When brands get real: New perspectives on brand authenticity

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The concept of brand authenticity has attracted a lot of attention recently, yet is still not well understood. Recent research, however, provides new insights on the topic, providing tools and frameworks to help understand, measure, and extract value from brand authenticity.

 4 min read 

MorhartFelicitas Morhart is a professor of Marketing. In her research she investigates how companies can create meaning and well-being for stakeholders through their marketing and branding activities.

Brands are everywhere. They are inescapable. From the moment we wake up in the morning, throughout our day, work or leisure, to the moment we pull the blinds at night. The clothes we wear, toothpaste we brush on our teeth, cosmetics, coffee and cereal, cars, planes, restaurants and cafes, office equipment, and media channels. We live brands. We wear them, consume them, and covet them. Some even suggest that we are all brands, and should market ourselves accordingly.

Over the decades marketers and advertisers have discovered that brand image and attributes, and the consumers’ perceptions of these things, are central to creating awareness, demand, sales and profit. Brands are a large part of why shoppers select a particular product or service, whether it is a pair of sneakers, a smartphone, a handbag or holiday destination. Consequently, a lot of time is devoted to building brands, nurturing their values and emphasizing their attributes, as it is to studying brands and branding.

Consumers want the brands they buy to be meaningful, relevant and genuine

One aspect of branding that is attracting attention is brand authenticity. Just as authentic leaders are supposedly more persuasive, credible and effective, so too, it is suggested, brands that appear in keeping with their espoused values are more attractive to consumers. Many consumers want the brands they buy to be meaningful, relevant and genuine, as if in some way this confers greater meaning on their lives.

To date, however, the notion of brand authenticity sits on shaky academic foundations. There is little consensus on what constitutes brand authenticity, and unanswered questions about its drivers, consequences, or even how to measure this essential element of advertising and marketing. These are issues that Felicitas Morhart, professor of marketing at HEC Lausanne, and her research colleagues, address in their paper “Brand authenticity: An integrative framework and measurement scale”. In their paper the authors construct a framework for brand authenticity, as well as a scale for measuring Perceived Brand Authenticity (PBA).

Perceived Brand Authenticity, say the authors, emerges from the interplay of three existing views on brand authenticity: objectivist, constructivist, and existentialist. The objectivist perspective holds that brand authenticity is an assessable quality, residing in an object or service, that can be determined using appropriate evidence (indexical authenticity). Alternatively, with the constructivist perspective brand authenticity is something constructed externally, either personally or socially, through marketing cues, for example, and projected onto the brand by individuals (iconic authenticity). Finally, the existentialist perspective is about an individual’s quest to discover, maintain and reinforce their personal identity (existential authenticity). Buying certain products and services that accord with the individual’s own identity, helps them to enable personal authenticity.

A 15-item scale to measure four fundamental dimensions of brand authenticity

At the same time the authors developed and tested a 15-item scale to measure four fundamental dimensions of brand authenticity. The four dimensions, revealed through analysis of previous research and the results from a set of studies with more than 1500 European and North American consumers , are continuity, credibility, integrity, and symbolism. Continuity relates to a brand’s historical pedigree and its ability to “transcend trends”. The brand’s credibility is about its transparency and honesty, and delivering on what it promises. Integrity is the moral and ethical dimension of the brand, its adherence to a set of good values. The fourth dimension, symbolism, is the extent to which a brand is able to evoke an individual’s own values, roles, and relationships.

In devising and testing the measurement tool the authors show how organizations can enhance brand authenticity via the dimensions of continuity, credibility, integrity and symbolism. In doing so organizations can increase the prospects of consumers choosing their brand, increase brand attachment, and encourage positive word-of-mouth about a brand.

Humanizing the brand and allowing consumers to imagine the brand as a person

For example, organizations should ensure that employees “walk the talk”, acting in ways that accord with the brand value and mission. Marketing and advertising communications should reference a brand’s history, tradition and pedigree, focusing on a brand’s roots and linking the brand’s past, present and future. Similarly brand communications can capture a brand’s moral values, its purpose, motivations and consideration for its consumers. This signals a willingness to go beyond profit and economic gain, emphasizing a brand’s virtue. Conveying information in an anthropomorphic manner can help build brand authenticity, humanizing the brand and allowing consumers to imagine the brand as a person. It helps consumers see the brand as a means to constructing and developing their own identity.

Authenticity is a powerful concept. One that can deliver many brand related benefits. It can even overcome consumer skepticism – the research shows that attempts to establish brand authenticity by emphasizing a brand’s roots appear to have degree of resistance to consumer skepticism about advertising. The research by Morhart and her colleagues provides practitioners with several ways of extracting value from brand authenticity, as well as enabling them to make a baseline assessment of PBA and measure performance against that assessment.

In addition, the research reveals the relevance of the consumer’s perspective on authenticity. Those individuals who value the idea of being authentic, of being true to themselves, and of structuring their lives to enhance that authenticity, are much more likely to value brand authenticity than individuals uninterested in personal authenticity. This suggests that those concerned with promoting brands might benefit from investing resources in promoting consumer interest in the concept of personal authenticity, in order for their brands to benefit from the authenticity effect.

Read the original research paper: Morhart F. M., Malär L., Guèvremont A., Girardin F. & Grohmann B. (2015). Brand Authenticity: An Integrative Framework and Measurement Scale. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 25(2), 200-218.

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