The Problem With “Authenticity”

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I was reading through a Facebook group full of entrepreneurial women recently, when I saw a business owner post something similar to this:

“People have told me the name of my shop might be off-putting, because its not totally appropriate. But I don’t care. I’m being AUTHENTIC. And I’m not always appropriate and sometimes say off-color things, so in the name of AUTHENTICITY, I’m going to keep my shop’s name.”

This detail matters: The shop’s name contained a sexual innuendo.

So far, I was fine with it. After all, if this cheeky lady wanted to have some sass in her branding, that could be just her expressing her personality.

But when I clicked through to see her shop, I was shocked to see that her products were geared towards CHILDREN. The products themselves were totally age appropriate. The name of the shop though….suddenly not even close.

This business owner suffers from the highly overrated concept of absolute authenticity online. The idea that YOU and your personality, your preferences, your sense of humor and the expression of those are the most important pieces in your brand.

The trouble with elevating the expression of your own “authenticity” above all else is that you’ve now ditched your potential customer and her preferences and needs somewhere along the way.

Imagine you were hosting a dinner party. The people you invited over to eat with you all happen to be vegetarians. But you LOVE meat. You eat it all the time. And since you want to be true to yourself, you decide to serve big ole medium rare steaks to everyone at your party. Your guests would not find you “authentic”. They would find you to be a crappy host.

Telling the truth about who you are and what your experience is? Absolutely important.

Letting yourself and your passions shine through in your work so it sets you apart from the rest? Cool. Do that.

But forgetting about your customer and what she needs from you and wants to see before she hires you? That’s just a recipe for a horrible brand experience.

And a dinner party where you’ll be eating alone.


 

In the comments below: how do your very best prospects want to feel when they encounter your brand? What are you doing in your branding to make that happen?

(Need some help with this? Make sure you’ve grabbed your free “Define Your Marvelous Brand” guide!)


 

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Leave a Comment

  • Laurie February 3, 2016, 12:14 am

    This is so spot on. It’s the think about it before you send / put shoe in mouth issue. Check in, just because you feel a certain way doesn’t always mean you should say it (in business). Great article!

    Reply
    • Suzi February 4, 2016, 12:22 pm

      Thanks, Laurie!

      Reply
  • Parrish Wilson February 3, 2016, 11:54 am

    Great post Suzi! I agree that too many people think “authenticity” means they can do whatever they want. The way I think of it though is that you need to build authentic relationships – which means both you AND your customers need to be considered. Your meat-lover/vegetarian dinner party is a perfect analogy for this.

    Reply
    • Suzi February 4, 2016, 12:23 pm

      I’m so glad you said that Parrish- you’re someone I admire a lot because you bring your heart into your writing and your brand content. But it isn’t at the expense of your market’s experience. Its always in support of them!

      Reply
  • Lacy February 3, 2016, 2:23 pm

    I thought a lot about how I wanted people to experience my brand, and a big one for me is that they feel I’m walking my talk. I want to be fun and clever and engaging — but also SUPER useful and on top of that, useful to my business. I encourage people to sell via their blog, so it is authentic to me to do that as well.

    Reply
    • Suzi February 4, 2016, 12:21 pm

      I love your brand tone, Lacy- I think its clear who you are talking to and how you serve them!

      Reply
  • Lauren February 4, 2016, 7:56 am

    I think I saw that post! I didn’t click though to the site though.
    I’m currently working through this challenge, can I create a brand that people connect with while still bringing my whole self to my work, where do the healthy boundaries lie.

    Reply
    • Suzi February 4, 2016, 12:21 pm

      I don’t mean to single that person out as the only one who does this (that’s why I didn’t include names or links) but just a really recent example of something that happens ALL the time. And congrats on doing this work- it is not easy, for sure!

      Reply
  • Brittany Berger February 4, 2016, 11:26 am

    I definitely notice “authenticity” being used as an excuse for doing whatever you want. When people talk about authenticity in branding, though, it’s as a way to build trust and rapport. So when authentic = asshole, it still doesn’t do that. 😛

    It reminds me of a joke on Happy Endings making fun of the “used” vs. “pre-owned” wording debate. At the end of the day, that car still has 100,000 miles on it, that matters more *to the customer* than what word the salesmen use to describe it.

    It doesn’t matter if you call it “rude” or “being authentic and real,” you’re still shaming a reader publicly (a real example I observed happen last week from an entrepreneur that boasts their authenticity).

    Reply
    • Suzi February 4, 2016, 12:20 pm

      I love that example. And quotes from Happy Endings :)

      Reply
  • Nela Dunato February 4, 2016, 12:05 pm

    The way I see it, as a small business owner you get to choose your ideal client, so you’re free to market exclusively to people who appreciate your attitude.

    The metaphor in this case is, if you make damn good steak, you’ll invite people who love to eat meat. If you suck at veggie meals, let someone else make a veggie friendly dinner party. (This doesn’t mean you can’t hang out with vegetarians, or maybe learn how to make an odd meal, but if it’s not your superpower, that’s OK.)

    In this case, if you want to be free to drop sexual innuendos and an occasional F-bomb, then for heaven’s sake, pick a target demographic that can process that.

    Reply
    • Suzi February 4, 2016, 12:16 pm

      YES! Exactly! The issue is when people have a target client who isn’t exactly like them…and they continue to brand towards people like them anyway. I 100% agree with your last sentence :)

      Reply
  • Sandra February 4, 2016, 12:05 pm

    I’ve got such a love/hate relationship with this word Authenticity! It’s one that has been overused by online entrepreneurs wanting to “connect”. But, its an amazing word with quite a distinct meaning. I was so eager to read your blog post to hear what your take on it was.
    It comes down to how you want to treat people, It’s one thing to share your authentic self and another to let authenticity be an excuse for poor manners.

    Reply
    • Suzi February 4, 2016, 12:18 pm

      Sandra, I’m feeling the same way about authenticity at the moment. Really showing who you are, leading with honesty and integrity…that stuff is valuable (and I wish that were a given). But bad manners and weird branding that doesn’t align with the market- hiding that stuff behind authenticity does nobody any good.

      Reply
  • Brighton February 4, 2016, 12:13 pm

    I agree with Nela below – I picked my target market based on who I am and who I want to work with – and thus who can appreciate my authentic self.

    I love all the mompreneurs out there, but I’m soooo far from a mompreneur I don’t think I could have any integrity if they were my target market.

    Reply
    • Suzi February 4, 2016, 12:19 pm

      Brighton, you’re doing it right then! Its amazing how many people miss that important distinction between how they act/feel/behave and how their market acts/feels/behaves.

      Reply
  • Tabitha February 4, 2016, 12:22 pm

    This is terrific. I see so much of this bad@$$ this and that, never apologize for who you are, etc. stuff and YES, we have to be true to ourselves and YES, we can own our awesomeness…but when it causes people to trust us less, or makes others uncomfortable…well, then it might not be worth it. My main goal is to make others’ lives easier and that means making them as comfortable as possible with me, even if that dictates that I need to be less “me.” I’m OK with that.

    Reply
    • Suzi February 4, 2016, 12:25 pm

      Tabitha, that’s a fantastic example of putting your prospects above your own needs. While there are certainly brands that can be fully comfortable as themselves AND serve their markets (think Ash Ambrige or Alexandra Franzen), its not something that every business is set up to do.

      Reply
  • Nat, Website Superhero February 4, 2016, 2:28 pm

    Oooh THIS NEEDED TO BE SAID. Thanks for writing this. I’m constantly reminding clients: you are NOT the most important part of your brand. You’re a very important one :) but your client basically comes first here.

    We’re not born knowing this, it’s okay that we have to teach it to people. I just wish more people listened 😉

    Reply
    • Suzi February 4, 2016, 6:17 pm

      Amen, Natalia!

      Reply
  • Debra Gould, The Staging Diva February 4, 2016, 6:15 pm

    Suzi, great article that makes your point with strong examples.

    “I’m being authentic” should not be an excuse for being rude or mindlessly offensive – especially in business, where ultimately you need to make a profit.

    There has to be a fit between your brand image, who you are personally, and who you want to serve. Otherwise it’s just a mismatch, no matter how “authentic” you are.

    Sexual innuendo doesn’t belong on a site selling stuff for kids, unless you’re in the kiddy porn business, which is a whole other conversation (and one that I don’t want to have).

    Thanks for writing this!

    Reply
    • Suzi February 4, 2016, 6:18 pm

      Thanks for reading, Debra!

      Reply
  • Nicole February 4, 2016, 6:53 pm

    Oh dear, what a story! But it makes a great example. Excellent reminder, will share this with my peeps!

    Reply
    • Suzi February 4, 2016, 7:55 pm

      Thanks a lot, Nicole!

      Reply
  • Tamara February 4, 2016, 7:08 pm

    Great post, as usual, Suzi! Everyone talks so much about authenticity, but it’s great to see you put that in perspective.

    Reply
  • VK the VA February 4, 2016, 8:20 pm

    Suzi, doll, I adore you + this post!! It’s one thing to be “authentic” + it’s totally another to be f*cking selfish. You started a business because you had a passion, so you are a part of your business, no matter what. That being said, you only have a business if you’re making sales, and the only way you sell is to understand your customer. Listen to their wants, needs, and desires, and (within your zone of genius / speciality) provide a solution to those things. It seems to straightforward, but as we know, common sense in no longer common.

    Reply
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