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The Irony of Asking for Brand Authenticity

Each time we move to a new year, we take a look at trends, innovation and values to inform our work. In 2016, big data was everyone’s favorite buzzword. Content was queen in 2017. Last year brands focused on personalization and interactivity. What about 2019?

Tactics like artificial intelligence or programmatic advertising are certainly growing, but what do people really expect from brands?


Two of the top five values for 2019 are honesty and transparency according to Gartner’s annual Values and Lifestyle Survey. These two values land somewhere on the top ten list every year, but they’re used so often in marketing buzzword-speak, what do they even mean?

gartner insights

Social media offers authenticity by allowing users to interact with businesses in real time. This forces accountability, finally giving users an upper hand to get responses from an otherwise unresponsive brand. Social media has lifted the veil, opening the door for personal communication between a brand and user.

But 2018 was a rocky year. Industry threats like privacy issues, fake news targeting the vulnerable, and the growth of American anxiety leave us with a distrust of platforms and in turn, a distrust of brands.

It’s time for a breath of fresh, authentic air, right? As AdWeek puts it, “In a world where there seems to be a lot of fakes and bots, people are clinging to the authentic.” We have expectations that brands will be authentic, and we put them on blast when they’re not.

However, it’s time we call ourselves out. How can we expect brands to be authentic when our own personal social media accounts are anything but authentic?

Gen Z is the first generation whose entire lives will be documented online. They treat managing their social accounts like they’re managing a brand, carefully curating feeds to show their lives from the best point of view as possible. They “do it for the ‘gram” all day, every day. Gen Z projects the life they want others to see, and odds are, it’s not reality. Why? They are competing with each other to feel special, validated and noticed. It’s not just the teens, we are all guilty of projecting what we want rather than what’s authentic. Social media isn’t reality, as many people learned the hard way at Fyre Festival. Illustrator Julie Houts portrays it accurately here:

Julie Houts

And who is Gen Z is looking up to? Influencers. Ask any kid what they’re into, and they’ll probably rattle off five YouTube stars they want to be when they grow up. At the start, we looked to influencers as relatable people with powerful recommendations. We used to say, “People don’t listen to brands, they listen to people, because they’re real.” The heart of successful influencer marketing is a genuine person with an authentic story, but how real can you be when you’re sharing a #sponsored #ad?

mandy moore chapstick ad

Many of us aren’t authentic on social media and that’s not changing anytime soon. But brands aren’t off the hook. Companies have a massive opportunity to lead the industry with an authentic approach. As marketers, we need to do what we can to communicate honestly and transparently. This isn’t just about leaving photoshopped bodies and airbrushed faces behind, it’s about sharing and keeping brand promises. Social media shouldn’t just be an extension of a marketing plan, it’s the place where we can actually be genuine with our customers.

As social media users, we’re not totally doomed. With any fast-growing trend there’s a slow movement associated, such as the “slow food movement” in the 1980s. This time, it’s “slow social” suggesting that slowing things down will keep users happy in the longer term (The Economist, 2018). People are consciously unplugging, putting timers on screen time and even deleting their accounts. Our awareness of the dark side of social media is growing and with the forward momentum of the wellness movement, hopefully the worst is behind us.

So, what can marketers do? It’s time to return to the good old days, and that means real conversations with customers. What progress is your customer trying to make? How can your product help? We’re not going to singlehandedly solve the issue of inauthentic social media, but we can set a genuine example rather than perpetuating inauthenticity.

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Laura Oxler


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