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As the recession deepened last spring, a full-page newspaper ad from Citi (C) caught my eye. Considering the mess-of-its-own-making from which the bank was suffering, the ad featured an unusual headline: "Providing Stability. Securing the Future."
Clearly, I thought at the time, someone in the marketing department is not paying attention. Citi was not only being buffeted by the storm, it was the cause of it—at least in part. A company whose actions had led to so much financial instability laying claim to the opposite seemed detached at best, disingenuous at worst. (Ironically, the ad also featured the bank's longstanding slogan—"Citi never sleeps," which, I surmised, was truer than ever.)
Citi seems to have recognized the error of its ways. Chief Executive Officer Vikram Pandit recently admitted in a video on the company's blog: "It's clear that we made some mistakes." He says Citi has installed a new management team and new governance structure and that the bank is "working hard toward creating a culture of responsible finance." That, however, only reinforces the belief that the previous culture was committed to something less than being responsible.
After years of telling us to "Live Richly," Citi now professes "responsible finance" as the cornerstone that will drive everything it does. Perhaps so. Or perhaps not. As one visitor commented on Pandit's video blog, "I hope all of this is real."
Me too. Real or not, one thing is certain. Citi's issues get to the heart of the new watchword in marketing—authenticity.
With the headline-making mischief of companies such as Enron, Madoff Investments, BP (BP), and the like, consumers won't tolerate disingenuousness. And the advent of social media has given them more power than ever to expose pretenders.
Celebrities may appear beautiful on Entertainment Tonight, but when they say ugly things on answering machines, the world soon finds out. Athletes who are heroes on the field but scoundrels in real life can get away with living double lives for only so long. Companies that lay claim to something they're not can be called on it with increasing speed and fervor.
In such an environment, it behooves everyone in business to consider the extent of their brand's authenticity. Nobody wants to be exposed as a fraud.
First, authenticity requires honesty. As in human relationships, if you try to be something you're not, it won't ring true—and it won't be long until you get called on it. In modern marketing it's not so much lying that's the problem (with a few notable exceptions), it's embellishing the truth—usually in the form of braggadocio. Claiming to have "the best service," "the best prices," or some other cliché won't fly unless it's truly, demonstrably, and consistently true. Every brand wants to be well-regarded, but overpromising is a temptation to which too many marketers surrender.
Sometimes it pays to take the opposite tack by admitting a negative about your brand or category. Since a company is unlikely to confess to something that isn't true, doing so is an honest way to begin to build trust. Remember Joe Isuzu, the smile-while-you-lie car salesman? He became a pop culture icon based on the principle that if there's an element of truth to something, you might as well come clean about it. (On that point I give Citi's Pandit credit.)
Second, authenticity requires credibility. I recently stayed at a hotel that had paper-thin walls, which became evident when my neighbors, a rather energetic high school softball team, enjoyed too much fun and too little sleep (as did I). When I dragged my weary body into the bathroom the next morning, there on the shower curtain was the hotel brand's chirpy slogan: "Wake up on the bright side." Not a credible promise, although I did have some sympathy for the chain. Authenticity is a particularly vexing problem for franchised companies that leave the customer experience in the hands of independent operators, some of which care less than others. (See "Don't Neglect Internal Branding.")
Third, authenticity requires consistency, both in the moment and over time. In the digital age there's no way to confine people's exposure to a brand's slick, external veneer. They are going to catch a glimpse inside one way or another. When they spy a dent or a chip in the paint, they shouldn't be surprised.
If your brand is solid on the outside but no more impressive than particle board within, your good name will last about as long as a cheap chair. Depending on your starting point, it may take time to earn the credibility that comes with consistency. Citi's new direction may be as authentic as it gets; given the company's history, it's going to be a while before most people believe it.
Every brand can find its place of authenticity. If you're in business and you're making a profit, you're obviously doing something right for someone. Start there and discover exactly what it is you do that is ringing customers' bells. Then do more of what adds to it and less of what doesn't.
Look for the links between "consumer truths" and "brand truths." Consumer truths aren't difficult to find: People make their wants and needs known, and good research can turn up motivations customers may not realize or won't even admit. The bigger challenge is to differentiate between your brand's truths and its aspirations. There's nothing wrong with aspirations, but by definition they're not true—at least not today.
Take great service, for example. It's an admirable aspiration, to be sure, but it honestly, credibly, and consistently characterizes few companies. If you're not genuinely one of them, don't claim to be.
Instead, be authentic with yourself. Ask hard questions about your brand. What is it that fundamentally drives your value proposition? At what are you genuinely, credibly, and consistently excellent? How can you be authentically better? Where are the holes, and how can you fill them? And when it comes to marketing, how can you communicate authentically, without resorting to simplistic and dangerous claims and promises?
The good news is that money doesn't matter. In fact, being authentic will actually make your limited budget go farther because you're not trying to convince people of anything that isn't true. I recently drove past a bail bonding company in a ramshackle building with a beat-up sign that said: "Because jail sucks." Now that's authentic—not to mention funny. I'm not in the market for a bail bond (and hope never to be), but if something bad happens this weekend, I know who to call.
Branding isn't difficult. It's just like real life. You should continually strive to make your brand the best it can be. Just never try to make it something other than what it is.