Authenticity Isn’t A Risk: Why Companies Need to Move Beyond Platitudes To Real Values
On May 25, 2020, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, a white officer, Derek Chauvin, along with three policemen, arrived at a local convenience store. An employee at the store called police after suspecting a customer, George Floyd, had attempted to buy cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill. It was an encounter that would leave Mr. Floyd dead and the officers facing several charges including third-degree murder, second-degree manslaughter and aiding and abetting.
According to the New York Times, 17 minutes elapsed between the time the first police squad car arrived at the scene and Mr. Floyd’s death. But it is the eight minutes and 46 seconds of Mr. Floyd’s murder, captured on video, due to former Officer Chauvin’s placement of his knee on his neck, which has garnered worldwide attention.
In the days and weeks following Mr. Floyd’s murder there have been protests across the US and the globe. Social justice advocates have called for charges to be brought against not only the officers involved in the death of Mr. Floyd, but other deaths caused by police around the country including Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky and most recently Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta, Georgia. They have also called for nationwide police reform, or abolishment, and a review of excessive use of force practices within law enforcement. Politicians have hurriedly put together taskforces and issued statements denouncing or announcing changes to “business as usual”. We have seen brands also weigh-in. From NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell releasing a video statement proclaiming “Black Lives Matter” to the music group formerly known as Lady Antebellum recently announcing their new name “Lady A” in an attempt to distance themselves from the racist time period the word antebellum conjures. In an ironic turn of events, the name Lady A already belongs to a black female blues artist whose used the stage name for over 20 years. In a recent article Rolling Stone quoted the original Lady A saying the group’s sudden name change seemed opportunistic: “It’s an opportunity for them to pretend they’re not racist or pretend this means something to them.”
Food brands are similarly following suit. Just this week Quaker Oats announced they will be renaming their popular, if not troubling, brand “Aunt Jemima’s”. While companies have rushed to state their values to consumers during this time, they also lead to more questions: ‘What were your values before?’ ‘Who are these newly stated values for?’ and ‘Why are you just now feeling a need to communicate them?’
I’ve worked in media for over 10 years, and now serve as the Chief Creative Officer for the strategic business and creative consulting firm Vivian & Virginia Ventures, also known as V3. I started my journalism career in Atlanta, GA when I was hired by the local alternative weekly paper to write a weekly column about people who had unusual or unique careers. Since then I’ve had the opportunity to tell stories on many platforms: print, digital and broadcast. Throughout my time one core truth has always remained the same: you must know who you are, and who you are “for” to maintain authenticity. Lately the word authenticity has gone the same way as saying “organic” or “multicultural” – terms so overused they are in danger of becoming meaningless.
Lately the word authenticity has gone the same way as saying “organic” or “multicultural” – terms so overused they are in danger of becoming meaningless.
We’re currently situated in a similar moment, where brands are so busy attempting to appeal to all consumers that they lack any real substance, and audiences can tell. One could argue that Quaker Oats should have been aware long before now of the racist stereotype Aunt Jemima originates from and still invokes for people. The fact that they have waited until now to part ways with brand identity seems confusing at best and disingenuous at worse.
In an age where we all communicate more than ever, and at head turning speed, it’s important for both companies and brands to clearly understand who they are, and who they want to serve. I refer to this as your core, those faithful people that align with your mission, product or service who you continue to “super-serve” because they are dedicated customers and deserve to be acknowledged by your company. Where many brands lose their way is in attempting to reach beyond these faithful customers to a larger audience for the sheer desire to increase profits, and not with a meaningful value proposition attached to this expansion. All businesses evolve and grow, as they should.
Any successful business owner should seek to expand their customer base, but not at the risk of becoming vacuous.
Any successful business owner should seek to expand their customer base, but not at the risk of becoming vacuous. As you look to your next venture or expanding an existing business ask yourself: what ultimate purpose does my company serve? And who am I trying to reach? Make sure that answer is rooted in not only meaningful personal values but also industry knowledge, data and research. While we live in a world of tracking social media engagement, likes, and retweets those metrics can only take you so far. Being seen is not the same as being respected or even trusted. Ensure that your company commands the latter to maintain not only your authenticity but also your relationship with your true customers.