Being true to brand in the era of fake news

Nancy Jenner

Being true to brand – being authentic – is elusive in the best of times and complicated all the time. A popular leadership and management darling a decade ago, authenticity is much discussed and debated. While few will argue that being fake or false is good for a person or a company, authenticity is not easily defined or always desirable (think belligerent politicians who claim they are only being true to their nature). Add social media, fake news and political uncertainty and it’s not hard to understand why, despite being elusive, we continue to seek authenticity.

What is authenticity? Merriam-Webster defines it as “not false, real, actual”, “true to one’s own personality, spirit or character” and “worthy of acceptance or belief, conforming to or based on fact”. Intuitively, we recognize authenticity most easily by what it is not – we know it is missing when we believe someone is hiding something or acting. We sense when something is real. It is easier to trust when we perceive truth and transparency. When our, or our company’s, actions are transparent, we feel better, clearer, prouder. Authenticity may be a loaded word but there aren’t clear alternatives, “assertively transparent” perhaps or “positively true”? For the purposes of this article, we use the term with its “not false, real, actual” definition, and its most positive intent.

The filter of media, especially social media exasperates the quest for authenticity. In the past few years, as we have learned the extent to which our ideas are influenced by what we learn online, we have also learned how easy it is to manipulate information including pictures, videos and testimonials. We are understandably wary, yet we crave information and connection. This transformation in the way we communicate and the infinite range of the validity of the information we receive drives us to seek truth and authenticity. Millennials are leading the way, demanding authenticity and becoming loyal customers when they find it.

Being true to brand: approaching authenticity

To be authentic involves risk and vulnerability. For an individual, it means being clear about beliefs, boundaries and fears, and using those values to intentionally shape our lives and relationships. It’s hard to do. We are not taught to be assertive or transparent. It’s not that we are taught to be fake but we are taught to be nice so we play along, follow the known path, don’t make waves, keep our thoughts to ourselves. While our experiences vary based on culture, experience and gender, many of us find it is easier to do what we’ve always done, be polite and accepting. Being authentic doesn’t mean being disrespectful or loud or obnoxiously flouting opinions. Done mindfully, with respect and compassion for ourselves and others, it is exhilarating and empowering. It propels us forward, it feeds our soul.

It is easy to understand how being authentic applies to our personal brand, how we operate as individuals in society. It is not dissimilar for companies or institutions although it can be more difficult to understand and uncover what is true. Understanding and uncovering core values and attributes is what we do as brand strategists. We listen closely, both internally and externally, to understand how our clients and their audiences perceive the brand, we look at vision, goals and mission. We understand personality and values. We look at how the organization operates in the marketplace and then we synthesize what we learn into a core idea that articulates the brand. We express those ideas in visual and verbal communication tools.

Being true to brand: looking closely

Periods of major transitions such as anniversaries, mergers, leadership transitions and times of rapid growth are ideal times to look closely at a brand. A brand audit uncovers what is true and authentic and if those ideas are articulated in ways that resonate both internally and externally. A rebrand, brand refresh or brand engagement initiative at any time provides an opportunity to re-energize the brand to clearly reflect the core ideas, personality, values and the vision for the future. A strong brand aligns leaders and staff around shared values and messages, driving change and growth.

Being true to brand: communicating authenticity

One might think that since authenticity is what is real, the best way to communicate is to stick to the facts, to communicate neutrally. Sticking to the facts and communicating without emotion may be authentic in the strictest definition of the term but how we understand, respond to and engage with brands is not just about the facts. Just as we sense intuitively when a person is authentic, the way we respond to brand has everything to do with emotion.

We can be misled by emotion too. When something is communicated emotionally, our understanding of the information is influenced by the communicator’s emotion and by our own emotional response. The emotion might be real and the information false (or vice versa) but if the emotion provokes a strong reaction in us, it will influence what we think and understand. This, unfortunately, is often how we are manipulated by false news on social media. Facts and emotion, it’s a fine balance.

Being true to brand: communicating facts and emotions

What if your organization is focused on the history of science? Our firm was fortunate to work with such an organization. Located in Philadelphia, the Chemical Heritage Foundation merged with the California-based Life Sciences Foundation. The combined organization needed a new name and a new brand.

The focus of the organization is the history of science, the recording and archiving of the important scientific discoveries that have shaped our lives. Led by scientists, it is a place of great rigor and respect. Authentic to its core. Their work is all about the facts. The institution includes a library where scientists convene and do research and a museum that is open to the public. What our primary research revealed is that the most resonant, underlying idea that is shared by both scientists and the public is curiosity — the desire to understand how our world works. The new brand reflects that core attribute of curiosity without losing the serious scientific and academic rigor that makes the organization’s work credible. The new name – The Science History Institute – is plainly descriptive while being inclusive of all who are curious. The organization embraced lighter, more playful messaging for public-facing communication and adopted two related color palettes, more reserved for the scientists, more playful for the public.

The new name and brand underscore the power of communicating the organization’s mission in ways that resonate emotionally with both the scientists and the public, building a shared vocabulary and increasing awareness and support.

Being true to brand: uncovering hidden authenticity

This second case study illustrates the value of bringing a hidden brand forward.
Just as some philanthropists give anonymously for good reasons, some non-profit organizations have traditionally operated behind the scenes. For some, anonymity is part of the mission but, for many, the tradition of operating behind the scenes is a legacy that may be tied to founding donors desire to stay anonymous or simply because the organization never felt the need to be visible. As the role of nonprofit organizations and the nature of the philanthropy that supports them evolve, almost all organizations benefit from a public-facing, visible brand. Indeed, the public has learned to question what they cannot see, wondering if something nefarious is being hidden.

Martha’s Vineyard, perhaps best known as the island where presidents Clinton and Obama vacationed, is unabashedly unique and its residents are rightfully proud. While the population, especially in the summer, continues to grow, much that defines the unique character of the island hasn’t changed in generations. The preservation of the island’s unique culture, landscape and buildings is the result of the efforts of a few conservation and preservation organizations. While most of the conservation is focused on land, one organization has been quietly preserving historic properties and buildings on the island for use by the community. Some of the Vineyard’s best-known landmarks – the Flying Horses Carousel, Union Chapel, Old Whaling Church and Alley’s General Store are owned by this dedicated nonprofit, yet few residents and fewer visitors knew of the group and their role in maintaining the properties.

When the long-term executive director retired, the new director, with support from the Board of Directors, engaged Minelli. to lead the organization through a rebrand. They knew the long-term success of the organization hinged on building awareness and support with everyone who visited the island and specifically among the younger generations and new property owners. Formerly known as Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust, the organization adopted a shorter, more memorable name – Vineyard Trust – with a bold new logo and color. They are currently working to add signage identifying the Vineyard Trust on the properties.

While the work of this unquestionably upstanding institution has never been in doubt, the fact that not many people knew about it or knew that the organization provided stewardship to their favorite landmarks wasn’t helping their mission. Being visible and learning to speak clearly about the value of what you do doesn’t diminish authenticity, it reinforces it.

  • Conclusion
    Everyone has a voice, making it easy for individuals and companies to post what they believe online.
  • Because we have learned it is also easy to manipulate information including pictures, videos and testimonials, the desire for authenticity has become elevated.
  • Without authenticity, it is a struggle to communicate effectively and build trust.

At Minelli, we often say that a brand must be seen, heard and felt by everyone an organization touches. It is also critical that everyone knows what you say is true.