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Authenticity Is Standing up for Your Brand Values During Crisis

'Authenticity' has been one of the marketing buzzwords of recent decades, but it has always been a fairly abstract concept.

In 2015, Swiss marketing professor, Felicitas Morhart published an in-depth studies on this subject to try to understand the consumer psychology behind authenticity in Europe and the US. The results of the study showed that consumers regard a brand as authentic if it can satisfy the following criteria:

1. Continuity: brands that have been able to withstand the test of time and exude stability.

2. Integrity: a company that remains true to its own core values, even in difficult times.

3. Credibility: a company that always keeps its promises.

4. Symbolism: a brand that serves as a symbol for a life value that is important to many consumers in their own daily lives.

These results seem to conclude that authenticity revolves primarily around the ability to positively develop both brand and reputation. But the hype surrounding authenticity has often misled marketing managers into thinking that it is enough to talk about the origin and heritage of the brand.

Recent crises have shown that companies that invest heavily in the long-term strengthening of their brand display greater resilience during the recovery process. In the future, however, the authenticity hype will move more and more in the direction of a sense of responsibility. Consumers are already showing they are more likely to buy from companies that make the right choices for customers, employees and society as a whole. And the younger the target group, the more important this socially responsible aspect will become.

Should brands have an opinion on social issues?

None of this means that brands need to be colourless. Opinions are good, even though by definition, that means not everyone will agree with your opinion, like it or follow it.

In some cases, taking your responsibility means having the courage to express your opinion. Will you speak out in support of others? Will you support important social issues? Will you even undermine the opinions of others in authority that you believe to be wrong? It is a bold move, and you must be able to mentally prepare yourself in the knowledge that some people – and therefore some consumers – will not be happy.

Even so, brand activism – standing on the barricades – is a potential strategy to make the difference in today's world. Modern companies make the difference not only with their products, but also with their voice.

In September 2018, Nike, one of the biggest sponsors of the American National Football League, made Colin Kaepernick the face of a major campaign. Colin Kaepernick was a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers American football team. He was the first American football player to 'take the knee' rather than to remain standing during the American national anthem, as a silent protest against police violence, racism and discrimination. Other footballers followed his example, but Kaepernick paid a heavy price for his pioneering role. After he began his protest action in 2016, no other team was willing to offer him a contract.

It was this that inspired Nike to launch a campaign with Kaepernick and the text: 'Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.' Nike showed that the company stood 100 per cent behind Kaepernick's silent and respectful demonstration of his opinion. In other words, it showed that it wanted a world without discrimination, racism and hate.

Thousands of people enthusiastically shared the message with as many people as they could. But not everyone in the United States felt the same way, and social media with flooded with messages of hate directed at the company, images of new trainers in dustbins across the country and even public burning of Nike products.

In these circumstances, it could be very tempting for a marketing manager to crawl into a corner to hide, but not at Nike. When people started burning their shoes, they immediately launched a second campaign: 'How to burn our products – safely.' The company even published its own 'burning guide' online.

This amusing, even sarcastic extra message delighted Nike supporters and reconfirmed that the brand was not backing down on its opinion. It backed the athlete and his mission and it stood by that commitment – and no amount of burnings or hate mails was going to change that. As Phil Knight, the founder of Nike, once said: “It doesn't matter how many people hate the brand, as long as enough people love it.”

So what did the controversy do to the bottom line for Nike? The company gained 163 million dollars in earned media, brand value increased by 8 billion dollars and sales were up by 31 per cent.

I work with brands in different industries across the world, and when I talk to marketing managers about this story they often say: “Yes, but that was Nike. We could never get away with that.” But it isn’t strictly true. Nike has become such a force because it has dared to stick its neck out, time after time and have an opinion. It takes its responsibility and does what it believes is positive for the world.

Too many brands are afraid of doing the right thing. Rather than standing centre stage, they feel safer in the shadows. But improving society starts with having an opinion and having the courage to stand up for it. Even when the going gets tough, even when your products are quite literally going up in smoke.

Steven van Belleghem is one of the world’s leading thought-leaders, speakers and authors on customer engagement. His new book, The Offer You Can’t Refuse is out now.

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