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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