You have to be authentic. At least that’s what we’re told. People prefer to buy from the authentic brand or vote for the authentic candidate. Though it’s often hard to tell what constitutes authenticity, it seems to be true that people are instinctively drawn to those who are considered more authentic than their competitors.
Yet, while we may agree that authenticity matters, most of us can’t really explain what it means or how to achieve it. Simply telling someone to be authentic doesn’t accomplish much unless we have a grip on what it is. As a directive, it’s usually totally unactionable.
Believe it or not, authenticity is actually a simple concept. It means that the things we say and the things we do are things we ACTUALLY believe. And the reason being authentic matters so much is deeply seeded in our instinct to survive.
The reason companies like Southwest Airlines, Apple and Whole Foods have loyal followings is because they tell us what they believe.
Human beings are not the strongest or fastest animals on the planet. Our survival depends on our ability to live in groups and establish close, trusting relationships. Without trust, there would be no benefit to group living. If I go to sleep, for example, I can feel secure that someone in my group will look out for danger and watch out on behalf of the whole group, not just himself or herself. If I didn’t trust the people in my group, then I wouldn’t be able to go to sleep.
So instinctively, we’re constantly evaluating the words and actions of others. We’re assessing if they can be trusted. To that end, the more we sense that our values and beliefs align with the values and beliefs of others, the more apt we are to trust them. This is the reason we are drawn to people who are “like us.” The trust we feel and the relationships we form with another person or with a brand are exactly the same.
If we sense that a person or a company is acting primarily out of self interest—if they tell us something because they want something from us like a vote or a purchase, for example—then we raise an eyebrow, grow suspicious and keep our distance. If they tell us something because they genuinely believe it and want to help us—even to the point of telling us something that may not be in their own best interest—then we actually respect and trust them more. As far as our primitive brains are concerned, someone who fills us in on the bad news as well as the good is a safer, more trustworthy person to be around than someone who tells us just the good news in an effort to stay on our good side.
This is the reason we struggle to trust politicians. Though we may agree with most of the things they say, we don’t get a sense that THEY actually believe what’s coming out of their mouths. We worry they may be telling us things we want to hear just to win the election. While many of us get over this mistrust and vote, others choose not to participate at all. We struggle to form trust with some corporations for the same reason.
Sadly, most companies think they are being authentic when they repeat to customers what the customer believes instead of telling the customer what the company believes. Authenticity doesn’t mean listening to people and parroting back what we hear. It means telling people what we believe and then waiting to see who is attracted by what we espouse and who isn’t. This is why we are drawn to an authentic brand over a non-authentic brand.
Let me demonstrate. If we asked our friends to tell us how to dress or talk so they would like us more, most of our friends would look at us like we were mad. Most likely, they would respond by telling us to just be who we are.
The same is true in business. When companies conduct market research to learn what language to use or what imagery to project to appeal to customers, the effect is the same. “We care about you as a customer,” the logic goes, “which is why we want you to tell us how we should adjust our presentation so you will find us more appealing.” The entire process of asking others how we should speak or act rings false. It is the very opposite of authentic.
The reason companies like Southwest Airlines, Apple and Whole Foods have such a loyal following of customers and employees is because they tell us what THEY believe. They didn’t wait to find out which way the wind was blowing. Those who believe the same things are not only drawn to them, they trust them. In contrast, companies who do polling to determine what they stand for—even if they end up telling us exactly what we want to hear—may win our business now and then, but they will never earn either our loyalty or our trust.
Ultimately, this is why authentic companies lead. Because leaders are the ones willing to go first instead of waiting to see where others are heading.