Does keeping it real, really work?

Sources: Instagram/@newbalance; WW
Mar 23, 2021

During the pandemic, successful brands were able to adapt an online presence to build trust and establish a deeper level of connection with the customers, teams and communities they serve.

We are all rethinking values and looking for authentic products with a purpose.  Wellness and lifestyle brands New Balance and WW (formerly Weight Watchers) shared how they are communicating — and acting — with customers and associates during The Retail Summit Online session, “Keeping it Real: Communicating with Authenticity,” that I moderated earlier this month.

Staging doesn’t resonate

Super-curated content and paying large sums of money to influencers is out.  Have you watched #FakeFamous?

According to Chris Davis, chief marketing officer & senior vice president of merchandising, New Balance is a challenger brand and strives to be the best, not the biggest. New Balance intentionally avoids using the “I” word — they have athletes, ambassadors and partnerships vs. sponsorships to showcase values, products and co-author content. Every partnership donated a portion of proceeds to charitable organization(s).

WW is a purpose-driven brand that aims to inspire healthy habits for life. The company reformulated its entire food product portfolio to remove artificial ingredients, stated Gail Tifford, chief brand officer. WW carefully considers relationships based on honesty and the ability to share one’s journey, like James Corden, actor, host of the “The Late Late Show” and WW’s new partner.

Causes aren’t an afterthought anymore

Programs aligned with values have moved to the beginning of engagement cycles.

New Balance took only two weeks to transform domestic production from making shoes to masks for medical professions In March 2020. The $100K New Balance Foundation fights childhood obesity in underserved communities. It was once a separate entity but now sits within the organization for better alignment.

When the world went virtual, WW saw people stop taking care of themselves, so they created an internal wellness program. The live cooking classes and fitness activities generated became the foundation for D360, the company’s new digital offering, where wellness coaches share real-time and on-demand life experiences. WW also partnered with Feeding America to close the nutrition gap and founded the Healthy Living Coalition to improve global food systems and food security.

These two companies put their values front-and-center when making decisions. Causes, collaborative offerings and conscious connections with customers and teams drive engagement and loyalty.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do brands and retailers have an authenticity perception problem with consumers? How do they go about becoming more authentic?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"This isn't a trend you can simply jump on, it has to be an integral part of the business."
"Go the mall and as you look around ask yourself how many of these retailers have authentic values you could easily identify. The answer will be “not many.”"
"Authenticity, by definition is something that can be supported as genuine by something else – and the strongest “something else” is the employee culture."

Join the Discussion!

13 Comments on "Does keeping it real, really work?"

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Lee Peterson

You don’t have to look far to see how well being “real” works: Patagonia, Supreme, Yeti and even Ralph Lauren. It’s not necessarily about causes, although that certainly doesn’t hurt, but more about staying true to who you are (as in Ralph’s case). Consumers will always gravitate to brands that stay true, although as we all know, being really good at understanding the consumer and operating that way also works. See also: Amazon, Walmart, Target, Home Depot, etc. So the lesson is: pick a lane and drive it, the minute you start veering around (Sears et al) or changing your raison d’etre, is the minute you start down that long black road.

Jeff Sward

The pandemic has caused lots of tectonic shifts. Among the most positive is a renewed spotlight on priorities, on what’s really important. Real, genuine, authentic. Maybe we’ve learned that “more” isn’t the right knee jerk reaction to some of life’s problems and competitive situations. There can’t be anything bad about a pivot to real and genuine and authentic.

Neil Saunders

Authentic works if it is, well, authentic. Aerie, REI and others have proven this as they have strong customer loyalty and strong sales. Problems arise when corporations come up with policies to be authentic and about manufacturer authenticity. This isn’t a trend you can simply jump on, it has to be an integral part of the business.

Patricia Vekich Waldron

You’re exactly right, Neil! If it’s not at the top – and core – of an organization consumers will smell a rat!

Evan Snively
Evan Snively
Director of Planning & Loyalty, Moosylvania
1 year 3 months ago
Consumers are pretty good at sniffing out the bull. And as the veil of transparency gets thinner and thinner for companies, customers are no longer able to feign ignorance about how their consumption decisions (for good or bad) allow the businesses they buy from to shape the world around them. Chapman & Co.’s most recent data (Jan ’21) showed that 60 percent of customers say that a company’s values were important in their purchasing decision. That finding will be no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention to this space, but tied to that the study also revealed that 56 percent of customers said that the reputation of a company’s culture was important to earning their brand loyalty. And that is where I see the biggest problem for brands and their authenticity today. When a marketing department is making tactical decisions that are misaligned with the internal company culture. Authenticity, by definition is something that can be supported as genuine by something else – and the strongest “something else” is the employee culture. When… Read more »
Brandon Rael

There is a very delicate balance between being authentic and taking a very strategic and calculated approach to driving authenticity. You can’t just drive to become more authentic. It simply has to permeate every part of the brand’s value proposition and culture.

Additionally, leveraging influencer-driven digital marketing, if executed properly, could help propel brands and drive the authenticity they are looking for. However in most situations, customers will gravitate to brands they consider authentic and meet their unique lifestyle needs.

Several lifestyle brands such as Lululemon, REI, Patagonia, and Sephora come to mind. However being more authentic could sometimes feel like you are trying to capture lightning in a bottle.

Georganne Bender

I always wonder how many of the people and situations we see in ads and social media posts really are authentic. We get smatterings here and there from companies like Dove and Aerie that show real women, while other companies feature people who merely sell product: Women in Spanx ads who don’t need to wear Spanx, models with their tear ducts erased, size 12s being sold as plus size, and people doing intense sports that the rest of us will never do. Showing what’s happening in the real world shouldn’t be that hard.

New Balance has been authentic for as long as I can remember, but some of these companies are so set on creating authenticity that they maneuver what’s real to fit the ad. If companies want to keep it real then they need to stop manufacturing reality and show people for who they really are, flaws and all.

DeAnn Campbell

Access to information across social media and the internet shines a big spotlight on any company who isn’t genuine about their stated efforts. It’s almost better to honestly admit you don’t use recyclable packaging than to give it lip service without follow through. Customers have so many other options today through online shopping that they don’t have to compromise on anything, which means once you have lost a customer’s trust and loyalty, you likely won’t get it back.

Kevin Graff

Go the mall and as you look around ask yourself how many of these retailers have authentic values you could easily identify. The answer will be “not many.” And it’s within that answer you discover the problem that so many retailers have. There’s a lack of any authenticity (other than “we want to always sell you something”) for most. That used to be OK. A good product, price, convenience angle would typically work. But consumers have more options available, are more informed, and demanding (this is justifiable). For retailers struggling with “authenticity,” it will likely take a change in senior management to change direction. You’re either authentic — or not. You can’t fake it, or find it in a strategic planning getaway.

Mel Kleiman

The question triggered me to look up the word authentic. The best definition I saw consisted of three words: IS IT REAL?

Those brands that live their values have no problem being authentic but it can not be an on and off proposition. It must penetrate every aspect of the business. Not only the way it relates and speaks to the customer, but the way it relates to suppliers, employees, and society. Brands need to live their values.

Patricia Vekich Waldron

Your’e exactly right, Mel. Each decision – HR, suppliers, product development, partnerships, operations – should be made through the company’s values framework.

Craig Sundstrom

I find a bit of irony in Pat’s example, since IIRC there was quite a bit of negative press when WW altered their name; specifically that it was an unnecessary, even counterproductive, move driven by some consultant’s suggestions.

But back to the issue: I think many brands have a “relatability” issue: it’s not “authenticity” per se, since we know there’s a certain amount of theatre around marketing — and we’re willing to accept that (to a point — but we don’t have any interest in what the brand wants to be.

Christopher P. Ramey

Purpose will always trump price in a survey. What people say rarely matches what they do.

Worse, the concept of authenticity (like experience) is so overused that it’s been dumbed down to the point of meaning little. It’s easier to ask “are they real” and can the prospect relate?

"This isn't a trend you can simply jump on, it has to be an integral part of the business."
"Go the mall and as you look around ask yourself how many of these retailers have authentic values you could easily identify. The answer will be “not many.”"
"Authenticity, by definition is something that can be supported as genuine by something else – and the strongest “something else” is the employee culture."

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