The three keys to communicating authenticity

Callahan specializes in specialty brand marketing, and we believe the most important audience for any specialty brand is the category enthusiast. If one word can describe the single most important consideration when marketing to enthusiasts, it’s authenticity. It’s the one thing. Fake it ’til you make it just won’t work with enthusiasts. And if marketers want to tap into the power of enthusiasts to become advocates for their brands, then they must pay careful attention to authenticity.

Like so many things this may seem simple and obvious, but it is easy to say and sometimes hard to achieve. The traditional way of making a television spot, for example, might include an actor who assumes the role of a product user, spokesperson or advocate. Problem is, an enthusiast will spot a stand-in a mile away. And it’s a turn-off. Specialty brands in particular can’t afford to turn off enthusiasts. That’s because their impact, empowered by social media influence, is immense. That can be immensely good or immensely bad — and marketers need to think about which they are fostering. Sometimes subtle or nearly imperceptible factors to which the average person is immune can hit enthusiasts really hard.

Riddle me this

What do string quartets, soccer, stand-up comedy, gardening, cycling, basketball and gluten-free foods all have in common? I recently picked the brains of enthusiasts in all those areas to find out. The answer: despite the variety of categories, enthusiasts all say exactly the same thing when you ask them how they differentiate a fake purveyor of their interest from an authentic one. It boils down to the same three things in all cases.

Number one: appearances matter most

To illustrate the first of these three factors, let me go back to one evening recently when I was cruising iTunes for a movie to watch. I ran across the trailer for A Late Quartet, which on the surface looked like just the kind of movie I’d like. Until I watched the trailer. After that I was so turned off that I couldn’t bring myself to rent it. I know that what I’m about to say runs the risk labeling me as String Quarteta snob, but I’m going to say it anyway. It was so obvious to me in the very brief trailer segments during which the actors were playing their instruments that they were faking, that I didn’t want to watch the movie. And in the trailer, they were only shown playing for a split second. Now, I realize that Philip Seymour Hoffman and Christopher Walken don’t play the violin or the cello. But I was so disillusioned that the film director didn’t care enough to make it look like they actually did that I didn’t buy the product.

As it turns out, this split-second judgment about whether someone is authentic or not based on how something looks is universal among all the enthusiasts I talked to. It is often said that looks can be deceiving, but in this case it’s the opposite: looks can betelling. I heard this from a former professional basketball player about how he can distinguish an authentic player (note the word “instantly” was used twice — and imagine it was said with emphasis):

“I’d instantly know by their appearance – how they wear their socks, how they stand would be good cues, but I’d instantly know as soon as they shot a ball. There’s a swagger that’s authentic and not. If you dribbled the ball one time I could tell you.”

Number two: the right words

The next theme that ran consistently across all categories of enthusiasts was language. The right vocabulary tells all when it comes to authenticity. A single wrong word, or a word used the wrong way, could be a signal that someone is a poseur. This quote is from an improv enthusiast:

“True enthusiasts or improvisers know the terms and can tell you exactly why something was or wasn’t funny. Enthusiasts can also easily identify comedic styles across groups or performers. For example, some are more physical, cerebral, responsive, controlling, slapstick, etc.”

And this from a soccer enthusiast:

“You score goals, you don’t make them. It’s never a ‘kick,’ it’s a ‘pass’ a ‘ball’ or a ‘shot.’  As in, ‘Great ball, Nick!’ or ‘Shoot it!’ vs. ‘Kick/boot it!’ ”

Number three: being truly knowledgeable

In some ways this seems the most obvious. The only thing that’s not so obvious is that even though you’d think it’s the most important factor, it’s third on the list. Why? Because if you don’t look authentic and use authentic vocabulary, you’re likely to not hold an enthusiast’s attention long enough to get to show off your knowledge. And when demonstrating command of a subject, it’s best not to flaunt it. According to a gardening enthusiast, bragging might also be a cue that someone is not authentic:

“I guess the most obvious mode of speaking would be if they simply sound as though they are bragging. I don’t think real enthusiasts brag. That might be an overstatement — but I believe it can be a cue, as real enthusiasts theoretically wouldn’t feel the need to prove themselves.”

What good presentations and authenticity have in common

Years ago I heard an adage that has stuck with me. I have repeated this to countless agency staffers as we have prepared for presentations. It goes something like this:

In a presentation, the most important thing is how you look. The second most important thing is how you say what you say. The third most important thing is what you say.

That truism had been substantiated by research (although I no longer have the source), and I have also learned to believe it from my own experience. Nevertheless, it always bothered me because it appears to diminish the importance of content over what seems like more the trivial factor of outward appearances. Now I know better. The fact is, how we look when we say or do something (projecting confidence and being “packaged” in a way that’s appropriate for the circumstances) and how we say what we say (using the right vocabulary and expressing a confident, natural grasp of the material) are in fact the clearest signs of authenticity that anyone can send. And of course the adage doesn’t say that the content is not important — it’s just in third place. Fact is, if you know your stuff, your vocabulary and appearance project out ahead of your content like a beacon.

The more specialized a category or brand is, the more all this matters. To assure your brand is not falling down on any of these authenticity factors, it’s important to look atevery communication at every touchpoint through the lens of:

  • Is the visual (image or video) right?
  • Are the words right (vocabulary, tone, attitude)?
  • Do we really know our stuff (is every detail accurate and believeable)?

Authenticity is the foundation of advocacy

To summarize, when communicating with knowledgeable audiences who are passionate about a brand or category (those we call category enthusiasts), you must always keep in mind the right priorities, in the right order: how you look, how you say what you say, and what you say. The smallest nuance matters. To appeal to enthusiasts you can’t fake it. Even the best professional actors may fail, so consider that when crafting marketing content targeted to enthusiasts, it may be better to jettison the actors, stand-ins, writers who don’t know their stuff, etc., and hire true experts. That’s the best way to ensure that communications will be authentic, will connect with true believers, and will foster the kind of loyalty and advocacy that are the holy grail for specialty brands.

For someone to advocate for your brand, they must be willing to put their own reputation on the line. When customers become brand ambassadors and promote your brand for you, there’s nothing better. But a knowledgeable enthusiast consumer will never take that step without confidence that the brand is for real.


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