Which brands do consumers consider the most authentic? What does it mean to be authentic in today's market? And can companies remain authentic even when they grow?

Authenticity is a word readily bandied about in marketing, and more and more businesses are striving to align with this increasingly valued concept.

At one time, authenticity meant having a strong set of brand values, goals, and mission in place before starting a business. Now, however, it's about more than that, as brands that expand and grow can lose sight of their initial purpose.

The World's Most Authentic Brands

A 2014 study by Cohn & Wolfe revealed which brands customers perceive to be the most "authentic." The study covered 12 countries and asked customers about which factors engender enough trust in a company for it to be considered authentic.

In the UK, supermarkets and department stores led, with M&S, Tesco, and John Lewis ranking as most trusted.

Globally, however, the leaders varied, ranging from fast food chains (McDonald's, KFC, and Starbucks), to tech pioneers (Samsung and Apple) and household stores (Wal-Mart and Carrefour).

What Authentic Companies Are Doing Right

According to 91% of customers surveyed, communicating honestly about products was the most highly valued factor contributing to a company's authenticity.

Clearly, that is a strong starting point for any brand, with more and more consumers wanting to know what goes into our products and what they can expect from them.

Among other factors were the following:

  • Being open about one's environmental impact and sustainability measures (87%)
  • Innovation (72%)
  • Product utility (61%)
  • Brand appeal (60%)
  • Popularity among peers (30%)

Those findings dispute much of what we have read about the relationship between customers and brands.

People don't, in fact, value innovation and new products as the main way to measure a brand's uniqueness or genuineness. Rather, they are much more concerned with what's happening on the inside, and keeping customers in the dark about certain facts can only serve to drive a wedge between them and brands.

What Can We Learn?

McDonald's, Samsung, and Apple were ranked highest on the scale of the world's most authentic global brands. So what can other business leaders learn from them in the quest to achieve authenticity?

1. Be clear from the start about your business practices

Transparency is often underrated; yet, if businesses employ this practice from the start, they're much less likely to have problems later on.

Being transparent means letting your customers know exactly how you make your products, including what goes into them and where you source your materials.

If you have a squeaky-clean approach to the manufacturing process already, it's a chance to show off about the things you're most proud of. If there are things you still believe you can work on, don't forget to share those, too. Be forthcoming about the kinks, and show how you are working to iron those out. (Mexican-American food outlet Chipotle does this pretty well.)

You can reserve a special place on your website for letting customers know all about your humble practices, but why not use it as something to shout about on social media?

Many brands are using platforms such as Tumblr and Instagram to give behind-the-scenes glimpses at their products and the people who make them, strengthening their content and their relationship with followers.

2. Stick to what you know

Many of the biggest companies—Apple, Samsung, Amazon, Starbucks—knew what they were good at and stuck to it. That doesn't mean they haven't since diversified into other markets, but they spent a great deal of time perfecting the thing they did best before expanding into other areas.

According to John Furguson of Brand Insight Blog, every time a company diversifies or tackles a new audience, it risks alienating itself from its existing customers. Go slowly; stick to what you know; build customer trust; make customers love you. Everything else will follow naturally.

3. Give customers a voice

Following the famous Supersize Me documentary film in 2003, which had the potential to ruin the McDonald's brand forever, the company's Canada division took immediate action. With the program named Our Food, Your Questions, it pledged to answer any customer question about its food, no matter how grim or demanding.

The program is still running, and it has attracted questions such as "Is there nicotine in your food?" and "Are your fries made from real potatoes?" Although the chain has managed to put to bed many of the fear-mongering rumors about its food, it has also been open about the not-so-perfect aspects, such as beef from cows that are fed additional hormones.

The brave move resulted in not only renewed respect for the brand but also a refreshed perception of its products. By taking steps to remove particular fears and uncertainties, McDonald's has been able to clean up its image and convince customers to give it a second chance. And its sourcing practices continue to be a key part of its marketing to this day.

4. Learn to turn PR disasters into opportunities

Acting with integrity is especially important when a crisis hits, and nobody knows this better than McDonald's. The brand has a history of turning fear into opportunity, using it as a vehicle to keep a check on its existing business strategies and looking at how it can improve.

One such example was when Greenpeace attacked the company in 2008 for its agricultural practices harming the Amazon. McDonald's immediately admitted there was a problem and joined forces with Greenpeace to put a moratorium on damaging soy farming practices in Brazil. That gutsy move earned the company some major credibility and helped it to engage with a new crowd of eco-conscious customers.

5. Be consistent

To make all of this hard work stick, it has to be consistent. The practices that help to establish your brand's authentic mark on the world will have to be lived day in, day out, and enforced over time, before your customers can slowly start to regard you as authentic.

This approach worked for Apple, which had to suffer a major slump in 1997 before it could start to climb its way back to global success.

When one aspect of your business strategy changes, it must be reflected across all of your platforms—and anywhere a customer comes into contact with your brand—to make your mission absolutely watertight.

There's nothing worse than a company taking steps to look authentic and appearing ingenuous in the process.

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image of Adele Halsall

Adele Halsall is a writer and researcher for Customer Service Guru and content manager at Assignyourwriter. She is passionate about retail and consumer trends, and how they are shaped by advertising and social marketing.