Six Types of Authenticity That Build Brand Trust

Image of Emmanuel Probst
Emmanuel Probst
Published: Nov 17, 2021

Note: Emmanuel Probst is global lead, brand thought-leadership at Ipsos and an adjunct at the University of California at Los Angeles. In his new book Brand Hacks, Emmanuel explains how to build and grow brands by fulfilling the consumer’s quest for meaning. Here is an excerpt.

Most advertising campaigns are ineffective because we find them disingenuous.

A 2017 study commissioned by British publisher Trinity Mirror (now Reach plc) by global market research group Ipsos reveals that 70 percent of consumers don’t trust advertising and 42 percent distrust brands. They see them as “part of the establishment” and therefore “remote, unreachable, abstract and self-serving.”

This seems to apply to all demographics and particularly to millennials and moms. When the communications strategy consultants McCarthy Group asked millennials to rank the trustworthiness of advertising on a scale of 1 to 5, it scored a dismal 2.2. When it comes to moms, fewer than half of them see themselves in the moms portrayed in advertising, confirms research by global market intelligence agency Mintel.

Overwhelmed with pictures, ads, and even people that seem fake, we long for authentic experiences, role models, and relationships. In this chapter, we will find out what makes us, others, brands, and ads feel genuine. We will also see how what we eat and how we cook exemplifies our quest for authenticity.

What is Authenticity?

Being authentic means being aware of and expressing our true nature. This must be done independently from the external pressures of the society we live in, which influences us to think and act in certain ways.

We find a sense of meaning in things when we think, act, and live authentically in accordance with our own terms and expectations. When we are authentic, we also have a clearer direction in life and are less indecisive about our career choices. According to scholars from the University of Missouri, we also connect better with others when we are able to express traits of authenticity, making our social interactions more meaningful.

As consumers, we buy products that conform to our own self-image. We expect the brands and products we buy to reflect who we are and who we aspire to be. As with most other decisions we make about brands, we decide in seconds or even milliseconds what we deem real or fake.

As marketers, we must take a step back from our daily obsession about product features, benefits, and target audience, to think how our brands will ultimately contribute to a keener sense of self for our customers. Here is a brief outline of the different types of authenticity that are relevant to consumers and marketers alike:

1. Authentic public figures

As Jeetendr Sehdev notes in The Kim Kardashian Principle, consumers have grown bored with and have become indifferent to perfection. On the other hand, he sees flaws as intoxicating, compelling, and revolutionary. To his point, Kim Kardashian, who became one of today’s most glamorous personalities, built her reputation on challenging the illusion of perfection: a “leaked” sex tape and her rear-end, not to mention that her dad was one of O.J Simpson’s lawyers.

The concept of perfection is passé, as nobody believes anymore that stars and the products they endorse are perfect. People suffer from perfection fatigue, argues Sehdev, even as we know these glamorous performers are not as perfect as they appear on stage, and we wish they would stop pretending.

“It’s a skill to get people to really like you for you, instead of a character written for you by somebody else.”

—Kim Kardashian

Although hairstylists, make-up, and Photoshop still do wonders, celebrities now get credit for showing their flaws. It just makes them more human and relatable. In her Netflix documentary Gaga: Five Foot Two, Lady Gaga takes us into her daily life as she prepares for the 2017 Super Bowl half-time show and produces her album Joanne.

We see Lady Gaga, a strong, charismatic, and driven artist perform seemingly effortlessly in front of 112 million viewers. In other scenes, we see her bare-faced with no makeup and dirty hair, at times opening up about paranoia, fear, and anxiety. “I go from anyone touching me all day, to total silence. All these people would leave, and I will be alone,” Gaga says, sobbing.

2. Authentic products

The more high-tech and engineered products are, the less they come across as authentic. Don’t get me wrong. We love our smartphones, wifi, set-top boxes, and smart speakers; they all contribute to our personalities. They are just not authentic. We crave the low-tech, crafty, imperfect, hand-made quirky products.

3. Original authenticity

We deem as authentic products that are original in design and the first of its kind, in contrast with a “me too” product or imitation. Levi’s 501 are the original jeans worn by workers searching for gold in America’s West in 1873. At first a functional product known for its enduring denim cloth and rivet reinforcements, the Levi’s 501 became an iconic, aspirational product for subsequent generations.

4. Authenticity in services

We perceive as authentic people that go above and beyond employee handbooks and corporate guidelines to show their customers they genuinely, personally care. I once stayed at a Westin Hotel in Scottsdale, Arizona. In my room, I found a bottle of wine and a hand-written note from the restaurant manager, telling me how much she enjoyed our conversation. The cost to the hotel is slim to none; I left the bottle untouched. It is the genuine attention that matters.

5. Authentic experiences

Drinking an afternoon tea with scones, clotted cream, and jam in the U.K. is an authentic experience. So is eating s’mores at a campfire in the U.S. Authentic experiences stem from our history and culture and tap into our shared memories and longings.

6. Authentic user reviews

Reviews and pictures generated by users have become more valuable than so-called “expert” advice. In an era of sponsored posts, paid influencers, and celebrity endorsements, consumers crave the authentic guidance of people like themselves. Audiences can easily tell the difference between brand-generated and consumer-created content. And if they catch your brand trying to fake it, they’ll unfollow it.

In the hospitality industry, for example, pictures posted by patrons on Tripadvisor lack the luster of professional photos but show fellow travelers what the hotel is really like. Admittedly, the likes of Yelp, Google, and Tripadvisor are battling fake reviews that defeat their purpose. But 300+ reviews of a hotel or restaurant give users a good overview of the experience. It is more authentic than the opinion of a single “journalist” published in a magazine, which is often heavily influenced by freebies and ready-to-publish content provided by a PR agency.

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