Authenticity Is King Because Branding Bores Everyone

Why a brand's audience needs to experience your message.

Today, any brand has a potential army of credible, unpaid spokespeople that are willing to work on its behalf. And this army is the exact same group of people who are willing to work against it.

This is the new world of what I call the "post-positioning era" of branding. In the post-positioning era of branding, what you say about your product or service matters almost nothing at all, and what I, the consumer, can do with it matters completely.

The new conditions of brand success:

1. Deliver a kick-ass product.
2. Be honest.

Our ability as advertisers to contrive and disseminate an emotional response through advertising is diminishing rapidly. And brand exposure is not the same as brand experience. A single one-star review on Yelp trumps 60 seconds of Super Bowl airtime.

But this is good news; you no longer need to "capture" your audience. People are willfully engaging with your brand, starting discussions about it of their own volition, and using it as a way to define who they are, by "liking" a brand on Facebook, or touting it on their blog. They just want to know why your company should be part of their own personal brand.

There's a lot of talk about the dialogue between a consumer and a company, but it's an important idea. Brands have a responsibility to create a better structure for those conversations. We need to stop buying and selling ideas about brands that don't have any substance behind them and start enabling people to discover why they should incorporate a company's brand into their own.

You no longer need to "capture" your audience.

Mountain Dew screams 'EXTREME!' from the rafters. Red Bull says it "gives you wings." Both brands have their logos on skateboard ramps, and the products are essentially the same commodities, with the same ingredients. Mountain Dew has T-shirts. But Red Bull lets you see and feel what it's like to fly a plane at 400 mph, 10 feet off the ground.

Only one of them is a Harvard Business School case study.

The difference is not positioning; it's experience. Branded experiences are designed interactions that leverage the inherent stickiness of participation?the strongest driver of preference we know. Red Bull has woven its brand into human experiences?not just as a sponsor, but as a participant. They walk the walk: the brand could almost be called a fan.

Red Bull's "sponsored" experiences credibly inspire many of their consumers to authentically participate in creating and sharing "branded experiences" such as Flugtag. Mountain Dew is less credible because it is still using the old guard type of branding and messaging principles.

If a brand says "we want to be seen as X," the correct response from a marketer is 'Are you actually X?' or "Then go be X," because no amount of positioning can swing the needle if you aren't actually delivering the experience.

Today's consumers are stingier with their brand loyalty than in the past because they can afford to be: they are burdened only by an abundance of choice and knowledge. For me, as a consumer, value can mean money, status, or just a smile on my face, but I will point others towards where I find it or where I find it lacking and I will do it publicly and quickly.

The success of brands like Zappos shows that a good experience has measurable value. I'll pay Zappos the same amount of money?or even more?for shoes I could easily get elsewhere. Why? The product experience will be identical, but the brand experience was better. Zappos's motto is "Powered by service" and it emphasizes that service is the primary product?shoes are just a secondary product.

As a result, I've come to trust that brand to sell me anything, a fact Zappos, and their imitators, have been quick to notice. At the core of this "product" is a zealous and ongoing dedication to consumer experience at every single touchpoint. They asked, they listened, and they won.

[Top image by Mark Zastrow]

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  • Dhaval

    I've been telling this to my clients, friends and anyone who will listen for a long time now. Really refreshing to have someone else be on the same boat.

    Any successful brand is there due to an excellent product or service. You don't hear people boasting about shoddy products with great advertising. If anything, that will backfire on them.

    Love love love this. Thank you.

  • richardlewis

    Just want to express a couple of ideas:

    • the success of a brand has no relation to it's number of advocates/customers or the amount of money it makes. this is important.

    • experience isn't a necessary part of the success of a biz (i.e. facebook provides 0 experience as it is only a soulless format)

    • mountain dew actually has an independent record label that promotes indy musicians in an way unlike major labels (green label sound). if you think about it, music has always been at the heart of mt. dew (do it! do it! mt. dew!)

    • btw … what came first "do it. do it." or "just do it"

    • if a business goal is simply money, than honesty (or transparency) is likely not high on the list of brand initiatives (agribusiness, meat industry)

    • we always forget about mentioning luck

    • twitter was NOT a kick-ass idea UNTIL it became kick-ass by its users

  • Justin Foster

    Provocative, interesting stuff Jamie!

    As a brand strategist, I use positioning as part of the process of developing go-to-market strategies. However, it is just that - part of a process. Without the underlying principle of being truly different and authentic, positioning too easily becomes a tool for manipulation instead of inspiration.

    I'm 100% behind ending the antiquated idea of "capturing" an audience (or for that matter, calling them a "target audience"). We would never treat our friends the way advertisers treat their audience. We marketers need to understand that brands are ultimately relationships. Our relationships to brands carry all of the same traits as relationships with people: attraction, love, loyalty, anger, jealousy, etc. When framed this way, we understand the importance of first impressions (attraction), experience (retention), and reciprocation (mutual respect).

    Without this emotional connection with your audience, you aren't a brand, you a vendor.

  • Zak Menkel

    I think this brings up a really interesting discussion, and I commend you for bold, if potentially controversial stance on the role of positioning.

    I think the commenter below may have missed the point a bit. (I'm a strategist in the industry, and actually have some vested interest in keeping the role of positioning alive and well).

    The way I read this is not that positioning isn't important, but rather that decoupling the positioning from the actual product experience is not going to fly anymore. Strategy and research still have a HUGE role to play in this arena, but you're dreaming if you think you can define what you stand for beyond the walls of your own office.

    The two-way conversation metaphor is tired but true, but the conversation that matters is the conversation that's happening (without you) between your constituents, and that is largely beyond the reach of "positioning."

    I disagree with the idea that, "Brands need to get their voice out there before someone else does.... If you don't talk about your service or product they'll ignore you and pick your competitor." Last time I bought something - an album, a car, a massage - I was reading reviews - from experts and regular Joes alike, and you better believe their opinion matted a whole hell of a lot more than what the brand told me it stood for.

    I'm not saying advertisers are wasting their money, but come on, experiences ARE real world, and if that' what I tell my friends about - not the brand value proposition. Times have changed. Knowing who you are as a company (or a person) is certainly important, but marketing /advertising is no longer a battle to push your "approved" message tot he top of the pile - it's futile. "Democratic branding" (I dig that phrase) is something to be embraced, not feared.

    Brands need to stand for something, but it had better be the same thing their product experience embodies. Your consumers will tell the world the truth about your brand, and that will be THE truth. Don't try and beat them to the punch - just make sure the story you're telling is the real one.

  • James Huntly

    Certainly rings true with the direction and behaviors out there at the mo and some of what I have tweeted/blogged recently...

    However I think that positioning is a critical part of the branding process and provides intellect, insight and rigour to the direction of creative. Your second paragraph is hugely generalized - Surely to create "kick-ass" products you've got to have got your positioning right and have done your research, otherwise you can't differentiate your offering/product to your competitors - positioning and experience go hand in hand! Only then can a brand have a two way conversation, which as you've quite rightly highlighted is critical in this digital age.

    To suggest 'you no longer have to "capture" your audience' is suicidal. Gaining their attention in this competitive climate and in order to cut through the noise from the outset is essential. Brands need to get their voice out there before someone else does! Experiences are real world not just online, and people need to feel compelled to use, buy or interact with your product/brand, positioning is key to this - If you don't talk about your service or product they'll ignore you and pick your competitor.

    The case studies you've picked are great examples of brands practicing what they preach. Yes truly authentic experiences are critical to retaining and gaining a following and growth. Brands are becoming lazy and should be worried about the "democratic branding" trend being led by the likes of Facebook and Twitter but at the same time excited about the possibilities. The only way to be truly successful with this though and not retaliate with a spray gun approach when time's are bad, is to have worked out who you are and where you stand in the market, and positioning helps to do that!