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Make it real: The opportunity for authenticity

Elena Silva

Managing Director

Cohn & Wolfe Italy



The Cohn & Wolfe "Authentic Brands" study, now in its fourth edition, investigates the role of authenticity in the market and its impact on consumers.  In common parlance, the term “authenticityimplies qualities of genuineness and straightforwardness, as well as being open and corresponding to reality.

In addition to these meanings, the term authenticity is seen here as a set of brand values and corporate behavior aimed at guaranteeing pledges of quality, commitment, openness, and the ability to handle even the most difficult situations.

Our study of brand authenticity, over five years, has sought to answer some key questions:

  • What does authenticity mean to consumers?
  • Are big global brands authentic to consumers?
  • Is it possible to draw up a framework for a diagnosis of the strengths and weaknesses of a brand on the basis of its authenticity?

The main and most immediate piece of evidence is the deep skepticism expressed by consumers in all markets: most of our interviewees believe that companies are not open and transparent, which reveals a huge credibility problem for brands in all sectors and in all countries. This cynical and distant attitude is even more marked in Western Europe (the lowest levels of brand credibility are found in Sweden, the UK, France, Germany, Spain, and Italy) while in developing countries (China, Indonesia, and India) greater authenticity is generally attributed to brands.

This deep “authenticity gap” presents a huge opportunity, since the study also highlighted increased customer propensity towards brands that prove to be authentic; the perception of authenticity does impact on consumer behavior and attitudes towards a brand. Brands perceived to be authentic generate word-of-mouth recommendation, inspire loyalty and are more likely to be regarded as an attractive workplace and even stand a higher chance of being considered for investment.

To seize this opportunity, we need to explore the drivers of consumer perception and act accordingly. The seven key attributes that describe the authenticity of a brand, in order of importance to consumers, are as follows:

-       The brand delivers on promises

-       It treats consumers well

-       It protects consumer privacy and data

-       It communicates honestly

-       It is real and genuine, not artificial

-       It offers high quality

-       It always acts with integrity

The seven attributes can be grouped into three clusters, which constitute the key elements of authenticity: Reliability (quality and delivers promises) – Respect (treating consumers well and protecting their privacy) – and Truth (communicates honestly, is genuine and acts with integrity).

The importance of these characteristics varies from country to country; in Italy for example, reliability is particularly important in the eyes of consumers who seek quality and will not accept being disappointed by brand promises.

Company behavior as a subject in society is important but probably somewhat remote; consumers are more likely to see reliability, respect, and the truth of a brand as tangible proof of the seriousness and responsibility of a company.  Consumers clearly need real, day-to-day evidence to convince them they can rely on brands. In defining authenticity, greater priority is given to quality, especially by Italians, and the ability to deliver on promises, than more value-related issues such as social and environmental responsibility.

Privacy and personal data handling, for example, are relatively recent concerns in the minds of consumers; not all brands may be fully aware of this issue or consider themselves influenced by it, though it is an issue that affects every company today, given the direct and constant interaction people are having with brands on social networks.  It is patently clear to the consumer that the chance to interact with brands and companies directly brings with it great power, but also the risk of personal exposure and a certain vulnerability.

It is not just companies operating in the sectors most sensitive to these issues (online services, e-commerce, banking, and insurance) which are, by definition, responsible for consumer data, that need to worry about this attention from customers. Ensuring privacy is respected is something consumers hold in high regard; globally, "protecting customer data and their privacy" is the fourth most important attribute of authenticity.

In Italy, and globally, brands score better for reliability and respect than they do for “truth”.


The Authentic Brands study, based on insights gained through several sources and bodies of data (which include BrandZ’s Top 100 Most Valuable Global Brands and Y&R Group’s BrandAsset® Valuator BAV) is intended to be a diagnostic tool to enable work to be targeted on the strengths and weaknesses of what we have defined as authenticity. This is now seen as a system of key values for consumers looking for a clear and honest relationship with brands; consumers who want quality but above all credibility, and who prefer companies that show respect and will even admit their mistakes.

To sum up, authenticity is defined by consumers in a much more personal and pragmatic way than marketing and communication professionals may think; authenticity is not an abstract concept but it is substantiated in everyday interaction with brands. Efforts to bridge the credibility gap revealed by the study should therefore focus particularly on the day-to-day relationship between the brand and consumers.