Being authentic in a super premium or local niche is becoming just “the ticket to the game” for marketing savvy consumers.
As niche brands, they benefit from the value of being ‘discovered’ and ‘secret’ and can afford to invest in developing complex and deep reciprocal relationships with individual customers. These brands (such as Rapha or my own "baby" Monkey Shoulder) also benefit from the investment customers are themselves prepared to make on behalf of a brand over which they feel a sense of ownership.
Encouraging such reciprocal ‘investment’ is vital to brands who want to build and maintain their authenticity as they become ‘mainstream’. Mainstream brands that rely on authenticity need to develop new habits to avoid becoming standardised and commoditised in their approach.
Habit 1: Turning discovery into currency
First Direct was made service part of its ‘authenticity’ – and succeeded by delivering key moments of truth which had their own social currency for their customers. In the years following the launch the constant refrain of the First Direct customer centred on the fact that they could call them whenever they wanted. This investment in 24/7 service was reciprocated many times over in word of mouth marketing and brand building by their customers.
Habit 2: Having a good memory (and mining the data)
Starbucks relies on customisation (and its customers) to deliver the illusion of personalisation. An authentic barista will remember your drink by the third time you walk in. Customer data enables brands to tailor the experience and choice to their local customers but it is made all the more powerful when those customers feel that they have left their mark on a place – the retail equivalent of a favourite chair in the pub.
Habit 3: being generous – gifting with interest
Anthropologists know that there is no such thing as a ‘free gift’. Gifts always carry an implicit obligation of future relationship (and payback with interest to acknowledge that relationship). Brands which give away stuff that is valuable create customers who want to give something back. Financial incentives and discounts do not carry the obligation of a gift unless they are connected to the recognition of a relationship (and hence undermine value in the long term) but there are plenty of things of value which a brand can give for free which do create value in the long term.
Habit 4: Giving employees a sense of ownership and responsibility
Retail brands live in the hearts and minds of their people – but only if those people see the brand as something they have a part in creating and not just a constant constraint on what they can and can’t do.
Brands like Innocent and Leon benefit from making their employees part of the story and (mythical) history of the brand and by maintaining that connection even after they have left (and left their mark) on the brand.
Habit 5: A conversation from the ‘front of the stage’
According to the science of semiotics, it is useful to understand the brand’s relation to its audience as if it were the actor in a play. Conventional mainstream brands stand at the back of the stage where like the gods and kings of theatre, they speak over the heads of their audience. The front of the stage is where the likes of Falstaff josh and banter with the pit. Authentic brands maintain that front of stage approach even when they are crowned king of their market.
Habit 6: Shared experiences – a sense of community
Consumption is fundamentally social. Shared experiences between customers are as valuable as experiences between the customer and the brand. Brands which facilitate the creation of connections and community between their customers give customers a greater sense of ownership over what the brand means to them and greater salience by playing a role in the creation and maintenance of their social network.
Habit 7: Creating a language (but don’t forget a lexicon)
Authenticity for the mainstream consumer needs to be accessible. Any customer should feel that the language of the brand, its people and its customers should be both a rite of passage – you learn the lingo to feel part of the brand experience – but also easy and intuitive for new members to pick up and use.
Habit 8: Making fans rather than managing failures
It is a well established myth that customers who have a problem resolved are more loyal than those who have never had a problem. However, measuring the loyalty of the lucky against the apathetic majority does not create customer advocacy. Successful authentic brands don’t try to please all of the people all of the time but rather focus on making fans of their customers – as their recommendations will count far more in the long run.