Marketers are increasingly pushing for “transparency” and “authenticity” in their brand communication. But, for many brands, this is surface-deep. They want advertising that makes them look authentic and transparent without actually being authentic and transparent.
Filmmaker Johan Liedgren wrote a snarky satirical open letter replying to a request to produce “authentic” looking commercials for a brand:
“I count no less than 14 instances of the word “authentic” in the brief. Counting synonyms like “real,” “true,” “genuine,” “not fake,” and “actual,” the tally rises to 28 … I don’t view the opportunistic call for “authenticity” as a hope for a our industry, but rather as an all-time low point for a trade that is no stranger to constantly lowered ambitions for the communication between organizations and real humans. Why? Because you don’t really want authenticity.”
The more you have to shout about how authentic your brand is, the less it probably is. Much of authenticity advertising is authenticity washing. It’s boasting about authenticity without really practicing it. Practicing it requires far more of the organization than the marketing department.
Scott Monty at Ford Motor wrote an interesting article earlier this year about transparency and authenticity in business, focusing on a case study from McDonald’s Canada.
McDonald’s faced an online rumor that its Chicken McNuggets were made from “pink goop”, along with a photo circulating on the internet claiming to show the process. Rather than combat the rumor with a faux-authentic commercial of chicken farmers in a bucolic setting, they filmed their entire supply chain and manufacturing process and shared it step-by-step. So far, that video has been seen nearly 4.4 million times. This was all part of a McDonald’s Canada program called “Our Food. Your Questions” that has answered 20,000 questions from consumers with this level of candor since 2012.
This program may be transparent, but does this lead to authenticity? McDonald’s after all was the target of Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me 10 years ago. They’ve struggled with an authenticity gap, which is why consumers believed the “pink goop” story in the first place. But the McDonald’s brand in Canada saw a 60% increase in brand trust as a result of this program. That’s an important step in the right direction for the brand.
McDonald’s Australia launched a related program called “Track My Macca” that let’s you track all of the ingredients in the food you’re about to eat, using the GPS from your phone to track a particular McDonald’s outlet, a QR code on the food packaging, and the time you received the food to tell you the origin of each ingredient, from the lettuce to the farm that supplied the beef.
That story reveals the potential that many brands see in advertising with transparency and authenticity. But it also shows how it requires much more than a marketing comms campaign. It takes the full organization. Consumers can see right through shallow marketing spin and authenticity washing. To work, it has to go deeper.
Transparency and authenticity require far more than a brief to an agency. I’d love to hear your thoughts here.
Here’s a cartoon I posted on this topic last year.
(Marketoonist Monday: I’m giving away a signed cartoon print. Just share an insightful comment to this week’s post by 5:00 PST on Monday. Thanks!)