You hear a lot about how brands are supposed to be “authentic,” although you’re likely to hear different definitions from different brands, some more plausible than others. In my practice I view “brand authenticity” as a set of values – the most “leverageable” of which are emotional — that a brand can believably own.

The critical words in that last phrase are “believably own” because it turns out that there’s an enormous difference between a brand saying something, a brand doing something, and a brand doing something believably. If it helps, think of it as a brand’s emotional version of “a promise made should be a promise kept.”

In a world where people talk among themselves before they talk to brands, you definitely want consumers to feel that your brand is keeping its promises – or the promises you make about your products – and, thus, protect your brand’s authenticity.

In the retail sector, “authenticity” has a lot to do with “trusting what the brand says or sells,” which has a lot to do with “brand reputation,” which has a lot to do with “customer loyalty,” which has a lot to do with “sales,” which has a lot to do with … well, you get the point. This is true in all retail sectors, but particularly in the sub-category “Discount Retailers.”

Discount Retailers Need “Authenticity”

In a category where low-lower-lowest prices correlate very highly with the perception of value and product primacy, consumers ask the question, does the product deliver on what was promised and do I feel I received real value? Authenticity is why responsibility for things like illegal child labor practices ultimately came back to haunt discount retailers. Sure, cheap is cheap, after all.

But do consumers really care where a product is manufactured? Or how? Or if it’s exactly up to spec? The easy, intuitively obvious and rational answer is, of course “yes,” but brand loyalty research in the Discount Retail category proves it’s so. And to a much larger extent that has previously been assumed.

One of our recent studies examined Target, Walmart, and Kmart shoppers and measured the connection of authenticity to actual behavior in the marketplace. It turns out that people who feel the brand is more “authentic,”  shop the brand six times more frequently, bought more products from that retailer, and were more likely to rebuff competitive offers, especially ones that were price-based.

So an authentic brand yielded more loyal customers. But it also turns out that “authenticity” is strongly related to expectations consumers hold for primacy-of-product, the head-nodding response to the question “Did I get what I paid for?”

Not So Welspun

These findings were most-recently validated when Target pulled Welspun India Ltd.’s products from their shelves after the brand’s investigation found that they couldn’t guarantee the products were actually 100% Egyptian cotton.

This week Walmart announced that it would stop selling the “Egyptian cotton” sheets made by Welspun because they couldn’t attest to the products legitimacy. They removed all products from their shelves and have offered customers a full refund.

It turns out that Welspun has not used actual Egyptian cotton in their products for two years. Oops! And if that’s not enough to have you question the authenticity of products you buy, the Cotton Egypt Association, which certifies suppliers, estimates that 90% of products labeled “Egyptian cotton” are inauthentic (the reverse of “authentic” — there’s that word again).

Good brand marketers need to understand that not only must their brands be authentic, but their products must be authentic too. And while our studies have confirmed that precept, perhaps Shakespeare said it best:

This above all: To thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

Particularly if you want loyal consumers.