Nick Timon

Mind the authenticity gap

 Why do some brands connect so intensely to audiences and yet others fail miserably?


There are some brands that create a seemingly natural affinity with their audience, but in the main companies struggle to nurture a connection. The difference between failure and success often lies in a brand’s ability to understand relevant culture, or more accurately, their place within it. This often stems from a brand’s failure to clearly define its purpose.

Purpose is a popular marketing term that is often misunderstood. The biggest issue lies in a confusion between true purpose and social purpose. Purpose, in its purest sense, is really about why a brand exists and while it can incorporate a sustainable or ethical component - it doesn’t have to. For example, Apple’s purpose is to manufacture innovative computers and technology that connect people and inspire creativity. It’s evolved over the years, but essentially those elements have played a part from the start. 

Social purpose is more akin to corporate social responsibility or CSR and is all about ethics, but is too often deployed as a PR smokescreen rather than an actual set of guiding principles or beliefs. While purpose and social purpose can be aligned, they are not the same thing. Patagonia for example has aligned its purpose (ie what it does and the way it does it) with an ethical position - sustainability in Patagonia’s case. The Body Shop would be another example of social purpose and pure purpose alignment. 

 The reason purpose is vital to a brand is that organisations with a clear purpose who align everything they say and do with that purpose are at an advantage when it comes to authentic brand engagement. And it’s an authentic brand voice that creates genuine audience connection. 

Audiences are cynical and social media allows brands to be called out when there is an authenticity gap – ie a difference between what a brand says it does and what it actually does. The wider the authenticity gap, the bigger the risk of failure which is why many brands deploy CSR and PR as ways to mask a wide authenticity gap.

 This was evident in the two campaigns from Pepsi and Nike (2018) both involving Black Lives Matter. Both brands launched highly visible campaigns featuring Kendall Jenner and Colin Kaepernick respectively. Yet Pepsi had to axe its effort within 24 hours and Nike has received significant praise. More importantly, according to ABC news, Nike has attributed the campaign to an increase in sales by 10% and a jump in stock price of 7.2%, proving there is business advantage in being authentic.

The reason why Nike succeeded is because as a brand it has demonstrated a willingness to honour sports men and women no matter what. And it has a strong and authentic record of doing so stretching back decades, whereas Pepsi lacks this level of purpose.

But Nike’s success wasn’t because it had any more of an affinity with Black Lives Matter than Pepsi. It didn’t. Instead Nike has an authentic history of supporting athletes. So by supporting Colin Kaepernick, even at great commercial risk, it could associate effectively with what he believed in - namely the Black Lives Matter movement. Nike’s true purpose of supporting athletes enabled it to have an authentic voice in what those athletes believe in.

But before you rush to seek a cause worthy of supporting just to give your brand campaigns some meaning, it’s important to consider your own authenticity gap. Nike has earned its place at the table after decades of strictly adhering to its core purpose of supporting sports men and women. Both in what they say and what they do. So don’t try to jump on the bandwagon – audiences can smell fake authenticity a mile off.  Instead work out and understand what your core purpose as a company is, believe in that and stick to it, ensuring all your campaigns align to that purpose. That’s the only way to close your authenticity gap and create a meaningful bridge to your audience.


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