One of the current ‘must-haves’ for a brand, whether it’s corporate or personal, is to be ‘authentic’. But what does that mean? Is it true? Or is it just the latest management buzz word designed to make money for brand consultants, personal coaches and marketing agencies? Let’s take a look and see.

What makes a Brand ‘Authentic’?

What is ‘brand’. It’s not the logo, the tag-line, the colour scheme or the name. Those are just the symbols by which we recognise a brand. With a personal brand, those symbols are your face, your ‘look’ and your style. Brand is much more than that. It is the whole identity, the character and the personality, the behaviour, what is done and the way it’s done, the values and principles, the morals and the ethics. A corporate or personal brand determines whether you like it, appreciate it, respect it, and trust it, whether you will be loyal to it, stick with it, and stand by it through thick and thin. When you see the symbols, you see and feel everything you believe about the corporate or the person, everything you have been told, learnt and experienced. That’s brand.

How about ‘authentic’? Authentic is not the same as traditional, ethnic, artisan-made, or established. If that were so, then no new brand could ever be described as authentic. For a pizza to be authentic it does not have to be baked in a pizza oven, it just has to be a real pizza. It is not the same as desirable, good or worthy, that is a judgement made by each of us on an individual basis. Just because something or someone is authentic, does not mean that you or I will value it or them. Paella can be authentic but I still might not want to eat it because prawns upset me. Hitler was authentic, but the majority of people didn’t agree with him and consider him to be evil.

Authentic simply means genuine, honest, and true. It means that, as a corporate or a person, what you say you believe in, care about, and value is really the case, not just crafted to make you look attractive. It means that what you do is aligned with your purpose and that what you say you will do is a promise that you will deliver. It means that the way you behave is a genuine reflection of your principles, morals and ethics, not a mask that you wear for the sake of appearance. It means that words and deeds are consistent, that what you see is what you get.

Why is it important?

Authenticity has always been important to a personal brand in close relationships like family and friends. When you are close to someone you will find out what the real person is like. If that doesn’t match what they pretend to be then trust is lost and the relationship falters. A personal brand in the sense of a ‘public’ image, or a corporate brand used to be different. It was possible to conceal the real character behind a carefully crafted public personality. The only people who found out the truth were those with a close relationship. Not so now. In the information age with the internet freely available, there are no secrets. You don’t need to be close to know the reality behind the image. Those who are close are only too willing to share what they know with everyone else. Those who don’t know will make it up. Social media, review sites, news media, all combine to reveal the reality, personal or corporate. No-one believes the hype any more, judgements are based on actual experience, either your own, or that shared by others.

The second reason is choice. There is just so much of it today. The internet and globalisation make it possible to get almost anything from anywhere. We are no longer ‘stuck’ with the local, home brand. Think about British cars, never mind the name on the label, the brand was the same. Unreliable, uncomfortable, rust-bucket comes to mind. The advent of European models didn’t change much, different name, same expectation. American, same old story. Then came the Japanese and the car market changed. Here was a reliable, comfortable brand, with modern technology and they didn’t rust. Everything had changed. Today, the traditional British car brand wouldn’t last five minutes. Everyone would know within weeks that it was rubbish, never mind the glossy adds. Anyone can make a brand look good but, unless it is good, it will fail. Knowledge and choice make it so.

Does Authentic equal Successful?

Does having an authentic brand guarantee that it will be successful? No, not in the sense that it will automatically be popular and appealing. To be that, a brand must have something inherently desirable, it must be what people are looking for, what they need. And, it must be authentic. On the other hand, not being authentic, being a false representation of reality, will guarantee failure. Not immediately if the hype works, but pretty quickly as the truth emerges. There’s a logical expression, ‘necessary but not sufficient’, and that works here perfectly. Being authentic is necessary, but it is not sufficient on its own.

More and more, people are looking beyond the personality, the outer image. They are looking for character, what does a brand stand for, what does it care about, why does it do what it does and how does it behave. They are looking for a like-minded brand, one that shares their purpose and principles. Hence the growth in ethical, fair-trade and sustainable brands, especially among younger generations. Those brands which turn out to be successful will be the ones that both appeal and deliver on all their promises.

Personal meets Corporate

One of the most difficult issues for any corporate is when the brand is not aligned with the personal brand of the head of the organisation. That can happen anywhere, in a business, a political party, a charity, a professional sports club or a trades union. When an organisation is founded, the brands are usually identical, the founder is synonymous with the organisation. It goes wrong when the founder leaves and a new leader takes over. If the new leader has very different ideas, wants to put ‘their own stamp’ on things, then a successful brand can be destroyed. Maybe the best example of this has been the rise and fall, rise again and fall again of Apple. The success of the brand has been linked almost magically to the presence or absence of Steve Jobs. He alone seems to have been able to fully understand the brand and deliver products that were authentic to the brand. For Apple, Steve Jobs was the brand and no-one seems able to replace him.

A sporting example is the brand of football played by a club. Manchester United became one of the world’s favourite footballing brands under Matt Busby. It represented youth, attack and excitement. It drifted after his departure, only to rise again under Alex Ferguson. His brand of football was similar to that of Busby and the club thrived once more. When he left, the club made one of its biggest mistakes to date by bringing in Jose Mourinho. He is a great manager, highly successful in his own right, but his brand of football could not be more different than the MU brand. The project was doomed to fail. In politics, Tony Blair re-branded the Labour Party as New Labour and gave it instant and lasting appeal to centre left voters. The result was three consecutive wins for Labour for the first time in its history. Following Blair, rebranding under new leaders, moving away from a winning formula has left Labour on the side-lines.

In the modern world, where the personal brand of a leader is as well known as the corporate brand, any mis-match is ruthlessly exposed. Any failure by a leader to meet the expectations of the corporate brand is not just a personal failure but is taken as a lack of authenticity in the corporate brand itself. This may be unfair but the link is real and people know it.


Given this shift, what is now the role of the brand consultant, the marketing agency and the personal coach? How do they ensure that a brand is both authentic and appealing? The key is to work with the client and establish the real story of the brand, to question, challenge and explore. To discover what the client really believes, what they care about, what they are trying to achieve. To understand their purpose and principles, what they are doing, the way they want to do it and why. While doing this, it is the professional’s responsibility to stick to discovery, not invention. It is not about creating something that both parties believe will appeal, but finding the true story, the authentic brand.

What if, when it’s found, the real brand isn’t very appealing? Well, that’s a matter of judgement, not universal fact. A brand doesn’t need to appeal to everyone to be successful, just enough people to fulfil the ambitions of the client. If the brand is not to the professional’s taste, then they should be authentic, act with integrity, get real and refer the client to someone else who does like it. There is no chance of success if the professional and client don’t share purpose and principles, if the professional doesn’t believe in the client and their goals, if they cannot be totally for them.

Having found the brand, the next stage is to put it on show, to tell the story, safe in the knowledge that what others experience in reality will be what they expect from the story. Tell it as it is and tell it well. No embellishment, no bells or whistles, no gimmicks, no half-truths designed to attract rather than reveal. That way it will be authentic, it will have integrity and it will be real. If people like it, they will buy into it and stay with it. Job done.