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The key to your brand? It’s all about authenticity

Conscious Brands / 1.10.24 / By Jen Moritz

For marketers, the end of each year is full of recaps, reflection, and lots and lots of data. But for word people in marketing, it’s a time to look back on how language painted a picture of our year and influenced how we communicate.

A lot of words dominated 2023: rizz, deepfake, coronation, dystopian, EGOT, X, implode and deadname (to name a few). But as they have for the past 20 years, one rose above the rest to become Merriam-Webster’s word of the year: authenticity. And it’s no surprise. 2023 was a year wrapped in artificial intelligence, imploding social media platforms, creative integrity and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it trends.

Marketing wasn’t immune. Late last year, an ad on Facebook showed singer Kelly Clarkson promoting diet gummies. Problem is, it was a deepfake created using one of Clarkson’s videos promoting her new album. It fooled enough people that Clarkson’s spokesperson issued a statement and news outlets rushed to debunk the altered video (and break down how to spot a fake).

That’s an extreme example of inauthenticity, but there’s a valuable lesson in there for marketers: Your consumers are skeptical, and rightly so. They’re craving the real deal in a world where words and images can no longer be taken (or trusted) at face value—and that’s exactly what makes authenticity such a powerful choice.

“We see in 2023 a kind of crisis of authenticity,” Merriam-Webster Editor at Large Peter Sokolowski told the Associated Press. “What we realize is that when we question authenticity, we value it even more.”

A lot more. A 2023 Zippia report found that a whopping 86% of consumers prefer an authentic brand image when making purchasing decisions. For Millennials, that number rises to 90%.

What does that mean for your brand? It’s time to ditch the one-size-fits-all approaches and take a hard look at who you really are—because that’s exactly who your customers want to see.

Start with your words

I’m being a little selfish here, because language is my bread and butter. But the truth is, the words you use to communicate your brand lay the foundation for everything you do. Even for brands that lean solely on visuals and intangible services without ever writing a word of copy, the very first building block is a conversation. And you’d better believe it needs to be an authentic one.

Authenticity tip: If you have a brand voice, use it. If you don’t, it’s time to create one.

Your brand voice is the thread that runs through everything you say, which then feeds into everything you do and create. But to harness the benefits of authenticity, it needs to be unique and true to who you are. Avoid generic language that could apply to any brand, own your actual strengths (and maybe even weaknesses if it’s appropriate) and home in on the things that make your brand your brand.

If you feel like your voice doesn’t quite fit—whether it’s missing key elements, under- or overselling, or feels like you’re trying to convince customers you’re something you’re not—it’s time to take a fresh look. Start with your mission and vision, then look at what resonates with your audiences. The in between is the sweet spot of who your brand really is—and your audience will feel it.

Evaluate your DEIB approach

Diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging are still top of mind for employers, clients, teams and customers alike, and that isn’t going anywhere. A 2022 Deloitte survey found that 57% of consumers are more loyal to brands that commit to addressing social inequities in their actions. Read that last part again: in their actions. Consumers know when a brand’s commitment is real and when it’s just talk. If you haven’t done so already, it’s time to make that commitment authentic.

Authenticity tip: I’m going to lean on Sprout Social for this one, because they get it right: “Consumers have grown skeptical of brands taking a stand and are wary of performative activism. Over the past few years, we’ve seen many brands called out for putting out empty, inauthentic statements. This doesn’t mean your brand should never take a stand on issues. But when you do speak out, make it count.” Still not sure where to start? Check out our blog about how we’re weaving DEIB throughout our work and our organization (and how you can, too).

Find some transparency in AI

Artificial intelligence isn’t going anywhere, but the buzz surrounding it in 2023 largely focused on the negatives—things like deepfakes, creepy ChatGPT convos, and misleading AI-generated images, videos and audio. Which left some consumers questioning the authenticity of everything they see, especially online. But marketers have some pretty incredible AI tools in their pockets that do great things, like personalization, targeting, strategy and research. And while consumers are probably most familiar with AI in the form of things like chatbots, a 2023 Ipsos report found that only 51% know which products and services are actually powered by AI.

Authenticity tip: There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to AI, and how it works for one company is going to look very different from the next. That means it’s time to define exactly how your organization is going to approach this fast-evolving technology. At DS+CO, we’re adopting ways to lean into AI’s benefits for our team and our clients, so both sides are getting the most out of this powerful tool within guardrails that protect the integrity of our work.

If you can't, who can?

One brand can’t be all things to all people—and people will know when you’re faking it. (Or they’ll figure it out soon enough, and then rebuilding your authenticity is an uphill climb.) Sometimes being authentic means being honest about what you can’t or shouldn’t do for your audience. Take a look at the things above: What should authentically be in your brand voice? What parts of AI belong in your industry? Which social issues are you prepared to authentically speak to?

Authenticity tip: Open your doors and use your platform to elevate other voices! Let’s say you’re a bookseller but you want to start selling and educating your shoppers about coffee. You probably aren’t an expert in where your favorite coffee brands source their beans and how they get their products into consumers’ hands—but they are. Invite them in and let them fill the gaps for you. If you can’t speak to something, who can you shine a light on instead? Being an authentic brand means being true to who you really are, even as you set goals to evolve and learn. Your customers turn to you for the things you are—they aren’t asking you to be something you’re not.

There are plenty of reasons why authenticity rose to the top of Merriam-Webster’s most-searched words last year. But if marketers take away only one thing, it should be this: Your consumers are craving the real deal. And they expect you to be it.


Jen Moritz

Jen Moritz is DS+CO’s senior editor + inclusive language specialist with a passion for the right words and thoughtful, intentional language.