Authentic brands are stronger brands. A high level of genuinity is a sign of honesty, and uncovers human-like imperfections – which people tend to appreciate.

Brand authenticity is the degree to which a brand’s promise aligns with the reality of its purpose and products. Some companies are scared by this idea, and rather adjust their stories to leave an impression that — they think — is more beneficial than that of being transparent. It is, however, more of a spectrum than an absolute. To prove that out, we need look no further than the automotive industry.

Sure, this probably isn’t the first category that comes to mind when thinking of authenticity as factory workers often pay a high price for us paying a low one, we are never informed about full environmental impact, and we understand that high functional similarity forces car makers to go bold in the emotional domain. But in the auto industry, like in many others, storytelling is more challenging than ever, as established players struggle with the shift to e-mobility, new kids on the block are gaining a foothold, and customers have access to virtually any information (so can’t be misled anymore). Car brands must raise the bar of authenticity to gain trust.

There is a brand lesson to be learned in every variation of authenticity in automotive storytelling. 

Distract from the truth

Not telling something doesn’t equal lying, one can claim. Of course, brands don’t need to communicate everything — they typically select topics that are valuable for their customers — but it gets critical when the walk and the talk are not even compatible. When the truth is too inconvenient to expose, one can create an alternative image that distracts from what is actually going on.

We all remember Volkswagen’s emission scandal in 2015. Prior to it, the brand’s “Clean Diesel” ad campaign had sought to debunk misconceptions about diesel-powered cars. In the US, the “Old Wives Tales” ad series was used to counter the dirty image of diesel. Yes, misleading customers can boost sales for a while, but eventually, such strategies are overtaken by the truth, leading to a situation that is way less favorable than the consequences of full transparency in the first place.

Tell what might sell

Some brands simply come up with stories that sell, but, as such, don’t have much to do with the actual offering. They might be related to themes that people simply dream about or aspire to.

We all know those car commercials with the newest model gently gliding through curvy mountain roads. Also the latest FIAT 500 videos, for instance, include that format. This model is positioned as a small city car; not a vehicle for cruising through the wide landscape. People, however, like the image of freedom and adventure. Stunning sceneries and an endless horizon sell the desirable idea that buying the vehicle means adopting a greater lifestyle. Customers tend (or want) to forget that the new car shown will probably end up being used for the same purposes as its predecessor: Driving the kids to school, finding its way to work through traffic jams, and doing the weekly grocery shopping. 

A low level of authenticity can boost sales, but over time, customers might grow to misunderstand, or worse, mistrust the brand.

For instance, the FIAT 500 being perceived as a long-distance traveling car can damage trust once people find out the model isn’t the best option for this purpose at all. 

Go with the story

In order to go with the trends, some brands feel they need to tick popular boxes, like that of accessibility or inclusion. Often, such causes don’t have much to do  with the brands’ essence or are even a mismatch with the category at large — think of sustainability and the automotive industry — but do need to be addressed in some way, as society expects so.

Diversity hasn’t typically been known as part of Renault’s DNA, but the French car maker made a strong statement with its 2019 tv ad, in which the 30-year history of the Clio model is told through the life of a same-sex couple. That’s not a facade; this story is backed by real commitment: “Convinced of the importance of recognizing that the uniqueness of each individual is a source of wealth regardless of age, sex, sexual orientation or gender identity, Renault Group creates the conditions that allow each employee to be herself/himself”. 

We see, the story the customer wants to hear can even inspire and influence a brand’s promise. Opening the door to society is not always easy, but can be a great opportunity to understand emotional needs better, and, eventually, even democratize a brand.

Stay true to oneself

Some brands use storytelling to simply tell who they are; they consider the narrative as a means to expose their purpose. Sure, such stories are often served up in a tasty sauce, but they have the identity at their core. As strong brands tend to be the ones that stick to their essentials for a long time, their message is not always in line with trends. As a matter of fact, they often even challenge people instead of just meeting contemporary needs.

Volvo, known for putting safety first, is aware of the fact that staying true to oneself might not always lead to quick sales, but will grow a solid reputation over time. From time to time, this high degree of authenticity means that Volvo has to accept that not every bottom line is always well-received right away. A classic example of this is the introduction of the safety belt, in the late 50s: “When we introduced the 3-point safety belt, we were met with criticism and resistance. Many thought the new invention restricted their freedom. As of today, it has saved more than a million lives.” 

Recently, another bold move has been made by Volvo. They set a speed cap to its car for more safety. Again, as a feature directly derived from its brand fundamentals, it will be unpopular for many, but the story will certainly build the brand further over time.

Honesty is the best policy

We all like great stories, but as soon as they get too perfect to be true, they — well — might not be true. Stories that touch us are desirable but we don’t want these to be fairy tales. We don’t want fairy tales. The extent to which promise and reality should align in messaging is a company’s decision but it shouldn’t be forgotten that people are not stupid, and certainly don’t want to be treated as such. Distracting from the truth or simply telling what people want to hear might lead to great stories and even greater risks. 

Trust is typically built in years but can be destroyed in a moment, and good examples of how the tide can be turned are rare.

As for the dieselgate scandal, the Volkswagen brand reputation has gained dramatically as people appreciated the company admitting its dieselgate failures. After all, they say one’s real identity shows in critical situations.

The giant car brand showed regret and willingness to change: “As a general principle, the aim in future will not be to show a perfect advertising world. In our presentation, we want to become more human and more lively, to adopt the customer’s perspective to a greater extent and to tell authentic stories.”

Better alignment = more authenticity

In storytelling, striving for a high level of authenticity probably is the safest bet. Telling who you are and what you stand for isn’t always easy, but the closer you can get to aligning your true self with your actions, made visible through your narrative, the better off you’ll be in the long run.

Cover image source: bortnikau