Design Ethics: Brand Authenticity

December 2, 2021
5 min read

It’s time to get real. Brands and companies are being called on to dig a little deeper. Can they align their consumer-facing messages with their actions behind the scenes? Can they clearly define their moral standpoint and behave in a way that’s consistent with it? The world is watching more closely than ever and consumers are no longer as willing to invest in brands they can’t trust.

We’re coming to the end of 2021 and, globally, we’ve been through some of the toughest years that most people can remember; from a global pandemic to an economic crisis to social upheaval. We’ve been seeking stability by looking for answers, information and consistency from leaders–whether they’re presidents or CEOs–but the lack of clarity has affected the sense of trust many have in organizations and institutions around the world. With governments fuelling the confusion, many have looked to businesses to fill their place and lead the way on the problems affecting society right now. According to the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer, 86% of people believe that CEOs must lead on societal issues. So, there’s an interest and demand for companies to get political and guide consumers, in one way or another. They have to wear their hearts on their sleeve and be brave in stating their beliefs.

Of course, it’s not just a couple of years of a global crisis that has brought us to this distrustful point, we can blame it on the youth too (or at least, recently youthful). In the U.S., Millennials and Gen Zers together account for 139 million people–over 40% of the population–and it’s known that these 2 generations are the most distrusting of, well, everything. They often assign loyalties based on perceived brand contribution to community, social activism and environmental issues. Many factors can influence the attitude of a generation but in the case of Millennials, there’s a sense over time that they’ve been offered empty promises. Everything they have been told would bring them a good, stable life–higher education, hard work, purchasing a home–have backfired. They hold the burden of overwhelming student debt, and wages continue to stagnate while living expenses increase. For Gen Z, they are the first generation of digital natives, which has led them to be hyper aware of the world around them and, unlike other generations, more comfortable with seeking information from a variety of sources and comparing them. In a recent McKinsey study, they identify 4 different behaviours of Gen Zers, and make the interesting observation that they’re “all anchored in one element: this generation’s search for truth.” 

And so, with all that taken into account, we’re at a point where authenticity and trust are the most important and stabilizing characteristics that a brand could offer to its customers. A recent Stackla report showed that 90% of people say that authenticity will influence what brands they support. Not only that, but over 50% feel that less than half of brands are creating authentic content. There’s a perfect opportunity here for companies to foster loyalty in their current customer base and to grab the attention of potential customers who might align with their beliefs. 

So who’s leading the way and who’s leading us astray? There are many examples out there of the good and the bad. 

I don’t think any of us can ignore the mass co-optation of Pride as a mainstream event by brands in the last few years. While it’s nice to see LGBTQ+ community being embraced, there’s often something that rings hollow about brands slapping rainbows on their products for a few days and calling it allyship. In many cases, the same brands that are loudly supporting Pride are quietly supporting individuals and groups that do great harm to the LGBTQ+ community. For example, both AT&T and Google outwardly champion Pride and sponsor events, but have donated large sums of money to political candidates who opposed the Equality Act of 2019. Hearing something like that, you can’t help but feel some dissonance and confusion there. If not outright carelessness. 

In contrast, take the cosmetics brand, Lush. If you’re a bleeding-heart liberal, you likely get a warm, fuzzy feeling when you think about Lush. You’re probably aware that the brand positions itself as being environmentally-conscious, that it opposes animal testing and uses natural ingredients in its products. But what’s really important is that Lush’s mission goes much deeper than surface level. The company has a history of donating millions of dollars a year to progressive groups championing human & animal rights and environmental protections. It has gone on hunger strike in support of Guantanamo Bay prisoners, it has donated to groups that organized a protest of one of the world’s largest arms fairs, and in 2019 it closed its stores and halted online sales for a day in support of a global climate strike. The Gustavason Brand Trust Index 2020 confirms that this has paid off, when it rates Lush the most trusted brand in Canada amongst people ages 18-35.

And this trust can be fostered in brands across the spectrum of beliefs. In the Harvard Business Review’s Customer Quotient study, which measures how consumers feel about brands, they note that Chick-fil-A, a religiously-conservative fast food chain, and Ben & Jerry’s, a liberal, outspoken ice cream brand, were both in the top 20 list of brands consumers believe are most authentic. Both of these brands have been bold in expressing political or ideological positions. Chick-fil-A, for example, close on Sundays, in order to leave the day open for Christian worship. Ben & Jerry’s, recently announced that they would stop selling their ice cream in Israeli-occupied territories stating that it was “inconsistent with our values”. Both of these companies’ stances may ruffle feathers on either side, but it ultimately leads to greater brand loyalty amongst their customer base. 

Of all the trends we could embrace, this trend towards authenticity is one we should all be inspired to get behind. It’s a positive move in an industry that has often felt the need to lie and exaggerate in order to sell. Brands that align what they believe and how they behave are the brands of the future.

© 2024 Soubriet Byrne & Associates, Inc.