At Foresight Factory, we have seen that globalisation and growing interconnectedness exposes consumers around the world to values and lifestyle models that prioritise authenticity and individuality. We expect more consumers to actively seek their true identity and brands have a role to play in that journey. What does authenticity, specifically, brand authenticity actually mean to consumers? Which are the brands that made the cut, proving that their marketing efforts are genuine – and which have only pushed their customers away? We took these questions to our global network of Trendspotters in China, UK and USA for their local perspectives.
What does authenticity mean to consumers?
‘Authenticity’ across various cultures and countries has a consistent meaning – for individuals, it refers to someone who expresses their true self even when they risk being condemned for doing so. We’ve been tracking our trend Pursuit of Real since 2006, which addresses the identity quest of consumers and the conflict they face as they maintain control of their lives amid the mounting pressure to follow their dreams.
“Being authentic means expressing true emotions in communication and interactions with other people, being unafraid to express your thoughts when there are different opinions.” – Jenny, 24, Shenzhen
“Authenticity is definitely considered an important virtue in the UK and those who are prepared to reveal their ‘real’ self, warts and all, garner extra respect from their peers.” – Pete, 24, Manchester
Who you are offline doesn’t have to be the same online
‘Authentic’ is a word that represents both value and irony in an epoch where filtered and curated lives are perpetuated via social media. Foresight Factory research found that a huge majority of 85% of consumers worldwide believe that it is important that people come across as who they really are. Authenticity is universally valued, unique self-expression is encouraged and the individual’s identity is constantly under progress. However, social media emerges as an obstacle rather than a driver. Our trend Unique Belonging talks about how consumers look for ways to be distinctive yet part of the mainstream. Standing out from the crowd is a daunting prospect, especially online and there the relentless pursuit of authenticity is excused and takes a back seat. However, those that can prove their ‘realness’ online can profit.
“It is commonly accepted that many online behaviours are not necessarily real. It seems to be an inherent characteristic of the virtual world not to show your true colours. Also, social media platforms are so valuable that it only makes sense to curate looks and content in order to market oneself. As a result, people on social media are seen as less authentic.”- Jenny, 24, Shenzhen
“They are being authentic with the good [aspects of their lives] but not 100% authentic [when] revealing the bad [sides to] their lives.”- Kristin, 31, Los Angeles
“In an online context I think authenticity becomes a lot rarer and therefore more highly valued.” – Pete, 24, Manchester
How is authenticity and fluid identity reconciled?
Cultural differences are a factor when it comes to how authenticity is portrayed. For example, the topic of gender fluidity is becoming more widely discussed in mainstream media and 60% of global consumers believe that people should be allowed to choose how they identify themselves. However, in China this is just 40%. Although there are pockets of individualism emerging in Asia, Pursuit of Real takes on a slightly different narrative from the West as Asian societies maintain emphasis on collectivism. In Asian markets, authenticity is valued highly but it’s important that the ‘real you’ isn’t taboo and fits in with the expectations of society.
In Western markets, the constant uncertainty in a consumer’s life – especially when it comes to employment and financial security – means that authenticity has to be pragmatic. Our trend Liquid Skills looks at how these conditions and the
increased accessibility of knowledge are driving consumers to upskill, learn new things and even switch careers. Here, it is the journey that is seen as authentic rather than just the result. This is where we see an opportunity for brands to enter as a guide.
“The larger amount of options that are available to people these days does not mean that each option is less valid. Provided that people’s passions come across as genuine they wouldn’t be considered to be any less genuine.” – Pete, 24, Manchester
“All of us have the right to change and grow in our career paths. I feel [my cousin] is even more authentic now because she was not afraid to take a risk, [change career] and try something new without anyone helping her.” – Kristin, 31, Los Angeles
Can brands be fluid and authentic too?
During Trending 2017, our Annual Conference last year, we released a report that looked at the factors that influence brand advocacy, an important marker of whether consumers find a brand to be genuine enough that they would promote it. We found that brands are like people – being genuine and inspiring were some of the top values that encourages loyalty and advocacy. Furthermore, Foresight Factory found that 68% of people are more likely to buy from companies that support the causes that the consumer believes in. People want the brands they buy into to not only reflect but to embody their values. This prompts the question “How can a company prove that they are genuine and connect with their target market?” The insights from our Trendspotters are revealing:
“McDonald’s are still a long way off from being considered an ethical company but their transition does appear to have happened in an authentic way and this is evidenced by the actual changes that have been put into place.” – Pete, 24, Manchester
“One brand that changed and lost their authenticity is Hard Rock Hotel. When I worked with the Hard Rock brand, they tried to lose the rock and roll theme by booking hip hop events on the property. This was a total disaster, and they lost their core rock & roll customers. They just tried hip hop because that was the “cool” genre at the time.”- Kristin, 31, Los Angeles
It appears that for a brand to be accepted as authentic, they cannot be seen to simply be leveraging zeitgeist. Change too quickly and this looks like you’re capitalising on sensitive issues – like Pepsi. Arguably, the backlash that they faced from their advertisement featuring Kendall Jenner was partially due to the brand lacking a history of social causes. They weren’t convincing when they tried to be Pop Radical because it wasn’t in line with their existing values. The message is this: try to be something you’re not and you risk your consumer’s interest or worse -their trust. It’s a difficult landscape for brands to navigate when consumers are suspicious – but it’s not impossible.
Brands may do well from embedding their values in their loyalty programmes so that the relationship between customer and company are strengthened. Proving authenticity via quality of service and product is a tangible way that is hard to refute.
Finally, being authentic is very much aligned with being consumer-centric. If you’re interested in getting into the mind of the 2018 consumer, do register your interest for our annual event Trending 2018.