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Taking brand authenticity beyond box checking

Things change over time. People change. We grow and evolve. Authenticity in brands is no different. Creative Lead, Rich Corr explored this topic at Charitycomms latest Brand Breakfast.

Authenticity is and should be an ever-evolving process. But there's a slightly dated view that brands need to be fixed entities. That once we create a brand, that's it, our job is done. But the reality is, brands need to keep evolving, keep learning and changing over time. A brand’s authenticity is intrinsically linked to this. But what actually is brand authenticity?

What is brand authenticity?

At Red Stone, we hear a lot of definitions of brand authenticity. But one we hear quite often is, that ‘creating an identity or brand that simply reflects the organisations audience’ is assumed to be the best way to be authentic as a brand. Whilst understanding and reflecting your audience is crucial in any well functioning brand, if that's all you do – if you don't back it up with actions – your audience is going to see through it.

At best this may come across as a bit confused. At worst, it can come across as quite deceptive.

So, we need to do more. We need to consistently and honestly represent our brand's personality, our actions and our values. It's the idea of joined up thinking, combined with audience understanding and engagement that helps us to create a truly authentic and relevant brand.

The three legged stool analogy is useful here. Personality, actions, and values are the three legs on the stool, and we need all of them in play for a brand to fulfil its potential (and stay upright!).

How can we work on being a truly authentic brand?

Every organisation is different, is different in scale, has different types of challenges to deal with. There's certainly no one size fits all. But there are steps that any brand can follow to help put you on the right path.

These steps will hopefully give you a better idea of how you can not only start to embed authenticity more deeply into your brand but also use it as a way to shift culture and organisational actions.

How to be an authentically authentic brand

1. Check in on yourself

Really any piece of brand work should start here. Stepping back and taking a holistic view of how the brand is working right now.

We need to start by understanding the wider social and organisational context we’re operating in – for instance aligning with a new organisational strategy.

This is also the time to focus on our audiences. Has our audience changed? Are we trying to engage new audiences? If so, why? By ‘checking in’ with them, we can understand what their needs are, what they think of us at the moment, and what they want from us in the future.

Alongside audience research, a thorough brand and comms audit helps us understand what it is we're putting out in the world and how it reflects our organisation, our culture and behaviours. How are we actually living the brand in the real world? All those touch points where people encounter the brand – how is the brand being perceived?

It’s a really important first step to take stock and understand where we are.

2. Involve all interested parties

If we do see that a brand needs to change, we need to engage people from all across the business – not just the project team and not just the brand and marketing teams. We typically run workshops, interviews, and talk to as many different groups of people as possible to gauge perspectives and understand where the brand is at the moment. Each person will bring unique perspectives.

As well as talking to stakeholders more broadly, the creation of brand steering groups and brand champions ensures voices from across the business are heard and taken into account, regardless of level of seniority. Not only do these viewpoints help us understand the realities of how that brand is existing at the moment, it also helps us build a brand that better serves everyone.

When a brand changes, there can sometimes be pushback. Teams or individuals can feel that brand changes are being done ‘to them', rather than ‘with them’.

So engaging people from across the organisation, explaining the reasons why we’re doing this piece of work and acting on their points of view is a really good way to bring them with us on that journey. This engagement helps ensure that we're creating a brand that is going to work for and represent everyone. And that is the best way to make sure that those actions, when it comes to the real world, are going to be carried through.

3. Ask difficult questions

During this engagement and discovery stage, we need to ask difficult questions. It’s so important that we don't just go through the motions here and that we have the courage and the space, to really lift a lid on what is going on. We need to pull back the curtain.

Even if we don’t like the answers we get, it's important that we get a really honest view of the organisation. It helps us to understand what we have. So regardless of seniority, we want to create a safe space, where people feel they can share real, honest feedback of where they see the brand at the moment – any issues, any difficulties they're having, as well as the things are working really well. This all helps us to get a better understanding of where we need to go and the more we know at this stage, the more we're able to make the right changes later on.

4. Align on what counts

This discovery phase of work – engaging lots of different interested parties – is, for us, a really fantastic way of working.

But inevitably we're going to get competing views and different teams are going to have their own needs and priorities. So for us, it's about listening to all those perspectives, and then identifying a way through. Finding that real common ground, whilst acknowledging the differences. This is a way for us to get a really clear sense of direction and align on a single strategic principle – a core proposition and a set of values that everybody can buy into.

It can be tricky, but it's really worth working through to build a solid foundation, knowing that everybody feels like their voices have been heard. By identifying this common ground, we can start to build something that's going to be much more meaningful, and help the organisation to function in a unified way going forwards.

5. Make it matter

It's too easy for amazing work to be done by brand teams only to find that nothing really changes from an organisational perspective. For brand to be truly transformative, we need to find a way to elevate it to an organisational concern. 

There are different ways we can achieve this, from aligning to the organisational strategy or elevating aspects of brand to a corporate priority, to embedding the brand in organisational culture through things like onboarding processes, or reviews benchmarked against values. All of these approaches mean we can make the brand more than ‘just brand’ and actually, a way of working that is measured and valued across the organisation.

It's in doing this that we give ourselves the best chance of letting the brand take hold and be ‘lived’ through those actions.

…and then we need to bring it to life.

6. Bring it to life

This is the part people often get excited about, where we get to refine our personality, and develop the visual and verbal identity. But it’s previous phases of work that leads us up to this and ensures the visual and verbal expression of the brand is reflective of an authentic and validated set of values, actions and strategic principles.

It’s worth saying too that visual identity doesn't have to be a super-complex, time consuming and budget-hungry concern. There are ways that we can still bring through that personality, and a real authentic reflection of values and actions in a more efficient way. It’s about working with the resources you have to find a solution that fits.

So once we’ve gone through the creative phase and we’re really happy with how it’s all looking, we need to make sure we go back to our audiences again.

It’s all about sense checking what we've done. We've done our discovery, we've gone off and we've created, but we need to make sure we're hitting the mark. So it's always good to go back and validate that work.

That can be both existing audiences, to make sure that we're keeping a space and holding on to our brand heartland, but also any potential new audiences that we want to reach as well.

We want to make sure that the decisions we're making can be backed up through audience testing. This doesn't mean that we want to limit the creative process, or put guardrails up. It just means that we're sense checking, and what we're putting out in the world is going to align with what our audience needs from us.

7. Give yourself space to grow

When we create a brand, yes, absolutely we need to be creating something that is addressing issues and priorities the brand faces today. But brands also need to have space to grow and evolve over time. To use one of our favourite analogies, think of the baggy jumper on the first day of school. It feels massive, but you're going to grow into it. We want to create brands in that way.

We try to anticipate where we might be in six months, 12 months, 18 months and beyond. So we have that scope to evolve and grow into a new brand.

We can’t always create a brand, and have all the answers immediately, but it's that space to grow and get comfortable in your new skin that’s really important. A really crucial part of authenticity is to allow yourself to do that.

8. Keep moving forward

Brands need to change, they need to evolve, they need to grow. And this brings us back to that very first point – that sense of evolution, and that willingness to allow it to happen.

So when we get to the end of this process and we've launched the refreshed brand and we're super happy with how we're aligning that personality with our values and our actions, that doesn't mean it’s ‘job done’. It doesn’t mean we take our guidelines and assets and we park them on a server somewhere and move on to the next thing. We need to keep checking in.

Keep periodically speaking to our audiences, keep talking to staff – that benchmarking I talked about earlier – brand checkers, and making sure that those alignments and those adjustments that we've made still make sense.

Every year or so, we should be checking that what we've set out to do, that authentic voice, that authentic action is still working. And if it's not, that's cool, we can evolve, we can keep moving forward. We need to anticipate those changes, allow those changes and be OK with them. That's all part of creating a healthy brand.

So that is the eight steps. These principles are something that any organisation regardless of size, regardless of where you are, should be able to use. Just to check in on your brand and see how it's working, and identify any of those areas that aren't necessarily aligning as well as they should.

You can then start to address them and crucially elevate the brand to an organisational concern.

And it's that buy-in – where the brand is understood and instinctively lived across the whole organisation – that allows truly authentic brands to emerge, grow and evolve.

By Red Stone

Presented at CharityComms Brand Breakfast forum

31st May 2024