The Lost Art of Authenticating Real

by | Nov 15, 2011

Maybe it’s the impending election, maybe it’s the omnipresence of digital lives, but everyone is talking about authenticity. Oddly, mostly, it’s marketers and branders who have taken up the mantle of offering strategies for “being authentic.” But there’s no doubt, as evidenced by the growth of farmer’s markets, the return of the barbershop, and the popularity of Buy Local movements that consumers are starting to crave The Real.

But what happens in the environmental sustainability space when we introduce the concept of authenticity? Apart from creating a new form of risk to be mitigated by the greenwashers, we are provided with a new vector to reassess our business, re-engage our customers and employees, and shake off the pixie-dust promises of Green as a Hail Mary marketing strategy.  In the era of Authenticity, we get to (in fact are required to) integrate sustainability across the corporation.  This is going to be good.

Here’s the trajectory that sets up Authenticity as a business strategy in the sustainability space.  The market has survived its share of greenwashing as mainstream marketers rushed to join the fringe eco-friendly crowd (“green” was the most frequently used word in green advertising in 2008), plowed through localwashing as supply chains shifted to support local businesses and farms (“local” was the most frequently used word in green advertising in 2010), and now we are at the edges of realwashing.  But realwashing offers more risk than greenwashing or localwashing.  The latter could be obfuscated with alternate facts and figures and veiled self-certification.  But to falsify one’s authenticity (and get caught) is a business disaster that costs time and money to repair.  Simply, it’s not worth the risk for business with more than a shelf-life of a few years.  You do not rent a good reputation for long.

Also unlike “green” and “local,” authenticity comes with a curious bit of baggage.  It’s not that being authentic is hard to fake; it’s just that modernity requires authenticity with proof. Consumers are not as willing to take “real” at its word as they were with “green.”  “Green” had immediate and visible value to the consumer.  It was a badge they could wear right out of the store.  If a mainstream consumer needed any proof, there were hundreds of certifications and Go Green mantras to fill the need.  Authenticity is a bit more slippery.

Those that are new to the CSR game can easily be excused using the Exuberance of Youth Defense for implementing poorly aligned cause campaigns or over-communicating (marketing) philanthropy and employee volunteer efforts.  In many cases they are simply guilty of emulating the market dominators with weak-tea versions of the real thing.  What the market leaders know is that Authenticity is something that you need to work at, and it is the understanding and management of authenticity where inspiration is ignited, employees are engaged and creativity is common.

Despite popular beliefs however, authenticity doesn’t just happen. It is not particularly natural.  Humans are hardwired to shapeshift (Darwin called it “adapt”) to situations to protect themselves.  Being authentic is hard. It’s a bit like being happy or nice. We need to work at it, practice it, sit with it, trust it.  So imagine how difficult it is for a corporation to be authentic.  Corporations are collections of humans, each (theoretically) working towards the same common goals.  But measuring and managing authenticity amongst and embodied by thousands of humans is about as odd a concept as there is.  But it’s important, not just as a marketing tool or as a sustainability strategy, but in the way that it offers a very modern vector to understand and improve business itself – dare I say capitalism itself.

As Green begins to morph away from a pure marketing strategy, CSR initiatives that once held the promise to help businesses increase profitability, improve brand loyalty, strengthen market position, and engage social concerns begin to fade from the media’s gaze and therefore the corporate budget.  In many cases, they have become noble distractions — nice to do, but contrary to corporate objectives.?? The price of these noble distractions is more visible as the marketing value fades.

The price manifests as internal conflict, gaps and missed opportunities, inconsistencies and contradictions to the core business, and confusion over priorities.  At worst, these initiatives have the perverse impact of decreasing profitability, degrading brand loyalty, and eroding market position.  Even for leading practitioners, CSR initiatives can sometimes become bolt-on activities that do little to advance the company’s core strategy, and/or fall short of their potential to move the needle on the targeted concerns.

But what if we took the rumblings of a demand center for authenticity and used it as a business intelligence tool?  What can we learn from authentic companies?  They are more efficient, there is less competition for resources, employees are engaged and happy, they solve problems with their very business model rather than pure financial leverage, they are unafraid to make public declarations pertaining to climate change, etc., and so on.

KPMG’s latest report indicates that US companies put CSR communication before CSR performance.  From the report: The U.S. falls into the “Scratching the Surface” quadrant. Companies in this quadrant have the highest risk of failing to deliver on their promises, and risk increasing investor pressure. The quadrant shows U.S. companies’ level of process maturity ranking lower than every other country in the survey except Russia and Singapore.

If we define authenticity as the difference between what you say and what you do, this focus on communication over action creates an Authenticity Gap housing opportunities for leapfrog strategies, risk mitigation and employee engagement.

The question becomes:  What does a strategic attempt to integrate authenticity into your company look like?

At SOAP, we are pioneering Authenticity Audits.  An intelligence service designed not to validate marketing claims, but to help companies understand, improve, communicate and own their impact in the world.  The entirely confidential audit process compares the two points – what companies say versus what they do.  Within this Authenticity Gap, we find areas for efficiency improvements, bad relationships, wasted time and resource, opportunities for employee engagement and even design innovations.  It’s as much about culture as it is sales.

Wal-mart, for example, is not without it’s own issues, but by all accounts (we have not completed an Authenticity Audit with them) they are an authentic company.  Every business decision is made with the goal of driving down prices.  Sometimes, this pursuit is good for the planet and its people.  Sometimes it is not.  But it is always authentic in its strategy.

We are left asking:  What happens when companies align authentically with CSR?

We are finding: They are better at sustainability than most, less forgiving of their shortcomings, more focused and more beloved as brands.

See my TedxDirigo Talk on this subject here:

John Rooks is the founder of The SOAP Group and the author of More Than Promote –A Monkeywrencher’s Guide to Authentic Marketing.


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