Be True to Your Brand

Published: Apr 22, 2019
Modified: Mar 24, 2020

By Dick Martin

Keeping It Real
Authenticity used to mean a product was made by the person whose name was on the label. Now it means the product is real, not as opposed to fake, but as the opposite of cynical. As author Bill Breen points out, ‘‘What’s authentic is not always real, and what’s real is not always what it seems.’’¹ Jon Stewart of The Daily Show is the host of a ‘‘fake’’ news program, yet he seems more authentic than many of the blow-dried anchors earnestly reading from a teleprompter on the ‘‘real’’ news programs.

To be authentic is to be true to one’s meaning, to be consistent and predictable, to never say one thing and do another. In fact, truly authentic brands align every customer touch point with that meaning. Nick Vlahos, the vice president of customer development for Clorox, talks about creating a seamless experience across three ‘‘moments of truth’’—from the marketing that creates a desire for the product, to the retail environment where a consumer decides to buy the product, to the delight a consumer experiences when he or she uses it.²

Experience as Marketing
Experience is the new marketing, and authentic brands are careful to communicate the same message through all five senses—touch, taste, smell, sight, and sound. Folgers captured coffee’s generic benefit in an advertising slogan—‘‘the best part of wakin’ up is Folgers in your cup’’—and extended it to the product experience by strengthening the aromatic release of the beans it uses. It even developed a can with a resealable lid that preserved the coffee’s aroma.

On the other hand, Starbucks lost its way when it began to automate the process of brewing its coffee to shorten lines at the counter and added egg sandwiches to its menu to goose revenue. Peoples’ noses noticed the change before they did—the aroma of fresh-ground coffee beans gave way to the smell of frying eggs. One fragrance is not necessarily better than the other—but one was appropriate to a diner, the other to a coffeehouse. Things got so bad that Howard Schultz reinstalled himself as CEO and shut down all 7,100 stores nationwide for three hours so all 135,000 in-store employees could remind themselves what Starbucks is about, while they relearned how to pull the perfect shot, not burn coffee, and correctly steam milk. While Schultz is not the company’s founder, he’s the keeper of its meaning, of its authenticity.

Experiences should be tailored to a brand’s target audience, while staying true to its heritage. Abercrombie & Fitch started in 1900 as a New York City store for genteel outdoorsmen. Today’s stores retain some of the trappings of its original incarnation, including moose heads over the cash register and canoe paddles on the walls. But the overall scene is collegiate keg party, skewing slightly older than its largely teenage clientele. In fact, none of the 900 stores have window displays, preferring plantation shutters that are always half-closed on a dark interior, and music so loud that no one over age 30 would risk crossing the threshold. Ironically, the company’s CEO is a sixty-three-year-old whose dyed-blond hair is in the ‘‘I-just-rolled-out-of-bed’’ style favored by his customers. Most days he can be found tooling around corporate headquarters in torn jeans and flip-flops. And, oh yes, he runs it all from the teen capital of New Albany, Ohio.

The masters of marketing understand that the experience of a product—the process of buying and using it—is part of the product itself. When a brand delivers an experience in perfect sync with its meaning, it is capable of attaining the highest levels of authenticity. For example, when Howard Schultz got involved with Starbucks, it had been roasting and brewing world-class coffee for a solid decade. Its founders were fanatic about educating customers on the finer points of roasting and brewing coffee beans. What he brought to the company was the decision to re-create ‘‘the ritual and romance of coffee bars in Italy.’’ ³ He didn’t set out to make better coffee—Starbucks was already doing that. He set out to change the experience of drinking coffee away from home. He designed a ‘‘third place’’ somewhere between home and work, where people would feel comfortable just passing the time. Most successful restaurants are quasi-theatrical—their ambience contributes nearly as much to people’s enjoyment as the food on their plate, in some cases, more.

Masters of Marketing Strategies
Rather than pushing products, the masters of marketing are pulling customers in by offering them a more relevant, engaging, authentic experience. Of course, that requires a new way of thinking. But once you think of marketing that way, according to the ANA’s Bob Liodice, ‘‘you’re like the college kid who wakes up one morning and realizes he picked the wrong major. You have all kinds of new possibilities and none of the old rules apply.’’

Here’s how the masters of marketing ensure that their brands stay real:

  • They align every customer touch point with the brand’s meaning, not only in messaging but also through all five senses. They realize that the brand experience may begin with advertising, but it continues in the brand’s packaging, the process of buying it, using it, and, if necessary, servicing it. CMO Eva Ziegler is transforming Starwood’s Le Méridien hotel chain into a brand that represents sophistication and modernism through careful attention to everything a guest encounters from lobby lighting to room decor. She commissioned special elevator music, a signature scent for public spaces, and card keys in limited-edition collectible designs that also give guests complimentary access to local art organizations. In all, she has hired a cast of twelve world-class artists—chefs, musicians, architects, painters, and designers—to transform fifty aspects of the hotel that customers experience.
  • They ensure that their brand evolves in step with their customers’ changing needs and values. They remain true to their brand heritage and values while tailoring its expression to customers’ contemporary lifestyles. U.K. retailer Tesco’s stores are virtually unrecognizable from country to country because Tesco so successfully adapts itself to local customers’ needs and traditions. In Thailand, Tesco shops are like market stalls; in China, they sell live fish; in Korea, they’re more like large department stores than supermarkets; and in the United States, they’re small neighborhood convenience stores. Yet, in all these different formats, Tesco remains true to its heritage of giving customers a little more than they expect and rewarding them for coming back.
  • They invite customers to participate in their brand’s development, trading their own absolute control for consumer influence over brand use. They recognize that strong, authentic brands belong to their users, not to the companies that initially created them. Sheraton turned the lame ‘‘tell us what you think’’ card found in most hotel rooms into a multimedia feedback loop, inviting guests to e-mail photos as well as comments about their travel experience. It posts the most interesting guest stories on its website, organizing them by location on an interactive globe and by theme in a hyperlink sidebar (for example, beach, golf, romance, and so on). With the spread of camera phones, nearly every guest can be a travel writer, sharing discoveries with others—linked, of course, to relevant Sheraton properties.
  • They understand and reinforce the contribution their brand makes to their customers’ sense of identity and community. The couches and overstuffed chairs in most Starbucks send a loud signal that it’s a place to sit and linger—a club of sorts. The ‘‘conversation starters,’’ pithy sayings and observations, on its paper coffee cups reinforce the idea. And it turns that club into a community through a social networking site—Starbucks V2V—that enables customers and employees to recruit volunteers to work on worthy causes.
  • They don’t make the mistake of assuming that ‘‘rational’’ and ‘‘emotional’’ considerations are at opposite ends of the same continuum. They recognize that brands must meet functional and performance expectations, but they also understand that a brand’s emotional and social benefits are the source of even deeper relevance. Campbell’s sent anthropologists into the homes of Russian consumers to figure out why they weren’t buying canned soup. When they discovered that making soup has deep emotional meaning to Russian homemakers, they abandoned plans to market their traditional line of heat-and-serve condensed soups there and introduced new ‘‘starter soups’’ and broths designed to help consumers save time while adding their own touches.
  • They conduct themselves responsibly, recognizing their ability to shape as well as to reflect society’s mores. For example, the alcoholic beverage industry refrains from advertising in media that reaches an audience predominantly under the legal drinking age. Fast-food, soft drink, and snack companies have voluntarily stopped advertising to children under twelve years old unless the products meet government nutritional standards (for example, less than 200 calories, no trans fat, low sodium, and low sugar other than from fruit).

¹ Bill Breen, “Who Do You Love?” Fast Company, May 2007.
² “Lost and Found,” The Hub, July 1, 2008 (
³  Howard Schultz and Dori Jones Yang, Pour Your Heart Into It (New York: Hyperion, 1977), p. 51.

© 2009 by Dick Martin.  Excerpted by permission of the publisher, from Secrets of the Marketing Masters:  What the Best Marketers do—and Why It Works, by Dick Martin.

About the Author(s)

Dick Martin Dick Martin was formerly executive vice president of public relations, employee communications and brand management for AT&T.  He is the author of Secrets of the Marketing Masters:  What the Best Marketers do—and Why It Works (AMACOM, 2009), from which this article was excerpted.