a look at the NASA Global Selfie Campaign.) 

Marketers increasingly have an imperative to dig beyond the surface of flat data points that offer us a limited view into consumers' minds. Our field requires studying context, values, motivations, economic shifts, attitudes, current events and so many other things that affect the "thirst" of consumers every day.  As we consider telling our brand story we must also think of our customers as characters in the story, as the real future of our brand. There's nothing more authentic than that.  

I hope that you have found this post useful as a building-block upon the foundation provided by the recent New York Times article "Quenching Consumers' Thirst for 'Authentic' Brands", and I invite you to re-visit my blog often and follow my social media accounts + share it with others if you've found it interesting!

With warm regards, Mandy


End of year quick message from Mandy Levenberg, LEV Strategies' founder:

"The fall quarter of 2014 was a great launch for LEV Strategies. What a joy to work with smart, interesting and risk-taking clients! In 2015, LEV Strategies will continue to service its clients with relevant consumer insights that guide brands towards the best ways to connect with their customers and target audiences. I'll consistently examine shared values, drivers of loyalty, storytelling and heritage, authenticity and sincerity to inspire clients to successfully start conversations with new customers or re-ignite relationships with inactive customers.  Looking for some new energy and smarts to service your internal or external clients?  I look forward to hearing from you!"

Tommy Hernandez