The Authentic Brand
I'm often asked very general questions about branding and marketing, usually revolving around "how do you even start a business?" or "where did the idea for that company come from?"
And its become clear to me over the years that above all of the thousands of intricacies that go into putting a company together, from ideation and product development all the way through to go-to-market strategies and customer acquisition, one characteristic always remains paramount: authenticity.
Authenticity has become an absolutely crucial term in my businesses, from our marketing agency for brands, Holland Digital Marketing, whose motto is literally 'The Agency Built on Authenticity', to cloudten, a rapidly growing direct-to-consumer bedding start up that took the term authenticity to its core at every phase: materials, products, marketing, and customer service.
But the need for a brand to consider authenticity in its earliest phases goes beyond a nice sounding term or a sales pitch to customers. In a world filled with noise, fake news, constant notifications and clever marketing for subpar products, a brand built on authenticity is bound to rise above the rest in the public psyche and the customers' memories. Do you remember the last time you got a product in the mail that you ordered online, and it was actually as nice as you hoped it would be? Or when customer support responded quickly, went above and beyond to make your day easier, and sent you on your way? You almost certainly remember that brand above the rest of the hubalub.
To take it one step further, a company that establishes trust with its customer base has a significantly better chance of surviving in the long run, as loyal customers will stick with a brand through a few product mishaps or shipping mistakes - when they would drop another mediocre company. You think paying for all-natural materials and dyes cuts into your margins? Try having any margins at all when your splitting seams become a trending hashtag among disgruntled consumers, or when a poorly treated customer goes to the press with how your frustrated and overworked customer service employee treated them.
In modern business, authenticity can be applied to the occasion in four phases:
Authenticity in the Marketplace
Authenticity in the Product
Authenticity in the Marketing
and Authenticity in the Service.
Authenticity in the Marketplace refers to taking a brutal and honest look at your product or service relative to the modern market, and asking the question "does anyone really need this?", or "will my product actually improve anyone's life?" If the answer to the both of these questions is no, it is likely time to reconsider putting any more effort into that idea. Even if the answer to both is yes, be sure to do extensive market research, whether that's using a survey service, or literally asking every single person on your Facebook Messenger List what they think about it. Too many entrepreneurs are so bullishly sure of their ideas' credibility that they survive in an echo chamber, and when they figure it out its too late. I know I've certainly been down that path, and it resulted in two years of frustration, self-doubt, and misery. Trust me when I say, test and be sure the company has an authentic, real place in the market!
The second item, Authenticity in the Product, seems like a no-brainer. But you'd be surprised at the sheer number of corners cut across every industry in today's marketing-centric world. Many companies are OK with marketing a cheap product, or selling a poor service, as long as they can continue to get new customers with their marketing. This is short-sighted BS, and only results in a world where consumers are wary to trust marketing of any kind, and rightfully so. Take pride in your product! One washed out area, where this has reached a fever pitch, is the 'digital marketing agency' realm, where marketers who failed at their own agencies create 'courses' teaching people how to perpetuate their poor marketing technique in order to quit their jobs and get rich quick by casting themselves as experts. The cycle just fills the market with people who have spent more time selling their ghost-skills than they have mastering their craft so that they can authentically help clients. Again, take pride in your product! Whatever it may be.
In that same vein, an Authenticity in Marketing is a rare find; especially in our galaxy of hyperbole and universe of promises. If you have a product or service that will truly help people, you shouldn't have to use shady tricks to get them to purchase or sign on. The bedding industry is a classic culprit in this respect. The Thread Count Disaster aside, one of the oldest tricks in the book is advertising bedding at a Twin-Bed price, and then once the customer clicks on your product, hitting them with three times the cost for an adult human-sized bed. Why not sell the products at the price you advertise? Consumers are not the mindless ants the marketing industry has treated them as for decades, and are beginning to wake up and realize these little shenanigans; it only helps to bury your case as a trustworthy and authentic brand.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, is Authenticity in Service. This doesn't just mean that we should have great return policies and be responsive to customer's requests (though we should), but it extends to putting personality and realism into your service. People are tired of robots attempting to solve their problems with your product, and clients are tired of the blanket statement of "marketing/public relations/advertising/bee-keeping takes time, sir!". Be authentic with your clients, and they will remain your clients for much longer.
There you have it - the four broad phases necessary to organizing an Authentic Brand, built to weather the coming storms and remain relevant despite the issues that will surely arise, as they always do. Be you, create great products, sell ethically, and make people's lives a bit better off for being here!
Zack Holland is an entrepreneur, marketer and author based in Venice California, the CEO of the Holland Digital Group, and currently serves as the Chief Marketing Officer for the direct-to-consumer bedding brand cloudten.