What does it mean to be authentic? If we’re talking about an authentic Prada purse, presumably we mean that it was actually made by Prada, and isn’t an imitation. If we’re talking about authentic Mexican food, presumably we mean that it’s the kind of food that people in Mexico actually eat, rather than some Americanized version. But what would it mean to say that a business itself is authentic?
The authentic self and self-presentation
The key to understanding this idea is to think in terms of our relationships and how we present ourselves to others. Our authentic self is sometimes called our true self; it’s who we really are “on the inside.” However, we don’t necessarily share that version of ourself with the whole world. Rather, we frequently engage in self-presentation, where we construct a version of ourself that is designed to make a particular impression on others. As a concrete example, I’m naturally an introvert – that’s my authentic self. But for my work as a professor, I have had to give lectures in front of a room with 275 students. To be successful at that, I have to do my best to be entertaining and engaging - a much more extraverted version of myself.
As this example illustrates, self-presentation isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As a professor, I am in a particular professional role, and part of my job is playing that role, whether or not it lines up perfectly with my authentic self. Sure, it can sometimes be frustrating to feel like I have to put on an act. But when the tables are turned, that’s exactly what I expect other people in employee roles to do. When I’m at a restaurant, I don’t necessarily want to experience the server’s authentic self. I expect them to play the server role – after all, I’m the customer, and part of what I’m paying for a is a positive service experience.
Sometimes, though, there are situations where the best way to play my professor role is to be my authentic self. For example, imagine that a student is taking a class where participation makes up a significant portion of the grade. That student comes to see me and says they want to participate, but they’re very introverted and it’s hard for them to speak up in front of the other students. In that situation, I am definitely going to reveal my own authentic, introverted self.
The reason is that I now have a different goal – I’m not trying to entertain the student, I’m trying to make them more comfortable in the class. To achieve that, I am utilizing one of the most basic mechanisms of relationship building – reciprocal self-disclosure. By disclosing their introversion, the student is being a little bit vulnerable, and trusting me not to take advantage of that. I could (if I was a very bad professor!) respond by saying “It’s an extravert’s world – suck it up, buttercup!” That would be a betrayal of the student’s trust, and probably would shut down that relationship for good.
So, instead, I reciprocate – disclose something about myself as well, in this case, that I am also introverted. By doing that, I reward the student’s trust, and show that I trust them as well. Before, that student was just one of many people sitting in the classroom, but now we have a more personal, more human connection. It’s not going to magically solve the student’s struggles with participation. But it does help send the signal that I am empathetic and care about my students.
When to be authentic
The conclusion to draw from these two examples is that just like almost everything else in psychology, we can’t make a blanket statement that being authentic is a good thing or a bad thing. It depends on the situation and what you’re trying to achieve. That’s just as true when we’re talking about a business-customer relationship as with the professor-student relationship. So how do you know when it pays to be authentic, and when it’s either irrelevant or potentially harmful?
The most important thing to keep in mind is that being authentic is a tool for building relationships, in particular for creating trust. So, it’s going to matter a lot more when what you’re selling is a service, especially a service where there’s a long-term relationship. If most of what you do is make one-off sales of physical products, then it’s probably not worth the bother. For example, imagine that you run a convenience store next to an interstate exit. People come in your store to buy soda and potato chips. These are name-brand products that are familiar to the customers, so trust isn’t really an issue. Also, the customers are typically on their way from A to B, and may never come back to your store again, so your relationship with them may last all of 30 seconds. That’s not a situation where I would recommend a business focus on being authentic.
Imagine instead that you are a financial advisor. What you sell is a service, and you’re effectively asking folks to trust you with their life’s savings. Your goal is to form relationships with customers, relationships that may last many years. If I were that financial advisor, I would absolutely be more open and honest about my authentic self. For example, when I’m meeting with clients, I might interject brief stories drawn from my personal life – what my kids are doing in school, a hobby I enjoy, a trip I took.
Authenticity of a business
Authenticity can be applied to the business overall as well as to individuals. I’ve been hearing a radio ad recently for a local company called Builders Alliance. In this ad, they explicitly say that if you’re looking for plumbing parts, they’re not going to compare favorably to competitors, but if you’re doing a bigger project like a kitchen remodel or a deck, that’s where they shine. This is savvy marketing in multiple ways. Unless you’re Amazon, trying to be all things for all people is not a recipe for business success. Pick one or two types of customers to target, pick a few things that you can do really well, and focus on that. But the way this ad communicates that information - by talking about when you should go to their competitors instead - has the added benefit of making them appear honest and genuine.
Why authenticity can sometimes hurt
Thus far I’ve talked about authenticity being either neutral or a positive. However, if you don’t use it carefully, it is possible to do more harm than good. One way that can happen is if you end up unintentionally highlighting differences between yourself and your customers. For example, suppose you have been quite successful in your business, and have made a hobby of collecting expensive sports cars. If your customers are living paycheck to paycheck, then talking about your experience buying a $100,000 car can alienate those customers – it sends a message that you don’t really understand who they are and what their lives are like.
The best way to avoid this problem is to always remember that authenticity isn’t a goal unto itself – it’s a tool for building relationships. Think about your personal relationships, and imagine a relatively new friendship. You wouldn’t disclose everything about yourself to that person, nor would you pick things to disclose at random. You would strategically pick specific pieces of information to disclose that you think would resonate with your new friend. The same approach applies with a business.
So in answer to the question posed in the title of this article, authenticity is a powerful tool in your marketing toolbox, and when used in the right situations, it can help you build trust and strengthen customers relationships. But it’s important to use it wisely. Know who you’re trying to reach, know what message you’re trying to convey to them, and most importantly, think about whether relationships are important for the product or service you are selling. And if you’re unsure, or could use some help developing authentic messaging, we’re happy to help!