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Today’s savvy consumers increasingly demand authenticity from businesses, both in terms what they stand for and how they tell their story. If a business doesn’t align with their values, they’ll find one that does. And if a business talks the talk but doesn’t walk the walk, well… consumers will call BS, jeopardising the business’s chances of amassing the sort of loyal following necessary for survival.  

This week, for our exclusive “Let’s Talk…” feature on brand authenticity, we asked sixteen industry experts to identify the most authentic means by which businesses can market themselves. One commentator pointed out that all marketing channels can be authentic for a business, so long as it has a problem it visibly cares about solving and a solution it stands by.

Some recommended businesses show their human side, sharing both the highs and lows to generate trust, while others suggested businesses elevate themselves above selling a product or service and engage people (from happy customers to like-minded influencers) who can bring their story to life.

Although one commentator advised businesses not to make their communications ‘too perfect or safe’, another warned businesses that “taking a controversial stand” could negatively impact their brand.

Read on for further insights form this week’s “Let’s Talk…” lineup of commentators…

“What is the most authentic way to market a business?”

Lance Hodgson, Marketing Manager, Mentorloop: “Authentic marketing is simply convincing (not manipulating) someone to buy something they want (even if they don’t know it yet).

“All marketing channels can be authentic. Having media tell your story is authentic (PR); building a referral engine for delighted customers is authentic; and advertising to someone who benefits from your product or service (who was unaware you existed) can be just as authentic too.

“Authentic messaging says: ‘You have a problem you care about solving (we know this because of search intent, the publications you read, the city you live in etc.), and this is the best solution for you. Here’s why, we stand behind this, and so do all these happy customers like you’.

“The most authentic way to market your business is to find and perfect the channels and messaging which nudge people towards their better future, which just happens to be a better future for you too.”

Jason Eisner, Founder, BrandQuest & Board Member, Head Over Heels: “The most authentic way to market your business is to tap into what your business is, rather than what it isn’t or what it can’t be. Seek to understand and define your business as if it were a person. If you were to meet this person in the street, what would it say (its thoughts) and how would it say it (its heart)? The trick is to then consistently apply this across all touch-points throughout the company.”

Emma Lo Russo, CEO, Digivizor & Portfolio CEO, Heads Over Heels: “It all starts with data because without those insights it’s difficult to be authentic with the audiences you wish to engage with. Audiences now turn to the creators, the innovators and the storytellers who have already earned and built engaged communities of like-minded individuals sharing common interests, passions and values. Authenticity is the essential ingredient to consumers’ hearts and minds.”

Elizabeth Heusler, Media Maverick & Director, Heusler PR: “There are many arrows in the marketing quiver and which to use is a defining choice. I’ve seen too many startups rush at it with, say, a publicity campaign or knock themselves out on social media, post a few ordinary videos, buy an influencer and think that’s their marketing done.

“PR is the purest, most authentic, enduring form of communication. It’s tangible and credible – but if your offer is not up to scratch or you’re faking it, you’ll be outed.  It’s like target research on steroids.

“Don’t skip the fundamentals.  Authenticity is a work in progress. By clarifying points of difference, you’ll start to communicate with genuine voice amongst the cacophony of hawkers and squawkers.

“Today, fortunately (and sometimes unfortunately), there are infinite variables and myriad options all impacting on the other.  The balance of budget, time and energy will ultimately steer your marketing machine in the right direction.”

Lauren Trucksess, Owner, Latitude Content: “Businesses looking to maximise their PR potential need to have a good hard look at how their products and services truly benefit their customers and then share those customers’ stories. But that doesn’t mean churning out endless, glowing case studies. Brands also need to provide context about how that customer’s journey fits into a broader trend.

“Think about what makes YOU stop and read a story. What gets you to take time from your busy day and pay attention? That’s what journalists hope to achieve with every story they write. Businesses who want to market themselves need to think along those same lines.

“It’s people, storytelling, unique experiences, and great visuals that catch our eye. Look for the people who can bring your story to life. They will give your brand meaning to those who have never heard about it or perhaps, never even realised the problem you’re solving.”

Maria Bellissimo-Magrin, Founder, Belgrin: In today’s increasingly social landscape, attempts to sell without relationship building won’t be welcomed with open arms. Organisations that fail to humanise their messaging won’t gain much traction with consumers. We as consumers want to connect and be heard. Every company should be telling stories that create real connections with their customers.

Scott Cooper, Global VP of Marketing, GO1: “People love a good story. Telling your story in a way that the public can relate to is a much more effective PR strategy than pushing out a series of business related announcements over and over again. Mixing up your marketing with both stories behind your business and founders, along with big wins and partnership will create a stronger bond between the public and your brand, helping to foster a lasting connection that translates into business success.”

Detch Singh, co-CEO, Hypetap: “It’s no secret that marketing has changed considerably over time. Audiences now engage with content they subscribe to, as opposed to unsolicited, push media like pop-up ads and EDMs. Because of this, influencer engagement — where brands collaborate with influential people on social media — has become a critical part of the marketing mix.

“Word of mouth is a tried and true channel to drive consumer purchasing decisions. Aligning a brand with the right influencers who have established a trusted following with their own audience, creates real advocacy. In order to come across as truly authentic, it’s important for brands to engage with influencers whose personal brand and content align with a company’s core messaging and values.

“The global market for influencer marketing is set to see explosive growth in the coming years as more consumers turn to influencers to shape their opinions and purchasing habits — watch this space, and make sure you put in your research to find a trusted and capable influencer marketing provider so you get the most out of your campaigns!”

Jonathan Englert, Founder, AndironGroup & Author (No Dead Monkeys: A Communications Survival Guide For Startups): “Don’t do PR.  PR as it is generally understood is outdated and relies on a set assumptions about the world and the way we communicate that were probably never correct and definitely aren’t correct now. Unfortunately, too much PR is happy with the stray quote here, the odd minor mention there, and is fundamentally uninterested in and often ignorant of what a business actually wants and needs.

“So, how do you authentically market with communications, while avoiding traditional PR, especially if you are smaller and just starting out? You need to value communications and make it central to your venture. To start, you need to set aside time, a half day or so, to huddle with your team to discover what’s valuable and more widely interesting about what your business does and agree on how you should talk about this publicly.

“This is a foundational exercise. It is usually very empowering and even exciting.  Get this part right and it will serve you well across so many channels and eventually lead the world to come to you. Communications is extremely valuable, but you need to own it, make it a priority, even if you work with someone external. And if you go external, it should definitely never leave you thinking you’ve overspent and uncertain about the value you’ve received.”

Ashford Pritchard, co-founder & director of Kicker Communications: “The most effective way to use PR to market a business is to elevate yourself above ‘selling’ your product or service. Instead, concentrate on communicating your ‘why’ – what you and your business stand for, and try to provide some insight into the markets in which you operate.

“There is an art to telling a story authentically. First you need to understand what makes you, and your business interesting to people – be it the potential customer browsing your Facebook page, or the journalist looking at the email you’ve just sent them.

“Start by stepping back and taking a fresh, outside-in look at your business. What makes you special? What are you doing that is new or different? What opinions on your industry deserve to be heard? Once you have the right story, finding the best channels to share it becomes a lot easier.”

Dean Taylor, Founder & CEO of Cracka Wines: “At Cracka Wines, our mantra is ‘Keeping it real’. Being authentic and transparent as a business is not only good business, it is fundamental to growth. People want to know who you are and what you stand for as a business and brand. By communicating clearly and often, through a number of channels, sharing the highs and lows – both the successes and struggles, you start to build trust with your audience.

“We taste hundreds of wines each week, selecting and promoting only the best, so our customers can trust the quality and try some great drops that they wouldn’t be able to find in their local bottle shop. Authenticity carries through everything you do – whether it is promoting something you believe in, entertaining your audience with a humorous social media post, or sharing some raw business insights!”

Tanya Titman, Accountant & Founder, Acceler8: “Authenticity is now a critical component to business success. As a business owner, you need to be authentic, real and genuine. Social media allows customers to know more about the values, culture and ethics of a brand. I believe business owners also need to be committed to a more sophisticated purpose than just delivering a profit. The rise of social entrepreneurism is because people want to do business with people who have aligned values. They want to know your story and what motivates you. As a business owner, your voice and message needs to be genuine and consistent.”

Amanda Watts, Co-founder, Girl Geek Academy: “For company brands, choose your brand personality traits carefully. You want to emulate the kinds of attributes your customer has so they feel you understand their needs and wants. If you make your business marketing too complicated to consistently execute – you are bound to give up or start losing focus on your core messaging.

“If your personal brand is part of your business brand, you don’t have to share your entire personality with your audience. Decide on which pieces of your personal life you are comfortable with sharing, for instance – you might want to share stories of your pets, but not your children. If you are just starting out, make it easy for yourself by become a subject matter expert within a niche. You are more likely to be able to be confident marketing this single aspect of your business than being everything to everybody.

“People are savvy about the brands they see on social media. Facebook has been around for 13 years now, so if something doesn’t feel quite right they will quickly unfollow or stop listening to what you have to say. Also, depending on your brand, don’t make your communications too perfect or safe, add in some quirks to become more memorable.

“If you choose to engage with your customer on social media, make sure your comments are direct and genuine. If you are not sure about a situation, get the conversation offline as soon as possible. If you can engage with your customer directly on the phone or Skype this can help you to build a rapport with them sooner.”

Fleur Brown, CEO & Founder, Launch Group: “Brands are not ‘authentic,’ people are – you or your company spokesperson are the voice of your brand in the media.

“It’s important to remember why you created your brand – what is the problem you are solving, how are you improving people’s lives? This essential message is something you and your team staff should genuinely care about. That passion and ability to relate to your customers’ needs will resonate.

“Choice of language and tone is also key. Conversation style has changed enormously. We are used to shorter conversations – don’t write an essay when a paragraph will do Get real and lose the ‘formal language’ – use words and expressions you hear in everyday conversations when you write and speak. We don’t ‘utilise things’ we ‘use them.’ We don’t say ‘therefore and herewith or hence’ when we talk. Be human – do you sound like a real person? Use first person where you can. Use inclusive words like ‘we’ and ‘us’. Include your personal perspective in storytelling.

“Introducing the voice of your real customers can also be very powerful – sharing how your brand works from their perspective. Finally, taking a controversial stance may get you attention but its impact can attach negativity to your brand. Study the successful brands, brand leaders and marketers, and you will find they are almost exclusively focused on the positive aspect of their message.”

Julia Everingham, Managing Director, Map and Page: “Given that answering a genuine human need opens up the relationship between brand and audience, authenticity is the key to sustaining an honest relationship with customers. Authenticity is a critical tenet of marketing for a business whose goal is to build a long-term brand.

“The power of storytelling, at the heart of PR, can never be underestimated in the quest to influence. Genuine stories are a most effective way to connect and engage with an audience and influence behaviour. It is human nature to dislike being told what to do but often irresistible not to be affected by a real story about a real person and their real experience. By embracing authenticity and showing a human side to your brand, your customers can become your most powerful ambassadors.

“Story telling provides the authentic experience which taps into our emotional side but also impacts the logical side of our brain. Regardless of the channel, a brand that harnesses creativity to tell stories that resonate with their audiences has the potential to change behaviour and win the marketer’s coveted goal of brand love.”

Mylan Vu, Country Manager, Hotwire: “Authenticity can’t be bought or faked, nor should it, and yet many brands are still getting this wrong. Marketing needs to be authentic in order to resonate with specific audiences and the best way to start developing strategies that will deliver this successfully is by starting with defining the targeted audience. Don’t just think about their age and gender, but consider what keeps them up at night, what their biggest priorities are, what their ambitions involve, and how they find information to address each of these things. There’s no such thing as being too detailed when it comes to understanding your audience, and the more detailed your understanding of your audience, the more authentic your messaging and marketing tactics will naturally become.”

About “Let’s Talk…”

This exciting new, weekly initiative provides entrepreneurs and industry experts with a forum to share rapid-fire views on a range of issues that matter to start-ups and SMEs. Every Wednesday, we pose a themed question to a line-up of knowledgable industry figures, with a view to picking their brains for valuable insights to share with you, our readers.

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James Harkness

James Harkness

James Harnkess previous editor at Dynamic Business

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