We Need to Fix “Authentic Marketing”

In 2017, Burger King ran a marketing campaign centred around the fact that their restaurants kept burning down. “Flame-grilled since 1954” was clever, funny, and original, and it resulted in near-universal acclaim. Since its publication, dozens of articles have been written about it (this, this, this and this, for example), and it won the Cannes Lions Grand Prix in Print for that year — one of the most lauded awards in advertising.

Burger King’s campaign is merely one example of what is now perhaps the most dominant trend in marketing: the ‘Death of Traditional Advertising’. Inspired by seminal articles such as Theodore Levitt’s Marketing Myopia, businesses have begun to shift towards a more customer-centric, value-driven approach, and interruption-based advertising has grown less and less relevant.

The examples are endless. From Dove’s “Real Beauty”, to Panera’s “Food As it Should Be”, to Sport England’s “This Girl Can”, companies of every scale and industry are shifting their marketing efforts to focus on articulating their core values, fostering transparency in their business processes, and grasping with white-knuckled hands onto a social issue (with varying degrees of success).

If there is one buzzword that seems to encapsulate this movement, it is authenticity. It shows up in Forbes, and Neil Patel, and The Drum. It also shows up here, in an article which presents “Flame Grilled since 1954” as an ad which ‘position[s] [Burger King] as an authentic brand that is unafraid to hold back to truly connect with its audiences.’

This shift is undoubtedly a positive one. In an information-saturated world, interruption-based advertising is both completely ineffective and intensely irritating, and anything that mobilizes businesses as agents for social and societal change is moving in the right direction. And yet, amidst all of this buzz about transparency, trust, and reliability, the public’s distrust in business has only been sinking lower, and the issues facing society and industry are only growing larger.

Perhaps this is because of the central, seemingly intractable issue with authentic marketing, one which emerges from the most fundamental ideas of modern capitalism: businesses exist to make a profit. For all of the focus upon social issues, the moment that supporting those issues starts significantly affecting the bottom line, they are to be discarded. At their worst, companies treat causes like masks or costumes: pretty, eye-catching things to be worn or discarded as the invisible hand of the market dictates.

This uneasiness underlies most modern corporate activity, and consumers can feel it. On some level, the Wendy’s Twitter account is a font of comedic genius, and on another, it’s a company pretending to be a funny human in order to make you buy soft drinks and burgers. On some level, the tech giants truly are innovative companies that do ‘make a positive difference in society’ (as their ads almost always claim), and on another, their entire business model centers around harvesting user data, suppressing competition, and dodging taxes. On some level, Pepsi’s Black Lives Matter ad… actually, no, there’s no redeeming that one (source).

This cognitive dissonance has also meant that a lot of guides on the subject read like the author is desperately trying to convince themselves that marketing isn’t immoral. Tint’s Beginners Guide to Authentic Marketing reminds marketers to ‘[create] a semblance of like-mindedness’, while B2C’s guide presents ‘social media comedy sets’ as one of the key strategies for crafting authentic marketing initiatives.

Other articles on the topic — those that sound less like an AI running a seminar on how to appeal to humans — present tips such as projecting what the brand stands for, becoming part of the conversation, and being direct and friendly.

It is clear that this rhetoric isn’t working. On the whole, society deeply distrusts business in a way that ‘becoming part of the conversation’ can never fix. As of this year, only 56% percent of people believe that capitalism as it exists today does more good than harm in the world, and only 51% trust corporate CEOs to successfully address societal challenges [page 17]. It’s easy to see why. Coca Cola — advocate of ‘integrity, accountability … [and] diversity’ — has been accused at various points over the last ten years of taking land from poor communities in South America, mis-marketing VitaminWater in an attempt to convince consumers that the sugary drink was healthy, and, uh, hiring death squads. Nestle’s supply pipelines probably rely on slave labour. Tech giants engage in anti-trust practices with terrifying frequency.

It’s clear that, to address this distrust of business, and, more importantly, to reform industry, something more radical than a focus on customer-centricity is required. Advertisements like “Flame Grilled Since 1954” may be funny, but they are not truly authentic; not in a way that matters, at least.

Even before businesses began adopting a consumer-centric mindset, marketing has always been about the articulation of a company’s core vision to their customer base. In a world where the largest businesses pursue short-term profit at the expense of their consumers, society, and the planet, the only way to meaningfully do so — the only way to be truly authentic to the goal of fulfilling customer needs — is to actually further social good.

Raising awareness about a social problem (one of the hallmarks of modern marketing) is a step in the right direction, but without actual initiatives backing it up, it looks an awful lot like appropriating an issue to artificially generate customer goodwill. On the flip side, furthering social good doesn’t mean that companies should run off and try to haphazardly fix every problem out there. The mid-size toothbrush manufacturer in Europe doesn’t have to spend all of its time thinking about malnutrition in the developing world.

Furthering social good also doesn’t mean disregarding profit. In fact, profit is one of the most powerful tools for social good that we have available to us. Profitability allows solutions to be scalable, by far the most difficult challenge in addressing the problems that face seven billion humans. The company that skims off 10% of its margins to support an aligned social cause is doing a great thing. The company that generates 10% of its profit from an aligned social cause is doing even better, and has the market incentives to address that issue both now and in the future.

To illustrate this point, let’s look at three specific examples: a prominent pharmaceutical business, a global payments company, and a small cafe in Los Angeles.

In 2016, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), a pharmaceutical company with a history stretching back to 1873, released all of its drugs from patent protection in poor nations, massively increasing access to life-saving medicine. Although revenue was expected to drop in the short term, the company anticipated that ‘the approach [will build] goodwill and a strong market presence around the globe’. Their sales actually increased by 4% in the second quarter of that year.

MasterCard recently distributed plastic credit cards to troubled populations in collaboration with not-for-profit organizations, allowing them to protect against the fraudulent use of charitable donations and gather insights into the needs of the disadvantaged. They charged the charities fees for this service, and the program is actually profitable.

Homegirl Cafe is a small business in Los Angeles, serving healthy, farm-to-table Latino food. It also provides training and support to previously incarcerated men and women, up-skilling them in core skills in hospitality and providing a place where they’re empowered to give back to the community. With this initiative, the cafe gains employees that are likely to be grateful and dedicated to them, and fosters a sense of community that attracts many of their customers.

Despite how radically different the business models and contexts of these companies are, they have several things in common.

First, they’re companies whose core business does not revolve around charity.

Second, they’re doing far more than simply advocating for a social cause: they’re actually making a meaningful change in an important issue.

Third, they’re leveraging the company’s key revenue generators and expertise. GSK didn’t suddenly start donating clothes. MasterCard didn’t try and build water filtration infrastructure. These companies have spent their entire lifetime gaining expertise in a narrow domain, and they leveraged that expertise to arrive at a solution that was creative, impactful, and that they were uniquely positioned to follow through on.

Fourth, the initiatives are profitable. GSK is building goodwill that will position them as the market leader in those areas of the world for decades, while offering pharmaceutical products at a price few other competitors are willing to compete with. Mastercard actually turned an immediate profit. Homegirl has a dedicated, community-driven workforce to draw upon. This lets them continue to operate these initiatives not only for the duration of a marketing campaign, but in the long run.

Fifth, the initiatives fulfil all of the criteria for effective marketing. They capture attention and create an emotional reaction. They represent the company’s key values (Mastercard, GSK, Homegirl). They are simple to explain and intuitive to grasp.

In some ways, it is the fourth and fifth points that are the most important. These are not simply instances of charity. They are incredibly well-designed, impactful marketing campaigns, and they are likely to be successful, both because they demonstrate the company’s value add, and because modern consumers care deeply about helping others. Goodpurpose’s 2012 report, for example, found that, where quality and price were equal, the leading purchase driver for 53 percent of consumers is ‘social purpose’ . Two-thirds of consumers surveyed by Global Web Index think that it’s important to contribute to their local community.

These, however, are merely three, particularly successful examples. Every type of company can engage with truly authentic marketing. Takeaway chains could ensure that their food is sourced locally; or have a plate-for-plate initiative where for each purchased meal they donate one to people in need, generating goodwill in customers that buy from them. Restaurants could offer apprenticeships to people with disabilities ; or provide a healthy community space for people recovering from addiction; or provide hospitality training to the homeless to increase their employability, all of which create a dedicated workforce while building a community that attracts customers. Construction companies could demonstrate their expertise by tackling building challenges in poor locales; or incorporate principles of the green building movement to differentiate themselves from competitors. Retail brands could use the shift to higher quality, more sustainable materials to emphasis their clothing’s high value and environmentalist focus (Patagonia’s implementation of this idea, “Don’t Buy This Jacket”, is one of the most successful and lauded ad campaigns of the last two decades). Vending machine operators and supermarket chains could lower prices in lower socio-economic areas, to provide easier access to food and encourage others to visit the neighborhood and stimulate economic growth. Consultancies could offer fully paid internships to low-income university students to access an untapped segment of intelligent, hardworking youth. Sportswear manufacturers could turn plastic waste into high-performance sportswear, creating a differentiating factor in a saturated market. VR Tech companies could donate to learning institutions to develop their market and provide low-income children with incredible learning experiences. All companies could prioritize supply chains that don’t have associations with slave labour or abuse.

And by all means, companies should inform people about these initiatives. They should tell people as often as they’d like; using a giant megaphone, if required. That’s the power of action — of truly authentic marketing. It doesn’t matter how often you remind people, because when businesses are actually making a change, rather than irritating consumers with interruption-based advertisements, or dressing themselves up in whatever social issue is in vogue, people want to listen.

Not every initiative is likely to be successful, but then, not every marketing campaign is successful, either. Companies regularly spend millions to build brand identity. Direct Marketing hovers around a 4.4 percent conversion rate. Email marketing is around 0.12 percent. Digital display advertisements have a laughably small 0.024% response rate, and a conversion rate of 0.010%. And yet, companies continue to pour millions of dollars into their marketing and advertising budgets, because they understand how important they are for developing the goodwill of their customer base and fostering awareness of their business. These initiatives should be treated in exactly the same way.

Elements of modern marketing will be essential in supporting this push towards actual action. The focus on transparency, in particular, will remain essential, to ensure that companies do not use a token action of social justice to hide morally dubious behavior. MasterCard, for example, was recently fined €570 million for the kind of anti-trust behavior that I lambasted above. Advertising will also remain extremely important in in communicating how companies are working towards change, flagging important societal issues to consumers, and providing guidelines for further action.

It must also be said that truly authentic marketing is not the sole solution to the problems faced by society. Reframing business as an agent for long-term social and ecological good is a complex, extremely challenging issue. Such an approach, however, is one of the most impactful things that a company can do without significantly altering its day-to-day operations, and while completely aligning themselves with market incentives. Other approaches such as organizational philanthropy also have extremely important roles to play, and should supplement and further develop company positioning.

The integration of social good and marketing will require executives and marketers to think creatively in a completely new way. The best initiatives will exemplify a company’s core values, create a meaningful difference in people’s lives, be eye-catching and thought-provoking, leverage their area of expertise, and be profitable (at least in the long term). That’s not easy, and there’s one additional complication: as with all truly authentic marketing, there can be no rule book; initiatives must emerge organically from a company and its purpose.

For those businesses who succeed, however, these marketing campaigns are far more than just an interesting case study, or a fulfilment of the ‘social justice quota’. They are instead examples of the purest form of marketing: one which aligns revenue generation with customer need satisfaction; one which expands business while making a meaningful difference; one which breaks down the dichotomy of profit and social good.

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