Closing the 'authenticity gap'

Trust, or rather, the lack of trust, in businesses and what they claim to stand for is a prominent and recurring characteristic of consumers and customers. This authenticity gap is not new, but awareness of it has been heightened by contemporary societal factors: ‘fake news’, dissembling politicians and an uneven economy have each contributed to raising public cynicism to unprecedented levels.

Corporate reputation and stakeholder trust are areas of particular interest and expertise at Luminous. Developing credible brands and communications that engage, inspire loyalty and generate customer advocacy is at the heart of what we do, so our brand strategy team was delighted to compare notes with other specialists recently at Kantar Media’s breakfast conference discussing this very subject. Below, we have summarised the key takeaway points and give our own perspectives on how your business can close its own authenticity gap for good.

1) Be transparent and open, especially when you ‘mess up’
When a company underperforms, society expects it to own up and take full responsibility. But, what happens when ‘sorry’ isn’t enough anymore because tolerance has been exhausted? Kate McFerran, Director of Communications at train operator LNER, explained that while her firm’s business model is purely customer-focused, “there will always be uncontrollable elements that cause delays to services. The best we can do is keep customers updated through our social media, providing assurance that we are doing the best that we can for them.”

The Luminous view:

There is a common perception that B2B and B2C brands are completely different but both are aiming to please their customers; customers who appreciate honesty and transparency. This helps explain why start-ups such as Monzo, the online banking company, and smaller agencies such as Tipi, the London house rental company, are doing especially well. Their respective business models are built on providing their customers with a fully-transparent service unhindered by hidden fees or additional costs. Such examples highlight the opportunity for B2B brands to revisit their communication strategy and address the needs and emotions of their customers honestly and openly.

2) Purpose requires action
Not every company will have a purpose and that’s ok (although, as a key strategic tool, Luminous recommends defining one). What’s not ok is pretending your company is doing lots of amazing things allied to a purpose that is actually non-existent or over-claiming for subsidiary activities. This point was clearly illustrated by Georgina Wald, Corporate Communications Manager of Fuller, Smith & Turner PLC. Fuller’s has a sustainable brewing process in that spent grain is used as cattle feed, but Fuller’s does not push sustainability as core to its greater purpose because its clever recycling of grain represents only a small part of the firm’s business activities.

The Luminous view:

If your company decides to promote its purpose credentials, be prepared to deliver against them fully. Time spent ‘wordsmithing’ a glossy, inspirational purpose statement without detailing the actions to deliver against it, is time wasted. Unilever is a great example of a company with an aspirational purpose (‘To make sustainable living commonplace’) supported by an actionable plan (the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan, or USLP). USLP sits at the heart of Unilever’s business model and ensures that every decision made, from the suppliers the firm partners with to the ingredients used in its products, is fully aligned to its purpose.

3) It’s harder than ever to protect your reputation

Social media has given us the opportunity to access and share information, knowledge and opinions like never before. Everyone has a voice, and everyone is an expert. Kantar’s 2019 DIMENSION report demonstrates how important an online presence is when it comes to consumers’ perception of your brand: 44% of consumers surveyed said their opinions of brands are influenced by what they read in articles online and 50% said they trust brand information they find on the internet. Internal comms departments can try their best to control their messaging, but with consumer-generated information readily available online, it’s harder than ever to protect your company’s reputation. 

The Luminous view:

Make your consumers a focus but take a holistic view of who has a stake in what you do because your employees can be your strongest advocate – or critic! For example, what happens when new recruits start work and their experience does not match what they have read about online or have been told at their interview? You will have a disappointed staff group ready to post negatively on Glassdoor for the whole world to read. A study by LinkedIn found that 50% of employees often post about their employer on social media and 52% of job-seeking candidates use social media to learn more about their employers. This all points to now being a prime time to invest in developing your employee value proposition to ensure you reap the full benefits of this digital age.

4) Authenticity comes from within

Speaking of employee value propositions, Anisa Missaghi, Head of External Communications at food company pladis Global, gave us a great example of how establishing a strong message internally can help drive an external campaign. McVitie’s have long acknowledged the importance of their employees’ mental wellbeing and have invested heavily in leadership trainings and workshops to discuss the topic. Because this resonated so strongly internally, the company decided to extend the programme externally with its ‘Let’s Talk’ campaign. ‘Let’s Talk’ is rooted in the idea that as digital connections have expanded, one to one human connections have dwindled. Having a biscuit and a chat is a great way to restore the imbalance, for people to connect with others and share, in the most fundamentally human way, how they are doing. Partnering with ‘Mind’, the mental health charity, McVitie’s created ‘stations’, encouraging people to stop by and talk over a cup of tea and a biscuit. Biscuits, good conversation and better mental health – a brilliant recipe!

The Luminous view:

Connecting and engaging with your employees is about talking to them and finding out what really matters. Don’t expect to replicate the McVitie’s experience, that is not the aim. Simply ensure that the social issue you choose to champion is relevant to your staff as a group. Procter & Gamble brand Gillette started in this way, defining new values around respect, accountability and role modelling. However, Gillette’s campaign about toxic masculinity released earlier this year caused a lot of controversy. While it received positive comments and some applauded Gillette’s bravery, others felt it was a step too far. For many consumers, Gillette doesn’t have any right to contribute to the #metoo conversation and should stick to #sellingrazors.

To sum up, if your company has an ‘authenticity gap’, it’s important to get to grips with it: establish how big it is and be forensic about where the problems lie. Are you saying one thing and doing another? Are you talking openly and honestly with both your customers and employees? Are you speaking to issues that are in your realm of influence?

At Luminous, we want to get to know the real you and shine fresh light on what really matters about your business, illuminating what sets you apart to create and deliver brighter solutions that resonate with key influencers. If you would like help in getting to the core of your brand and closing your authenticity gap, please get in touch.