The Seven Qualities Authentic Organisations and Brands Share
Do you ever get tired of trying to be real? Get disenchanted with trying to be authentic?
That feeling of tension between what you believe you should be doing, and what is easy or comfortable?
I get it all the time. Even kicking off this post there’s a tension. There’s the safe, easy, vanilla option. Create a simple, unchallenging piece. Five hundred words. All uncritical and evangelical about how good authenticity is. Good for oneself. Good for a business. All smug, and cosy and politically correct. A soothing, warm, unchallenging cappuccino for a cold winter’s day. This piece could join the clutter and would be something one could indulge oneself with, paying half-baked attention to its half-baked truths.
But despite its appeals of being less taxing, I can’t bring myself to write such anodyne drivel. What I’d really like to explore are more challenging questions:
- Firstly, what is “authenticity”?
- What are the key qualities which typify authentic organisations and brands?
- How can real authenticity be distinguished from fake?
- And, finally, does “authenticity” add any real value to an organisation or brand?
What is “authenticity”?
Before launching into a crusade to either pillory or deify authenticity it would be judicious to define the term. According to Wikipedia authenticity “concerns the truthfulness of origins, attributes, commitments, sincerity, devotion, and intentions”. In layman’s terms, in a word, it’s about being real.
The scope of this post covers authenticity for organisations and brands, and as such I’d qualify my definition of an authentic brand or organisation to one which “behaves in a sincere, honest and committed fashion towards its customers and staff”. I’d also suggest this behaviour is driven not by commercial self-interest, but by a commitment to certain values beyond the bottom-line.
What are the key qualities which typify authentic organisations and brands?
From over a decade’s experience of leading an agency which delivers communications recommendations to some of the world’s most influential brands, I believe there are seven core attitudes, behaviours or qualities that are intrinsic to authentic companies. It may be intriguing to assess your organisations against these. If your organisation doesn’t deliver against them why is this? Can it be changed? Are you motivated to change it? And, what is the perceived benefit your company gets from not complying?
- Authentic organisations and brands are clear about WHO they are, and WHAT they do:
People who are real or authentic know who they are. They are both confident in themselves and self aware enough to know their strengths and weaknesses. To take a topical example, President Obama, despite debates over his legacy, is a highly authentic figure for me. He was committed to a fairer and more inclusive America and his actions bore this out. If we look at his first two years in power, for example, before his influence was eroded by a hostile Senate, he signed more landmark legislation than any Democratic president in living memory, including the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorization, and Job Creation Act of 2010. The list goes on.
My suspicion is authenticity, will not be viewed as a key virtue of Obama’s successor, Trump. After all, authenticity isn’t a keen bed-fellow with bluster, anger and u-turns, even if it does sit under the uneasy slogan of “Make America great again”.
With companies, the themes are the same. A company which is authentic must know what it does, its area of operation, what it’s good at and what it isn’t.
In the last few years, this has been played out in reverse with comic effects in the media and technology spaces, where it seems companies change identity and specialism on a Quarterly basis. Firstly it seemed every mid-sized, mid-ranking agency was an integrated agency, then a ROI specialist, then a digital agency, then a performance media specialist, then programmatic, and now the latest incarnation is “something around data”. Now I’m not saying evolution isn’t permissible, or a good thing, but I am saying veering from discipline to discipline with abandon isn’t good business. It’s also not authentic.
The most extreme example of this I can recall touching was as a middle manager in a promotions agency when we ended up overseeing the making of a hot air balloon for Nokia. It’s ridiculous. Not that we came up with the idea that the balloon may generate exposure for the brand, but more that we were so involved in the intricacies of the balloon – as if we knew or could add value! Crazy. I’m alive and I’m glad I only had to fly (die) in it once.
One is tempted to dump a cartload of Jim Collins transformative book “Good to Great” on errant CEO’s desks, because there’s a particular pertinent section in which the author develops an analogy for focusing the energy and direction of your business, the analogy is building momentum in a fly wheel, and the dampening and de-energising effect of continually switching your path, direction and expertise.
If truth be told, for a period of years, as an agency we were not immune from the next big fad. For a number of years we suffered – constantly trying to re-position ourselves at the bleeding edge of the latest trend. With more maturity we realised this wasn’t sustainable, honest or effective. The net output was typically a ton of excited business leads and companies which thought they wanted to work with us, which we never ended up converting. Plus a load of sweat force fitting ourselves into clothes which didn’t quite fit. The last few years have been different.
- Authentic organisations and brands are clear about WHERE they are GOING
To be successful it isn’t enough for an authentic company or brand to be clear about where it stands currently, it needs to know where it’s going and ultimately to have a vision. A vision gives purpose and direction to any enterprise. Without this purpose, action cannot be taken which is in accordance with a guiding set of values or principles. The vision needs to be connected with where an organisation is now by longer term goals and, in the shorter term, with more immediate objectives. Without this joining up, a vision will feel inauthentic or unreal and lack the capacity to motivate. More detail on this thinking can be found in Stephen Gribben’s coaching and leadership book “Key Coaching Models”, and specifically the section on the Momentum Model, which explores Vision development with clarity and detail.
The effects of a great vision can be seen in the 2015 Rugby World Cup. Tellingly the world’s most successful sports team, the All Blacks vision, was to “inspire and unify New Zealanders”. In contrast, England Rugby’s vision in 2015 was simply to win the 2015 World Cup. The former team played in with purpose and direction, the latter were directionless. One team went out in the opening round the other won it. No prizes for remembering who. However, two years on, with pretty much the same players, and galvanised by a new coach with real purpose, and after 14 wins on the trot for them, there is arguably little to chose between England and New Zealand. The effects of a powerful, all-encompassing vision are ultimately very tangible.
For organisations a vision should raise focus from simply chasing this month’s results, to creating something far more meaningful. Day by day, this can give authentic organisations more employee and customer loyalty and more and clear differentiation from the competition.
- Authentic organisations and brands are TRANSPARENT in their dealings
Transparent has become the new buzz word in business. Most organisations are talking about it. Many are claiming to be it, especially in the media space. Within the WPP group for example, Neo touts a transparent programmatic media offer. They state:
“We firmly believe that the control, transparency and insights that we generate by operating in this way not only sets us apart in the marketplace but truly provides a unique type of value for our clients...”
It sounds great. Openness in what has been media agencies’ dirty little secret. A haven where many of the biggest agency networks were charging up to 50% margin on media with pretty much zero disclosure to clients.
So at face value this is great. With greater reflection, one is deflated by the fact that this is at most a few percentage points of WPP’s agency offer, and one is tempted to feel its a tactic being used ultimately purely for strategic or commercial gain. I’m tempted to see it as posturing.
So for transparency to be real it needs to be deeper than just a sales tactic. It needs to course through the very fabric and veins of an organisation and imbue all it does.
A close friend of mine founded, and runs, what is now a large management consultancy. When he hits 50 years old he’s told the staff he’ll retire and pass on the majority of company shares to the employees. That’s millions of pounds of value, effectively gifted. I’ve known him for twenty five years, it’s less than four years off now and I’ve never doubted he’ll do it. Call me at 11.58pm on December 31st 2020 and I’ll let you know this transparent promise has been delivered. Or catch me choking into my New Year’s Prosecco.
- Authentic organisations and brands are INTUITIVE
Authenticity is the sister of spontaneity. They exist together. If it doesn’t come natural it isn’t authentic. So the company which plans and invests millions of dollars into “being” authentic clearly runs great risk of being fake and disingenuous.
I love Unilever’s CSR projects, but I’m always left wondering whether they are motivated to do this by the commercial rewards of a sound strategy, or by a genuine desire to make a positive difference to poverty or deprivation. Perhaps the fairest answer is both. But to which side does the balance tip?
In the final analysis, this is probably only answerable when one knows or understands the leaders involved in a particular business, and may always remain subjective. For example, https://www.sellmyhome.co.uk/ is a fascinating company, run by Will Clark, which along with several other big players is disrupting the traditional estate agency business model. Disrupting the way we have bought and sold houses for many years with an online alternative which does away with estate agency commissions and charges a much lower fixed fee on a successful sale. Savings on a sale can range from a few thousand to literally tens of thousands of pounds.
On the one hand Will is running a business with commercial intent, but combined with this is a passion for championing peoples’ rights. For cleaning up the estate agency business and offering people a better, fairer alternative.
Will doesn’t shout out everyday about being the People’s Champion, but quietly day by day his company is offering a better, fairer service for its customers. There’s a spontaneity in how this is done, an idealism which flows in to a vibrant office, and a group of high achieving and committed staff and top industry ratings.
They don’t shout about it, but at one level for them it’s their raison d’être. Idealistic, yes maybe, but what you do get is committed staff and top industry ratings. For example, at the Real Estate & Property Awards, Sellmyhome were rated the number one online estate agency, and have similar great rankings on Trustpilot.
Interestingly, in the final analysis, both Will and SellMyHome’s authenticity comes from firsthand knowledge of him as an individual and his motivations as well as the day to day actions of his business. As such, it’s my hypothesis that real authenticity can only be distinguished from fake firsthand, when one knows the deeper underlying motivations of decision-makers in an organisation.
- Authentic organisations and brands have, and act on, their VALUES
Authenticity isn’t just about what you’ve done in the past, and what you will do in the future. This isn’t enough. What’s critical too is what you do now.
This is encapsulated memorably on an individual level by John C Maxwell, the founder of EQUIP and INJOY, and advisor to a number of top Fortune 500 companies. He says, “You will never change your life until you change something you do daily.”
Without daily intention, attention and action change will wither and die.
What you do now is ultimately driven by your energy and values. Values must be created and owned by the employees who are upholding them day by day. Any values imposed from above, will only have traction for as long as the imposing authority is monitoring or observing. They have just temporary power, but not influence, and no life once they are not enforced.
Developing and maintaining values within our organisation has been an ongoing process. I believe it pays dividends from the quality of product our customers receive, as well as the relationship between the team and leaders.
I notice now the level of tolerance for a mistaken decision I may make is significant. It won’t stop people strongly arguing against a poor decision or smirkingly pointing out the mistake, but there is a level of forgiveness there which is elevating. A level of forgiveness which rather than creating negativity, enables swift identification of the mistake and a collective moving on quickly.
I recently had a disappointing experience with Stompa who sell kids furniture. My wife and I had been excited for several months about getting a new bed for our eldest daughter who at 8 was moving out of the bedroom she shared with her younger sister and into her own room.
Stompa have an engaging back-story around the competing needs of children and their parents:
“Once upon a time parents and their children could never agree on what was best for each of them. The age old battle raged between the wants of the child against the practical needs identified by the parents. Hunting for beds was no exception, where the child craved space and adventure and the parents demanded functionality and storage ...”
However, when our bed arrived the side panelling was split. The customer care which went in to resolving this was mediocre. We got the replacement parts, but there was no real apology and then the replacement glue was forgotten and had to be chased separately. It wasn’t a terrible customer experience, but it fell below the dream which had been created, and left the family not feeling the excitement of entering a new stage of our daughter’s life, but feeling underwhelmed by a promise under-delivered on.
This little slip by Stompa shows how important day to day values and action are, because big picture the product is great, and even the damaged parts was an opportunity to build the brand’s relationship with us further through first rate customer support.
- Authentic organisations and brands are BRAVE
There is a clear link between bravery and authenticity. Authentic companies aren’t afraid to stick their head above the parapet, aren’t afraid to stand for something, or to take a calculated risk. Authentic does not go hand in hand with meek.
A great example of this last week was the fantastic post on Linkedin about, of all things, Sheds by Ms Mackay! The post is a hilarious, swear word strewn cry against the daily challenges of children and the relative sanctuary of the “shed” when working from home. She also followed up with her Marketing rationale behind the post.
Responses on Linkedin were mainly positive, though the straight-talking clearly alienated certain audiences. Positive, responses included:
- “Finally someone who speaks my language!” (Laurence Duncan)
- “The blue language is totally fine in my book. It’s what everyone thinks and no-one says.” (Sean Curran)
- “I’m glad someone had the guts to share an insight into the life of a working from home parent,” (Raman Bedesha).
From a pure marketing perspective the straight-talking has resulted in £100K of orders in a week, and viral coverage for a previously little known SME.
- Authentic organisations and brands INNOVATE
It comes as no surprise to state that in a changing world authentic companies must be leaders, not followers. Must have the confidence and self-belief to experiment and embrace change. Crucially this openness should not disintegrate into having no core identity. We’ll share examples of companies who are doing this particularly well in a series of follow up posts.
So there you have it. The seven key attributes of authentic brands and organisations, interlaced with thoughts on evaluating “real” vs “fake” identities, and some of the broader benefits of genuine authenticity in terms of staff and customer loyalty.
Moving forward a key question for organisations in 2017 is how can authenticity be “conveyed” or “delivered” at scale, in a digital world which moves with ever increasing speed and complexity?
But for now, thanks for reading, and over to you....
Matt Richards is the Managing Director of TMP Magnet, and an Executive Coach.
TMP Magnet is a boutique agency within the TMP Worldwide group.
TMP Magnet’s core skills are Strategic Planning and Performance Marketing. They have a proven track record in driving transformational growth, and are a roster agency for top brands such as UPS, British Gas, HMRC and RAC, as well as key challenger brands disrupting the Beauty, Property & Storage industries.
TMP Magnet delivers transformational growth by
- genuinely listening to unique customer needs
- a commitment to always operate authentically, with transparency
- creation of proprietary planning methodologies