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Authenticity: What it is, how it works and how to use it to connect with consumers


Research suggests that the majority of customers believe there is a disconnect between what brands say and how they behave. Customers crave authenticity. But how do you deliver it?

10th Sep 2021

Digitas has been researching the myriad opportunities for businesses to improve the way they engage with customers. While many brands struggle to provide a great customer experience, the ones that listen are the ones that are forging ahead. Let's explore the roots of an authentic experience and shares five key lessons to help brands connect with customers. 

We hear a lot about the importance of authenticity to customer experience. Authenticity, we are told, is the key to a superior customer experience. But what does it actually mean and how can it help to create a better link between brands and customers?

Authenticity is the degree to which behaviour is congruent with a brand’s core beliefs and values. In the Digitas report ‘The State of Customer Engagement’, the majority of customers surveyed believe there is a disconnect between what brands say and how they behave. A Walker study at the end of 2020 found that customer experience will overtake price and product as a key brand differentiator. So delivering authentic experiences can produce a competitive edge.

The State of Customer Engagement research report illustrates paths that guide brands to make authentic connections. Here are five key lessons that can help a business pivot onto the right path.

Lesson 1 - Only say it if you really mean it

Like everyone else, 18 months ago I received a deluge of emails from brands, checking in at the start of the pandemic and making promises about how my evolving needs would be understood and responded to. In our recent study of over a thousand UK customers, 68% didn’t agree that brands were delivering on promises to understand and anticipate their needs. That’s a poor show and a missed opportunity for brands.

The key is to create a dialogue, to listen and actually hear what customers are talking about. Understanding the real issues that affect customers’ lives enables us to create messages that reflect those feelings. There are so many listening tools available to us today, there’s really no good excuse to ignore what customers are saying.

A great example is Samsung. Samsung listened to customers' hopes and fears, it asked about the barriers that people saw when it came to achieving their ambitions during the pandemic. Armed with that information, Samsung was able to define a clear customer value proposition and deliver on a promise to enable customers to break down those barriers - whether it be around work, family, sport, music or any of their personal passions. It was a great connection that proved the brand is listening and reacts to what its customers have to say.  

Lesson 2 - Don’t take relationships for granted

In our report, only half of customers we surveyed are satisfied with the day-to-day relationship they have with selected brands and this percentage drops to 35% when it comes to feeling rewarded for an ongoing or loyal relationship.

While customers are relatively satisfied by the way in which they start a relationship with a brand, these levels drop consistently when they have to resolve an issue, access rewards and benefits or upgrade their services and products. Who would stick around for that?

Our research uncovered a lack of empathy from brands which see people as just an opportunity for growth and not a chance to grow a long-lasting customer relationship.

Digital platforms mean you can communicate with customers more easily, but you must do it well otherwise you come across as transactional and uncaring. A good example of a brand that got it right is Marks & Spencer. Customers were telling Marks & Spencer that the Sparks loyalty scheme was complicated and lacked relevance to them. By hearing what they had to say, the business was able to change and offer what their customers really wanted which in turn boosted customer satisfaction, consideration and recommendation scores. 

Lesson 3 - Keep it real, at every touchpoint

Two-thirds of the customers we surveyed told us that they didn’t think the experiences they have with brands stand out - even the positive experiences. With experience being a competitive advantage, can businesses really afford to be a part of a homogeneous experience when they have the opportunity to stand out?

There are very few brands that tell their story consistently at each touchpoint. Think about your experience of staying in a hotel. It’s predictable - you check in, your room is nice but not exceptional, the service is acceptable and the place is clean. You check out and forget you were ever there because very few unexpected (positive) things happen. This happens when customer engagement becomes a category experience instead of an authentic brand experience.

The solution comes from core brand identity. It’s nigh impossible to deliver a signature experience if your principles are not set in stone. Incongruent behaviour from a brand makes customers question their understanding of and relationship with that brand, opening the door for them to move on elsewhere.

Lesson 4 - Every single person in the business needs to live and breathe the authentic brand

To deliver lesson 3 the brand cannot be the preserve of the marketing or advertising team. It’s everyone’s responsibility. Every decision and action ultimately leads to an impact with the customer and so each decision must reflect the core brand belief.

In my experience, siloed teams deliver incremental growth at best. Priorities need to be aligned across all teams because connected teams deliver authentic customer experiences that result in exponential growth. If it proves difficult to bring everyone together in one go, work one step at a time by joining two silos and then three in order to reach a cohesive and holistic organisation.

Customer service is a prime example. It shouldn’t just be the department that customers call when something goes wrong. Proactive customer service can be one of the most profitable drivers of growth when integrated with the brand promise. 

Lesson 5 - Use data to both inform and drive authentic experiences

Related to Lesson 4, insight teams often sit separate from the main parts of a business. Insight ends up buried and not shared when it should be accessible and benefitting all parts of a company.

Data should be pooled to create a rounded picture of customers in order to make insightful plans and react to their needs. When you invest in data you will understand customer pain points and see where you’re not being authentic. At Digitas we use the EmotionXD tool which provides focus and guides our clients to really successful customer relationships. Already HSBC and Marriott have benefitted from using this tool and their data to deliver more authentic experiences. 

These are the five lessons I have learned through our surveys and experience at Digitas. Being authentic shouldn’t feel like a hard corner to turn. With the right data, connected teams, cohesion throughout a business and an awareness of how this can be communicated at every touchpoint, it’s more than reasonable to expect a brand can stand out in the digital crowd and earn that trust and loyalty that keeps customers coming back time and again.


Marius Bartsch, head of customer engagement at Digitas UK


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