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Brand authenticity: lessons from Covid-19

Posted on 06/05/2020 by Alun Davies

In times of crisis, people tend to look closer to them - both geographically and metaphorically - for goods and services. Building your brand authenticity is more important now than ever, and here are 5 ways to stay true to yourself and your brand.

All marketing, advertising, and branding is done in the pursuit of one thing: perception. What you’re perceived to be is indelible, sometimes even unshakeable. The perception of brand authenticity, well, that’s the most powerful perception of all. Authenticity is trust. Authenticity, more importantly, is value.

One of the campaigns that I think has best resonated with people during the current Covid-19 pandemic has been that of the World Health Organisation, who seemed to hit the right balance of empathy and humour to give a hopeful note in what’s been a pretty unreal time for many. 

It showed the frustration of being cooped up in a confined space with barely enough Netflix, video games, board games, cute pets, comfort food, comfort alcohol and internet to go around; it paired it with an earnest message that we (mostly) can all get behind, and more importantly it showed that you’re not the only one who’s sitting in conference calls with your pyjamas subtly out of shot.

brand authenticity - pyjamas out of shot

Now, why am I bringing up a vaguely-humorous analogy about sitting in your slops for business meetings? Because at its heart, authenticity is about a very personal kind of trust in someone or something. I trusted the WHO’s message because they showed me imagery and scenarios that I can relate to when they delivered their message. I perceived the WHO’s message to be authentic.

What is brand authenticity?

When we perceive someone as being authentic, we question them less. We believe them. That leads to us being influenced by them (“Dave told me dogs can’t look up, and he wouldn’t lie”). 

The same can be said with industry. Brand authenticity is ultimately about using honesty and empathy as a way of building an engagement with consumers based on trust. A brand that has earned our trust has earned our loyalty. 

Loyalty isn’t just important for standard audience building. Loyalty is especially important when something bad unexpectedly happens in the wider marketplace, such as an economic downturn or, say, a mass pandemic on a scale that we haven’t seen in 100 years.

Brand authenticity affects new business

Perhaps their main sales line resonated in a significant way – “That’s EXACTLY how I feel about things, I should check out their product.” 

It affects repeat business

Perhaps it was some outstanding customer service where a member of staff helped get us something in a pinch – “They’re a good company, they employ good people.” 

It affects the adoption of The New

Or perhaps a previous experience encourages you to have a new one – “The last game I bought from these guys was really good, I might give this new one a try.” Sometimes the adoption of a new product or service lives or dies not on how good it seems to be or how well marketed it is, but on people translating previous experiences with the old one.

Why is brand authenticity important (especially now?)

When people are presented with a reduced choice of service, previous experience comes into play and we tend to stay loyal to brands that gave us value in the past.

Often this tends to be SMEs or local brands. In times of crisis, people tend to look closer to them – both geographically and metaphorically – for goods and services. SMEs and Locals tend to be able to give a more personal customer service, and that plus consumers’ own empathy to those going through similar circumstances, attracts loyalty when it’s most needed. 

And it’s important to mention this isn’t just based solely on value-as-price. The value of an emotional connection is just as important, as Tesco found out during the Credit Crunch when they slashed prices everywhere which turned out to be a bad idea. ‘Smaller’ chains such as Aldi and Lidl, already known for their low prices, fought for market share based on quality of service and how the products aided their lifestyles. They didn’t need to change tact with their messaging, just build on it, and it’s worth noting that since 2008, both of those chains have seen a substantial increase in market share.

Quite often, fighting solely on price is the worst thing to do from an authenticity point of view, as emotional connections (‘I like this brand because it makes me feel good’) are harder to drop than rational ones. 

If your main message is ‘we won’t be beaten on price!’, your audience will feel a disconnect with you when they ultimately find the same product or service cheaper elsewhere (there’s ALWAYS someone cheaper).

5 points to help build Brand Authenticity

1. You’re a human first, a business-person second

Ultimately, authenticity is remembering that you’re a human talking to other humans. 

The way to think about best practice in building authenticity is to get away from the whiteboard, get away from the analytics and forecasting, and just think about things in terms of human interactions.

What would you be saying if this was just you and a random stranger? What would you be saying if this was you and a close friend or family member? What tone of voice do you need to be using?

2. Show empathy

Empathy is understanding, it’s a shared connection, it’s saying ‘we both get it’ – be it an in-joke or a world view. If that connection is maintained then people will listen to what you have to say with an open mind and a willingness to believe.  This empathetic view can also extend to your use of PR.

3. Show honesty

Honesty breeds loyalty. Every generation becomes less susceptible to the same glossy messages, and advertisers and marketers will always look for a new gloss to coat things with. But honesty is a timeless approach that everyone appreciates, and whilst glitz and glamour can make for some quick gains, honesty builds longer-lasting connections that stay with us. 

Dove’s campaigns built around showing women with ‘real bodies’ are consistently celebrated and they maintain a market lead, in large part to their perceived honesty and the context of it with the usual approach to selling soap.

At the same time, completely ignoring what is happening can be perceived as dishonest. In a recent interview with Time about the impact of Coronavirus on advertising, respected exec Margaret Johnson was quoted as saying if brands “are acting like business as usual and are still running their same advertising, you immediately feel like that’s a brand that’s tone deaf.” 

4. Show value

If you find out who you really are, you’ll find your value to people, and you’ll understand how best to communicate that value. If you’ve helped people out in a positive way that elicited a small emotional response, people will remember that. 

5. Don’t stop

The ones that will come out of shared hard-times in a relatively healthy way will be the ones who built brand equity up in the shared good-times. Don’t think of authenticity as ‘this year’s campaign strategy’, it should be every year’s campaign strategy.

The best time to start being authentic is when you first set up your company. The second best time to start being authentic is right now. 

Staying true to yourself

What the ongoing Covid-19 situation has shown to business leaders is switching to a more empathetic voice during a crisis is not necessarily going to resonate if your voice was completely different beforehand. You can lose brand equity if you’re perceived as being opportunistic, and when you inevitably switch back to your brand’s core voice once it’s over, doubly so.

Brands such as Co-op and Natwest can ride this out because they already strongly used empathy in their messaging and positioning. Both Wetherspoons and Sports Direct lost brand equity for many by claiming they were ‘essential services’ at the start of the lockdown and tried to stay open, leaving their employees potentially exposed to infection.

Thinking about brand authenticity

Perception is a hell of a thing. Your brand is not what you say it is, it’s what others say it is.  You and I can only try to persuade them. 

Sometimes the perception is not the reality, and ultimately you can only keep that up for so long (remember that we’re only a couple of generations removed from smoking being widely seen as a healthy activity recommended by doctors).

But when perception and reality cross over fully, you have a form of authenticity that resonates with people and is easy for advertisers and marketers to build around. Authenticity in your brand will never stop being the most powerful weapon to wield in your marketing arsenal.

And with that said, it’s time for me to change out of my work PJs and into my casual PJs.


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