Thought Leadership

The struggle for authenticity in brands and ourselves

Why ‘tell me what you stand for’ is becoming one of the hardest questions to answer.

Nicole Adolph, Wunderman Thompson

Strategist

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Growing up, whenever I faced something terrifying, my mum would dish out the very original line; ‘just be yourself’. Years later, I still grapple with whatever that means. 

Why is it so hard to be ourselves?

Self-expression and knowing who you are seem to be a simple act. An act where one simply exerts what’s on the inside, out. If this was an easy concept, we wouldn’t be wrestling with it in both our personal and professional lives (hello briefs).

It’s also a vulnerable act. One that requires tons of kindness to yourself.

Brands are like the people that create and care for them. They are living, breathing things - they have a start and end date, they provide value and more often than not, have a purpose.

Nicole Adolph, Strategist at Wunderman Thompson

Scholars say identity or expression is a negotiation between yourself and the world. Balancing your individual identity with your place in the larger collective.

Brands face a similar challenge – how do they a) find that true purpose and place in the world and b) hold onto that promise and remain relevant in any situation and to multiple consumer needs.

Brands are like the people that create and care for them. They are living, breathing things - they have a start and end date, they provide value and more often than not, have a purpose.

When we build and care for brands, it’s a delicate process passed through many hands. And as we pass it from hand to hand, sometimes it drops, and panic ensues. There’s a pressure for brands (and their custodians) to know what their north star is, how to get there, with minimal errors. It’s the same sentiment we apply to our own journey, the pressure of always knowing.  

As an industry, we’ve tried to commercialise purpose and authenticity. We present our smart strategic model that will eventually spit out an answer, complete with a catchy line and wrapped up in a slick look and feel. If that process doesn’t work, what does?

Let’s turn to the poster child for authentic brands, Dove. A simple enemy, a true brand self and the perfect platform – Real Beauty. A process that did not not happen overnight, in one brief, in a single swift execution. It took time, and wasn’t only met with praise.

It started with a research project, speaking to more than 3,000 women in 10 different countries. The survey’s results provided the upsetting statistic that only 2% of women considered themselves beautiful (Etcoff, Orbach, Scott, & D’Agostino, 2004). As Dove wanted to move beyond the bar of soap and introduce other products such as shampoo and body wash, could they also start a conversation about beauty? And in turn, question their own reason for existence/self.

As an industry, we’ve tried to commercialise purpose and authenticity. We present our smart strategic model that will eventually spit out an answer, complete with a catchy line and wrapped up in a slick look and feel.

Nicole Adolph, Strategist at Wunderman Thompson

It didn’t come without the signature swarm of adland critics. Many questioned whether that realness would extend beyond comms. Others probed the longevity of the message in a society at the time, obsessed with weight watching, photoshopped magazine covers and perfect poses. How could a message about "real beauty" stand the test of time?

The lesson Dove has taught us is that the journey towards your brand purpose will never be linear or seamless. Building a brand, questioning your reason for existing, finding your voice – that process comes with input from the outside.

I think that is one of the starker differences between building yourself and building a brand, the number of voices that contribute to that process. In your personal journey, your voice is the most important one – albeit sometimes muffled). When you build a brand, there are many voices in the room – some shouting. Each have their own idea of what the brand should build to. The challenge is which one you listen to.

Bringing the two journeys side by side, both need the same thing: empathy.

As you enter the Wunderman Thompson London offices, ‘Be Generous’ is written on the wall. Less of a commandment and more of a reminder, a promise we make to ourselves every day we come into work. Behind every piece of work is a hive of minds (and hearts) that worked hard to get to the finished product. Each of us know how hard it is to get work to that point, yet we’re so quick to chuck our opinion at it. Not to say we shouldn’t comment on work, that’s part of our job. It’s the how, the intention.

The thing with knowing who you are or what you stand for is this: the finish line does not exist. The box will never be ticked. It’s a never-ending, winding road, filled with as many mistakes (also known as lessons) as wins.

Our job as humans, communities, and even brands is to craft a space/society that allows for ‘mistakes’ without the fear of being called out or cancelled.

We deserve the opportunity to bring our whole selves to the world.

The thing with knowing who you are or what you stand for is this: the finish line does not exist.

Nicole Adolph, Strategist at Wunderman Thompson

Brands that have done the work to get to their true authentic self, allows them to be a whole brand. Something we use as an anchor at Wunderman Thompson UK, whole brand thinking. Picking up the pieces of a potentially fractured brand and putting them back together.

So, the next time you’re faced with answering the scary question of who you are or, even scarier, a client asking what the brand stands for, you don’t have to have the perfect answer, just one that answers who you are right now.

Guest Author

Nicole Adolph, Wunderman Thompson

Strategist

About

On the Wunderman Thompson team Nicole is developing a more holistic approach to strategy. Building on her brand strategy experience, she works on B2B, data and content strategy with brands like Microsoft, HSBC, Snapchat and Avon.