Three steps towards brand authenticity

Three steps towards brand authenticity

Brand Authenticity

We define authenticity as a characteristic of a brand that’s soundly based on a stated internal truth and/ or capability. The brand’s story and value set are clear and well grounded, and it delivers against the resulting high expectations it creates among stakeholders.

It’s all about the honesty

This is just one of many definitions of brand authenticity. No matter which one you adhere to, the most efficient first step to establishing as an authentic brand is to be honest and transparent whenever possible. Not only does this behaviour feel right for your employees, it’s also an operational safeguard: say or do something dishonest, and that deed will be memorialized digitally, perpetually poised to bite you on the aspirations someday in the future. Being transparent keeps you honest. It prevents you from claiming to be in service of a renewable energy future when somewhere in your ecosystem a subcontractor is trashing an ocean with an oil spill.


The path to advocacy and loyalty

Authenticity also leads directly to brand advocacy. You create deeper emotional connections with your audiences, through which you can tell powerful stories that reflect your values and purpose. If your brand stands for something that people are passionate about, they will stand for you. They become invaluable third party endorsers. It follows that this all leads to long-term loyalty.

There was a time when we would talk about authenticity as a differentiating tactic. That still holds true today, but we might argue that brands deemed inauthentic will soon be the exception as more and more organizations evolve because of the social justice movement that is holding us all to higher standards of behaviour.

Three steps towards brand authenticity

1.     Be honest with yourself

Whether you are refining your current brand platform or crafting one for a start-up, take the time to get your team together and ask this single question: who are we? And, yes, be honest. This exercise with throw into high relief your people’s feelings about your brand: what it stands for and how it should act authentically to prove its commitment. You should see a clear connection between the outputs of this exercise and your brand promise. Perhaps it needs tweaking as a result. Being honest with yourselves helps ensure you’ll be honest with the world.

2.     Say it through consistent actions

It’s just common sense, right? All the values and purpose expressed in a sincere brand voice get tossed out the window if your brand isn’t actively proving its commitment to what you stand for through an ongoing campaign of authentic actions. Regroup with your people and do a Stop Start Continue exercise to determine what you’re already doing right and what you need to do differently in order to be authentic. If you do the right thing, but only once, today’s savvy consumer will see through any pretense. They are demanding more authenticity from brands, and that’s good for everyone.

3.     Refine and repeat

Things change. If we didn’t learn that from 2020, we’re in for a rough 2021. Set up a schedule with your people to regroup in a defined period of time to essentially repeat step 1. Ask yourselves again, who are we and what are we doing to prove it? Refine your authenticity tactics accordingly.

Brand Readiness facilitates growth

Brand Readiness facilitates growth

Setting the stage for growth using your brand

For many organizations, brand is an under-utilized tool for growth. Where to start? By assessing your brand’s performance across individual components, you can isolate precisely where attention is needed to foster growth and what actions to take. In doing so you will also be achieving a new level of brand readiness, arming your organization with the ability to pivot on threats and act on opportunities more quickly and strategically.

A more precise way to consider brand readiness

We’re all familiar with the notion brand is more than your logo. What does more actually mean? We think of brand as comprising seven individual components to be considered as you set out to assess your brand’s performance and its readiness to support growth.


Authenticity Is your brand soundly based on a stated internal truth or capability? Its story and values should be clear and well grounded. Your brand and its people deliver against the resulting high expectations you’ve created among your stakeholders.
Relevance Does your brand occupy a place in stakeholders’ lives, days and moments? It should satisfy pre-determined needs, desires and decision criteria.
Differentiation Do your stakeholders perceive clear differences between your brand proposition and experience and those of your competitors and comparatives?
Consistency Do stakeholders experience your brand and its people as intended, without fail, across all experiences, touchpoints and formats?
Prominence Does your brand feel omnipresent to audiences? Is it considered an authority in current and developing media and social platforms?
Dynamism Are your organization and people prepared to evolve gradually or pivot in the moment to rise to challenges or capture opportunities? Can you make change without abandoning your stated internal truth?
Impact Do your brand and people do the right thing according to your stated values and internal truth? Can your actions be considered selfless, particularly under difficult circumstances?


Hearts and minds plus days and moments

In addition to assessing your brand’s readiness across these seven components, another question brand owners can ask is, “where does our brand belong in our stakeholders’ lives?”

This brings greater specificity to the notion that brands should establish a place in audiences’ hearts and minds, elevating that goal to securing a place in the customer’s days and moments.

The era of empathy

For all the challenges COVID-19 presents, it is also providing organizations with the opportunity to rethink their brands’ commitment to feel, think and act with empathy.

Being an empathetic brand is not dressing CSR in new clothes. Nor is it espousing an ephemeral purpose that’s difficult to make real and relevant to people on a day-to-day basis. The empathetic brand takes to heart its responsibility to see people as people, understand their feelings and requirements, recognize and value their agency, and help them flourish according to their own unique capabilities and preferences.

The empathetic brand thinks and acts this way not because it has to, but because it wants to. In doing so, it attracts likeminded people as employees, partners and prospective customers. By authentically aligning with their values, empathetic brands are rewarded with growth.

Six steps towards Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) in your workplace

Six steps towards Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) in your workplace

As this article is being written, the front-page headline in the New York Times reads, “Former Louisville Officer Is Indicted in Breonna Taylor Case”. It portends a long night of unrest in Kentucky.

In a year defined as much by Black Lives Matter protests as a global pandemic, we are as a society rising up against the inequality and exclusivity that have long characterized our social systems. Organizations have been reacting with statements of support, pledges to evolve, and action leading to change.

Many are, for the first time, considering a new role in their organizations: Chief Diversity Officer. Such a role demonstrates a commitment to move beyond passive statements, take strategic action against racism, and foster more inclusive ethnic, gender and ability diversity within their organizations. The role alone cannot solve problems, however. It must be supported by a budget, talent, and sustained commitment.

For some organizations, a role solely dedicated to Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) may not be an option. But that does not mean your organization can’t take significant and immediate steps towards becoming a fully inclusive, anti-racist organization.

Six steps towards EDI

1.    Start with a redefined EDI

The very definition of EDI needs reworking. We will expand on this further in our next article, but the main thrust of an evolved definition is to include the idea of ability. All too often, the rights, feelings and practical requirements of differently-abled people in the workplace are treated as an afterthought. This results in having to accommodate for differently-abled people after the fact, because their practical and emotional needs were not accounted for in initial EDI planning. Organizations must also abandon words like “disabilities” and “disabled”, which are inherently exclusive and discriminatory. These simple actions will help us all cognitively rewire the notion of EDI to seamlessly include differently-abled people.

2.    Look to your brand

Consider the corporate values you’ve identified in your organization’s brand strategy. Do they point towards EDI as defined above? They may not need to state equity, diversity and inclusion overtly, but they do have to support those notions in order to facilitate actions in their service. What about your organization’s personality traits? Do they support storytelling, imagery and behaviours that advance EDI? Does your employer brand promise and provide a culture and experience that are genuinely welcoming and equitable?

This could be an opportune time for you to revisit these characteristics of your brand to ensure your organization is built for EDI at a fundamental level.

3.    Lead with empathy

Whether through personal experience or specific training and workshops, your leaders need to know how it feels to be excluded, forgotten, rejected or left behind. While many of us can remember times when we have been excluded, it is difficult for most to imagine a lifetime of such treatment. Make sure your leadership can connect genuinely with these feelings. Invest in specialized training that illuminates the emotional toll of exclusion.

4.    Culture, not command

Real inclusion is not a mandate issued from your organization’s leadership. Nor is it a hopeful movement that springs magically from your company’s grassroots. Rather, think of EDI as an outcome of a healthy, vibrant corporate culture. Take the time and do the work to ensure you are building a long-term culture that respects and embraces everyone for their differences. Build in ongoing employee training, and design daily actions into the employee experience to ensure everyone is contributing to a culture of genuine belonging.

5.    Count your change

Be specific about what you want to accomplish. Collect and analyse data rigorously, and see how your EDI performance stands up against other organizations. Share data and insights liberally with your organization’s key stakeholders. This will help you maintain transparency, identify issues and act to rectify them. Ensure this is not a one-off activity. Efforts around EDI should be an ongoing commitment that requires constant attention and resources in order to be meaningful and effective.

6.    Reap the rewards

The benefits of ethnic, gender and ability diversity are quantifiable. Research by the American Sociological Review identifies a workplace’s diversity as among the most important predictors of an organization’s sales revenue, customer numbers and profitability. A 2018 study by Accenture, partnering with the American Association of People with Disabilities and Disability:IN reported businesses that employ differently-abled people have revenues 28% higher, net income two times more, and profit margins 30% higher. The report also identified that employers who embraced differently-abled employees saw a 90% increase in employee retention.

With their varied life experiences, a diverse workforce brings myriad points of view, insights and specific capabilities to an organization’s challenges and opportunities. This facilitates freer thinking throughout the organization, heightens innovation, and results in more engaged, loyal employees.

Perhaps the most appealing aspect of associating with an organization committed to a newly-defined EDI is the feeling of knowing you are part of change that is long overdue and desperately needed around the world. Contributing to EDI can be the greatest source of pride people will ever feel throughout their experience with your brand.

Three steps to messaging for the customer journey

Three steps to messaging for the customer journey

Messaging. For the entire customer journey.

The marketer’s goal is to connect with prospects and customers at moments when they are most open to influence. That goal is unlikely to ever change. But the funnel metaphor we’ve used to represent the customer journey is due for an update, given that few journeys today are ever that linear.

The funnel metaphor is simple enough: the customer considers many brands at the wide end of the funnel, and over time narrows that consideration set down to make a final decision at the narrow end of the funnel. There are variations, but they basically include these stages.

Customer Journey

With today’s proliferation of brand choices, digital channels and savvier consumers who are experts at pre-decision research, the decision-making process is rarely linear. I’d say it’s more three-dimensional and temporally non-deterministic, but fortunately for all, my partners won’t let me complicate things that much. So, let’s go with this visualization to represent the stages of today’s customer journey.

customer journey stages

Make the message shareable

At any stage in this journey – and this cannot be overstated – today’s consumers can reach for a computer, tablet or phone, get information and opinions in seconds and/or broadcast their own thoughts and feelings to tens/hundreds/thousands of engaged consumers. Therefore, the goal of your brand today shouldn’t be to just influence the customer across their journey. Instead it should be to empower those customers to influence others on your brand’s behalf, at any and all stages of their journey.

Make the message more relevant 

To be relevant to customers across all of these stages, it follows that messaging should be stage-relevant. It should acknowledge what customers are thinking and feeling at every prioritized touch point of the journey. Equally important is that your brand’s messaging and voice make it easy for people to talk about you – to champion your brand by passing on your message to the rest of your potential customer universe.

Choose the most efficient messaging approach 

Depending on the complexity or simplicity of the customer journey and brand offering, sometimes stage-agnostic messaging will suffice for guiding communications. That means the messages are relevant across the entire customer journey. But, more and more, we’re seeing a need for messaging that is more finely tuned to to the customer journey.

A stage-specific messaging platform provides richer guidance to brand authors by parsing out messages based on the various stages of the customer journey. For instance, messages at the Consider stage are likely quite different from those reaching consumers in the Experience stage. The most effective messaging platform is layered with stage-specific messages.

Does that mean your brand messaging platform needs a separate layer for all six stages of the customer journey? Not necessarily. Rather, stages of the customer journey that represent the greatest potential or need for influencing audiences should be prioritized, while others may not require a separate layer of messaging.

Three steps towards messaging for the journey

  1. Do the research to establish your customer’s journey. Determine which touch points they are interacting with at specific moments. Find out what they need to know at those critical moments to advance them along the journey toward making the purchase decision.
  2. Establish the need for stage-specific messaging to determine which stages require a separate messaging layer. For instance, how can you influence customers who have who’ve abandoned your brand? What’s the most compelling message for those people? How can you get them to speak well of your brand, even after abandoning it? Conversely, if your brand performs exceedingly well during the Experience stage, it may not need a corresponding specific messaging layer.
  3. Create brand advocates. Whether your messaging is stage-agnostic or stage-specific, ensure that anyone reading or hearing your messages at any stage can champion your brand by passing those messages on to potential customers. This should be the acid test for all of your messaging.

Stage-specific messaging takes more work, but the formula for dividends is actually quite simple: let your messages demonstrate your brand’s understanding of what customers are thinking and feeling at various stages of their journey. Use their language in your copy so they can easily share it, and they will thank you by championing your brand and spreading the word.

Reimagine a new normal

Reimagine a new normal

There’s no return to yesterday. It’s about moving forward. Don’t reopen. Reimagine.

—Andrew Cuomo, Governor of New York

In his daily coronavirus check-ins, Governor Cuomo reminds us that returning to normal is not a realistic goal. He balances that sobering message with a truly inspiring notion. This pause in our lives is an opportunity to reflect on what we’ve learned, and reimagine what we want the next normal to be.

For businesses and individuals, we have a genuine opportunity to change things for the better.

But how do we reimagine a brand authentically?

For perspective, it’s helpful to start by getting a sense of how people are feeling right now. Maslow would tell us that the existential threat of coronavirus would trigger a refocusing on the safety needs. You remember Maslow’s iconic hierarchy of needs:

People naturally prioritize safety in crises

We see many brands reacting to this shift in the focus of their campaign messaging. Carvana, the leading e-commerce platform for buying and selling used cars, now claims to offer “the safer way to buy a car.” Service now follows CDC-recommended sanitizing and social distancing guidelines, while providing Touchless Delivery to customers. Clifford Sosin, an investor in the company, states Carvana “has always been the most trustworthy company in the used car industry”. The company’s messaging focus on safety acts as a proof-point of a trustworthy brand.

Changes: some temporary, some permanent

If and when circumstances change and the concern for safety eases, Carvana can resume focusing its messaging on other proof-points of trustworthiness. Brands like Domino’s Pizza, which is now touting zero contact delivery and carryout, will almost certainly continue to operate in this new way. But it won’t need to prioritize safety in its messaging as much.

For these brands, prioritizing safety in messaging is an easy decision to make, as the reasons for doing so are credible to their audiences. But countless brands won’t have a legitimate reason to focus their messaging on safety.

This is where the reimagining comes in.

Maslow Hierarchy of Needs, reimagine a new normal
Consider this as you think about what you want your organization to be in the next normal. Maslow never intended for his model to be presented as a pyramid. He also didn’t intend to suggest each level is a set of needs that must be met sequentially on a one-way journey to self-actualization.

According to Todd Bridgman, Stephen Cummings and John Ballard, who attempted to trace the origins of the pyramid in management textbooks,

Maslow believed that people have partially satisfied needs and partially unsatisfied needs at the same time. That a lower level need may be only partially met before a higher-level need emerges, and that the order in which needs emerge is not fixed.

Reimagine how your brand can meet human needs.

The implication for organizations is that they can reimagine who they want to be in the context of an entire range of human needs. As an exercise, virtually meet with your colleagues and ask yourselves, what human needs are we helping people meet now? Once you’ve answered that question, move on to explore.

What human needs could we be helping people meet?

It won’t be easy to answer this question at first. But keep pushing as you’ll likely land on at least one new human need your brand can help people meet. This is a springboard to reimagine a new and better version of your brand.

I will suggest you conduct this exercise after reading Transcend: The New Science of Self Actualization. In it, author Scott Barry Kaufman addresses the misleading pyramid presentation of needs. He replaces it with a sailboat metaphor that, in short, organizes deficiency needs as the hull, and growth needs as the sail. This new perspective on Maslow’s work makes it a valuable tool to help you reimagine how your organization could meet people’s needs.

If you would like to further explore how brands are reimagining their impact, you may enjoy this blog about leading through kindness, or this blog about 3 powerful reframes for leaders during crisis.

Connect through kindness

Connect through kindness

Okay, connect through kindness, but you have to mean it.

Brands connect through kindness more and more these days. Imagine, you step up to the counter at Tim Horton’s and order. You try to pay, only to find out that the person in front of you picked up the tab for your coffee. Or, you find out that someone anonymously paid $900 for 500 large coffees, and you are now the lucky recipient of one. This actually happened in Edmonton in 2013.

Momentary movement or enduring human truth?

How do you feel about random acts of kindness and paying it forward? For some, these are inspiring, motivating, and help restore our faith in the human race. For the more skeptical among us, they are new-agey trends that self-help authors write about to sell books. In his review of the movie Pay It Forward, Roger Ebert scoffed at the idea saying,

It’s a seductive idea but in the real world, altruism is less powerful than selfishness, greed, nepotism, xenophobia, tribalism and paranoia. If you doubt me, take another look at the front pages. —Roger Ebert

It’s true that these en masse acts of kindness come and go. But the idea of paying it forward dates back to 317 BC, when Menander featured it in his play Dyskolos. If kindness is futile, as Ebert would have us believe, why does it feel good when we’re kind to others? What can brands learn from this feeling?

Happiness chemicals

Next time you hold the door for someone pay attention to how you feel. There’s a good chance you’ll notice a small, tingly high course through your body. That’s a mix of neurochemicals rewarding you for what your brain perceives as survival behaviour. Chief among these neurochemicals is oxytocin, which is released when you build a social alliance. How does that promote your survival? We can think of it this way: the new bond with the person you held the door for represents a new friendship. You’ve got one more person watching your back. One more member of the village willing to share food with you and your offspring during a drought. One more supporter ready to help you raise a child. While none of that is never going to happen, to your brain it all means you’ve increased your odds for survival.

The Spirit of York

Now, imagine how the decision-makers at Spirit of York Distillery might’ve felt when they realized they could solve a huge problem for their community. Rather than shutting down completely, they chose to pivot production to hand sanitizer during the COVID-19 crisis. They probably enjoyed a nice hit of dopamine, which motivates us to reach an important goal, even if it’s difficult. When the news broke and York was lauded for the effort, they undoubtedly got a major dose of serotonin, which comes with respect.

When we all heard about the initiative, we felt some dopamine as well, because finally someone was doing something positive and helpful. We felt oxytocin as well, because of the sudden surge of trust and goodwill we felt for Spirit of York. The act, which felt truly altruistic, built an authentic bond between York and its current and potential customers.

Kindness is timeless

In the new reality of the COVID era, many brand owners are wondering how they can re-establish connections with their audiences. Brands are

  • Revisiting their brand positioning, re-examining their values, and considering playing a more intentional role as a force for good in the world.
  • Discovering how they can help their organization be better prepared for dramatic change, be it opportunity or challenge.
  • Developing strategies to achieve a new level of readiness for the future.

Done right, altruistic behaviour isn’t just helpful, it’s necessary for organizations in this new reality. What acts of kindness can you consider? You’ll be surprised at how many initiatives your organization could implement. These acts of kindness would be perceived as altruistic and result in a stronger, more enduring emotional bond between you and your audiences.

Brainstorm with your people. Push boundaries and initiatives that on the surface won’t earn monetary credit for your organization quickly or overtly. Remember that the neurochemicals our brains produce, or don’t produce, are beyond our conscious control. If your act of kindness is perceived as too self-interested, it will not produce the desired results. This is good. It keeps the bar high as we all think about how to be better corporate citizens of this new world.