At the core of all great brands is Authenticity. And it is my firm belief that this is the essential difference between great brands and mediocre brands.
If you think about it, almost every action of every individual is tied to that individual’s self-worth. Our actions and reactions are all designed by our subconscious ego to increase our self-worth. When we get a raise, we feel happy- our self-worth has got affirmed by the outside world, so it increases. When our boss yells at us, our self-worth takes a beating, so in an automatic, unconscious attempt to balance the scale, we feel angry with our boss, feel we have been unjustly wronged. Or our self-worth actually plummets, and we feel “low” or depressed.
Either way, the problem is apparent- we have made our self-worth a dependent variable on external factors.
It is “perception of self” that is the real villain. We all have a self-image, a mental picture of ourselves as we’d like to be, not necessarily as we are. What changes with external events is this self-image. So, for instance, John would like to be a witty and humorous man. What happens when he cracks a joke, and no-one laughs? Either he sarcastically dismisses everybody as ”dumb” (an attempt to hold on to self-image) or he gets into a blue funk (he is aware of a gap between self and self-image, and the awareness is painful to him).
Authenticity is simply “self-awareness + self-acceptance” – a result of the ability to delink self-worth from external events.
To an authentic person, there isn’t an image of what “he’d like to be”. He knows what his shortcomings and his strengths are, but for him, they are devoid of any emotional or “self-worth” significance. He simply IS what he is, warts and all. He doesn’t go around thrusting this into everybody’s face (that is only another form of inadequacy, which has been sexified by giving it the fashionable moniker “attitude”), but there are no apologies either. He is fine with what he is, because he knows EVERYONE- no exceptions- has shortcomings and strengths. This is why no individual is ideal, but every individual is unique.
Why is this relevant to brand philosophy? Because brand philosophy works on the same principles as human philosophy. Let me explain.
If you take the mission / vision statements of five different companies, and put them on a table in front of you, after blanking out all names and logos, I wager you won’t be able to make out one from the other. They all seem to be saying the same things- “superior value” customer service”, “respect for the individual”, “quality” et al. The issue is not whether or not five companies CAN believe in the same things. The issue is whether they really DO. My contention is they do not. My contention is that they put all these words in, because they want to “look good”, not necessarily because they feel deeply about them. In other words, they are trying to be ideal. In the process, they end up being inauthentic, and certainly not unique. And this is a major failure, because differentiation is the essence of brand strategy.
Perhaps a large part of this is due to the common perception in corporate circles of a mission / vision statement as a piece of communication to the outside world, not as an indoctrination of their deepest values and beliefs. This is why you see mission/vision statements hung at the reception of every big company.
It takes authenticity to cut through the illusion of an idealized self-image to realize what one is truly about. What one holds dear, and what one does not. What one believes in, and what one does not. Sony was passionate about technology, but not too turned on by customer service. Walt Disney didn’t give a hoot about “respect for the individual”- he was a highly abrasive man. Whether a Mercedes gives “superior value” in the conventional sense is a matter of debate.
Brand philosophy, at the end of the day, has to be a true representation of what the people behind it value and hold dear at the deepest level- what their “take on life” really is. Yes, it is possible for a company to decide upon a certain philosophy because an attractive potential target segment might like it. But they would then have to ensure that the people behind the brand passionately share the same “take on life”. If they don’t, the fate is clear- no authenticity, no self-confidence. No self-confidence, no charisma (see previous post). No charisma, mediocre brands. And this is why authenticity has be one of the two foundation stones of every brand’s philosophy.
The other foundation stone is integrity, which I’ll deal with in my next post.