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Authenticity Rules

A Reality Check for Creative Advertisers


People prefer the genuine and value the real thing as most desirable. Thus, even in advertising, authenticity trumps creativity a difficult axiom for creative advertisers to follow.

One lovely day in the summer of 2002, I had an in-person business meeting scheduled with an Englishman; a new client. I had been advised by a colleague who also rode motorcycles not to reveal myself as a motorcyclist until after the new business relationship had been cemented. Yet, it was a beautiful day and my motorcycle was a 2001 Triumph, made in England. I considered the sunshine and the English connection (if the new client noticed my arrival by motorcycle) an excuse to ride to the meeting.


test passed at a glance

Within minutes of my arrival, the Englishman led me out to the parking lot to show him my motorcycle. When he read the name on the gas tank, he whispered, "A Triumph." Then, taking on a dubious tone, he turned to me and asked, "Aah, but was any of it made in England?"


Fortunately, Triumph had placed a tiny Union Jack decal above the taillight. I pointed to it, said yes, and witnessed a change in facial expression suggesting that I had just passed a critical test.


That day, my made-in-England Triumph delivered on the perception that authenticity equates with value. This rings true beyond motorcycles. Indeed, the perception of authenticity equates with value among informed and uninformed consumers in any market so much that it often makes deep wells of creativity unnecessary to effective advertising. 


authenticity = value

Because the concepts home-made and locally-grown trigger the impulse to buy, a small hand-made sign offering home-made relish made from locally-grown cucumbers helps to sell more hotdogs at a hotdog stand. Likewise, a poster of Shaun Cassidy from 1977 might sell at a yard sale today. The same poster autographed by Shaun Cassidy himself could fetch a high price. These exemplify authenticity increasing value.


You want the real thing?

Authenticity relates to truthful origins. The word comes from the Greek authentikós, which means original. An authentic claim has its basis in fact. An authentic product is original or made in the same way as an original not false or imitation. Other concepts related to authenticity include real, actual, and genuine: indicators of value.


Generally, people avoid substitutes or pay less for them when they can have the real thing. So, in 1969-70, Coca-Cola successfully advertised with the slogan, "It’s the real thing." When you buy a pair of Levi-Strauss jeans, the label declares, "This is a genuine pair of Levi's jeans." These companies understand the value/authenticity connection.


fakers keep out

Typically image-conscious teens still use the labels wanna-be and poser as insults. Likewise, the perception that a brand merely tries to be what it claims to be turns off consumers of all ages. Far-fetched claims also turn off people. Below, a claim that Ladysmith, British Columbia has a "heavenly" climate exemplifies this.


Creativity better than honesty?

When marketers take the route of simple, truthful authenticity, their markets often reward them with success. Yet, the supreme status of creativity is so deeply ingrained in the ad industry that advertising executives and their imitators often refuse to pay attention or feel that they can do much better.


Creativity is viewed as so basic a requirement in advertising that people in that line of work seldom mention it, except to promote themselves to other industries.

Yet, while creativity that is also original may be lauded, danger arises when creativity is divorced from authenticity. The results from an Association for Consumer Research poll "strongly suggest that consumers are deeply skeptical of advertising claims. Moreover, public opinion has remained extraordinarily constant [about this for at least] two decades."* Thus, public opinion considers creativity insignificant at best when companies and institutions take their messages to market.


For an example of creativity gone too far, consider the climate in Ladysmith, British Columbia. Ladysmith has a mild coastal climate. The summers tend to be sunny and dry; seldom persistently hot. Bringing months of cloud and rain, the spring and autumn typically seem to run together. Despite mild temperatures, the short days and persistent dampness of winter lead some residents into depression. Regardless, a brochure promoting condos in Ladysmith claims a "heavenly" climate year-round. Ladysmith residents chuckle: That's creative but not honest.


Ignore user experience?

One advertising agency that, incidentally, repeatedly wins awards for graphic design, apparently sees no place for factuality in the creative campaigns it develops. Its creative director uses a word-association game to generate campaign concepts. Let me explain.


If the client’s business were Mountainside Soapworks, for example, the agency’s staff would work with six columns of words on a whiteboard. At the top of each column would be the words mountain, side, mountainside, soap, works, and soapworks. The creative team brainstorms and lists associated words below these headings.


Under soap they list wash, clean, dirty, water, shower, sink, towel, bathroom, tub, and other words. Beneath works, they list paycheque, commuting, job, labour, boots, dress code, career, breadwinner, and others. The next creative challenge: to join words from the six columns into unlikely combinations. For example, dirty and commuting or water and career would be grouped with words from the other four columns. While the fun and creativity are underway, nobody considers the distinct benefits of using the client’s products.


Then, all at the creative briefing draw creative sketches based on various groups of six words. The most creative sketches become candidates for the campaign concept. This is how a campaign built on a sketch inspired by valley shower boots hill flank suds job could be used to advertise soap.


The process undoubtedly stirs up fun and creativity. What about the actual experience of the product user, though? What consumer needs does this company’s soap address better than the competition’s? What can Mountainside Soapworks say about its products that would have the same appeal as the authenticity of a pair of genuine Levi’s jeans, or the try-me attraction of homemade relish made from local cucumber? Though the fruits of fun creativity might be appealing, when it comes to advertising, people want the truth.


true, genuine, relevant

From the smallest players to the largest, the advertising industry has long trumpeted creativity as its key source of value. Creative Director is one of the most respected positions in the field. The phrase creative marketing is often used in the same sentence as solutions or success. Yet, John Grant, author of The New Marketing Manifesto, states, "Authenticity is the benchmark against which all brands are now judged."


Overloaded by sales pitches, consumers today gravitate toward brands that they sense are true and genuine. In a December, 2007 issue of Fast Company, Bill Breen writes, "To maintain its integrity, a brand must remain true to its values. And yet, to be relevant or cool, a brand must be dynamic." A brand's values the emotional connection it makes define its realism in consumers’ minds.


the law of candor

In contrast to the empty entertainment and unreal overstatement often used to lure buyers, authentic, credible, easily verified claims are valued like gold. Because the average person simply wants truth in advertising, there are examples of plain truth making market leaders even when the truth is expressed boldly and frankly. Consider Buckley’s Mixture cough medicine. It tastes awful, it works, and it has held onto its status as one of the top-selling brands in the Canadian market for many years.


The same values that compel people to seek the authentic and shun the fake and vacuous are involved in demanding fairness and accuracy in reporting from the news media as well as truth in advertising. Indeed, there are laws requiring truth in advertising while misleading claims are widely considered the province of the corrupt. The statement, "They just make up this stuff" can evoke pride in advertising executives and disgust in consumers.


listen for it

So, how does a company or an institution that has something to promote get to the truth about its products or services and express that truth so that the intended audience responds favourably? By listening for it.


distil it

In my experience as a key-messages consultant, the highest quality testimonials are not those asked for but those spontaneously provided. Accordingly, I coach my clients on how to listen to their customers, staff, and suppliers for the essential key messages, such as where the value comes from. Then, what sources of value distinguish them from competitors. To get that information in the words that the market uses simply requires listening in most cases, trained listening.


quote your customers

Listen attentively to enough people over a sufficient period and the truth of consumer experience becomes abundantly clear. Listen all the time and the larger sample size reduces the margin of error. Then, when you know how to distil the market’s sentiments, the result is authentic key messages of far greater value than a word-association game could ever produce. Propagate those key messages to the market in the words that the market speaks and you can really hit the bullseye. No room for hyperbole. Plain facts can win over even the skeptical. Just like the Triumph logo and the little Union Jack on my motorcycle.


- Glenn R Harrington, Articulate Consultants Inc.


* source: John E Calfee, University of Maryland and Debra Jones Ringold, American University: Consumer Skepticism and Advertising Regulation: What Do The Polls Show? Advances in Consumer Research volume 15


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