Is Your Brand Honest or Authentic?

A few weeks ago, PR genius Gini Dietrich posted a great commentary on Hillary Clinton’s announcement campaign. Specifically, Gini was very critical of the campaign’s rollout, which just didn’t capture the Hillary Clinton that we’ve all come to know for the past 20 years she’s been in public life.

To quote Gini D:

When Clinton ran on her experience and hard exterior, she took a beating with President Obama calling her, “likable enough.”

To bring out her softer side makes sense.

But this is a woman who has worked with some of the world’s most controversial leaders. She lives in an affluent New York City suburb. She commands a speaking fee of more than $200,000. And her reputation precedes her.

She’s not an everyday woman.

I think we’d all have to agree with this assessment.  Dietrich went on to cite several specific examples of how the Clinton PR rollout is simply incongruent with the brand she’s built over the past two decades, including her “I’m getting started” video. (Really? She’s just getting started? Really?)

None of these tactics are bad, in fact they could be really powerful – for another candidate.  For Hillary, they just seem forced.

And this PR approach may be hurting her not only with swing voters but also with her Democratic base voters, as this poll indicates.

Brand Blunders are Bipartisan

Republican U.S. presidential candidate and former Florida Governor Bush formally announces campaign for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination during rally in MiamiJust a few days after Gini’s post, the Jeb! Bush campaign announced after months of not-so-artful dodging. While Jeb! did a better job of articulating his vision based on his eight years as Governor of Florida, he was roundly criticized earlier for not having an answer to this question, which everybody knew was coming.

Further, he remarked that Washington, D.C. should not be for “pampered elites.”

Let that one sink in for a second….

Jeb!’s father and brother both served as President of the United States.  He went to an upscale prep school in Andover, Massachusetts. Since leaving office, he has made a full-court press to bring in the Benjamins and has raised jaw-dropping amounts from well-heeled interests for his campaign.  That guy is complaining about pampered elites running Washington.

In the Eye of the Beholder

For almost as long as Hillary and Jeb! have been in the public eye, I’ve been counseling clients on their public perception, issue positioning, and how to win votes or capture public opinion.  The one thing I’ve learned for certain is that there’s a big difference between honesty and authenticity – and the arbiter of that is the consumer, voter, or end user – not the brand owner.
Nokia can say they make cell phones just like Apple makes cell phones.  That’s technically true.  But it’s not an authentic statement, because the phones that Apple makes are cool, slick, well-designed and user-friendly, based on the consumer’s experience with them.

The “Perfect Body” campaign by Victoria’s Secret featured the brand’s bras on a row of posed stick figures models with the headline “The Perfect Body.”  Victoria’s Secret may honestly think their models represent some physical archetype.  However, their ad delivered a clearly inauthentic message to millions of women who enjoy the Victoria’s Secret line of products, but also eat food don’t fit the body type represented by the ad. Protests ensued and the ad campaign was pulled, but not without some real damage to the Victoria’s Secret brand.

Who was the judge of that ad’s authenticity? Clearly not the ad agency or the brand, because thousands of women called them out on it.

Bridge the Brand Gap With Authenticity

In this age of 24-7 online news coverage, ubiquitous smartphones with HD video cameras, regulatory and corporate transparency, media leaks and wiki leaks, there are no secrets.  There is no place to hide. You can’t manufacture authenticity.  You can tell the truth, but if you aren’t acting and communicating authentically, it will catch up with you.

Does Hillary Clinton like burrito bowls from Chipotle? Maybe. I’d venture a guess that the last time she actually went to a Chipotle on her own was never.  Is she a doting grandmother? Perhaps…but warm, cuddly, sweet and diaper-changing just isn’t what I think of when I think of Hillary Clinton.

Her narrative would be much more authentic if she was wrangling two U.S. Senators, negotiating with a dictator, telling Bill to lay off the big speeches, while she was cuddling Chelsea’s baby and eating that burrito bowl.

By all accounts, Jeb! was an effective Governor in Florida.  He set an agenda and was largely successful in achieving it.  But to portray himself as outside the circle of “pampered elites” is a stretch.

The authentic message for him would be to acknowledge his fortunate upbringing but the different path he has taken in his personal and professional life and how that experience would inform his decisions as President.  He could still run as an outsider, but he’d be an outsider who was only somewhat pampered and elite.

dove-bodyOn the other side, Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign is a powerful example of honest and authentic messaging, especially compared to the “Perfect Body” campaign of Victoria’s Secret. Dove has clearly listened to its customers, and they are welcoming the honest and authentic way that brand is communicating.

Authenticity is Earned, Not Bought

What your brand is today may be different from what you want it to be.  But you can’t just flip a switch and change it. Successful brand makeovers happen with time and effort.  They require an authentic, honest, and an ongoing brand story that engages your audience to follow you to that new place.

The only way to ensure that you are seen as authentic is to deliver what you promise, and do it over and over again until you bring your audience into alignment with your brand promise.

Anything else, whether you make soap, lingerie or public policy, is just cognitive dissonance.