Authenticity: Why this hype is dangerous in Marketing

The #ConsultantForConsultants

Authenticity: Why this hype is dangerous in Marketing

November 19, 2020

Susanne Mathony - Authentische CEO-Postionierung

The current authenticity hype sounds like THE recipe for success for external communications. Especially for strategy consultants or auditors, for whom differentiation in corporate and personal branding is crucial.

BUT the whole authenticity mantra has its limitations – especially when it comes to the distinction between personal and private narratives.

Find out in my #BeraterBeraterin (#ConsultantForConsultants) column on what this has to do with the viral LinkedIn post of a Cisco employee.

Fake it till you make it” might work in some life situations. As a formula for success in Marketing certainly not.

I do know this since I was sitting sweating blood and water behind a dozy CEO in an opera house on a gala evening. Why did that bother me so much?

Together with international marketing colleagues, I had convinced the German head of a large, international consulting firm to do the Gold sponsorship of a famous music festival.

Our hypothesis:

The repertoire from classical music to jazz is so broad that every head of industry in the consulting firm could find the right music at one of the sponsored concerts for his clients.

I still believe in this idea:

Well-chosen sponsorships contribute to increasing brand awareness and customer loyalty in Professional Services.
All the more so if it is not the 100th golf tournament sponsorship with no potential for differentiation.

What was not sufficiently considered was the question:

Is the sponsorship a perfect fit for the individual brand ambassador?

Despite a double media training, the CEO’s answers – without any passion for music – sounded at the press conference as if they had been learned by heart. What they ultimately were.
Falling asleep on a Friday evening after a 70-hour week plus a jetlag from the partner meeting in New York was very human. But for the C-Level clients sitting to his right and left, it was unfortunately a bit sobering.

Since then, the intensive reality check – “Does the Marketing concept match the company and the individually responsible board member?” – is my top priority as of the first brainstorming.

Facebook posts on LinkedIn: The pandemic blurs boundaries

Currently, I stumble upon more and more top managers and CEOs in the social media who are increasingly posting personal information.

I see the CEO of a large publishing house who posts her way to work by bicycle. Her “At least lockdown weather again today!” gets 975 likes.

Or the CEO of a beauty product company who promotes home-grown vegetables from its own allotment garden and receives more than 3,100 likes in return.

Or the German country head of a management consultancy, who collects almost 130 likes for his jogging post, but only 80 likes for his analysis about the role of supervisory boards in the current COVID19 crisis.

This perfectly matches the viral hit of the pandemic

Lauren Griffiths is an HR employee* of Cisco. Until September 2020 she was unknown. But then she changed her profile picture – from a classic business look to a casual one.

In return she received an incredible 889,000 likes. She argues in her LinkedIn post:
Today’s home office world has blurred the boundaries between my professional and personal self, and I want to express this with my new profile picture“.

SPIEGEL, the German weekly magazine, picked up on this viral hit:
Businessfotos in der Coronakrise: Warum 23.000 Menschen über diese Profilbilder diskutieren“. (“Business photos in the Corona crisis: Why 23,000 people discuss these profile pictures“)

Tweet von LAuren Griffhiths
Quelle: LinkedIn

Even if I now make myself completely unpopular: These are topics which belong on Facebook, not on LinkedIn!

Why is personal information launched on a business channel?
Perhaps deliberately, to push the algorithm. Or simply because the definition of authenticity is unknowingly ‘overstretched’.

Authenticity as a megatrend – and its clear limitations

The advice to be as ‘honest‘ as possible, to ‘stand by oneself‘, is omnipresent. Whether in blogs, books or in coachings. Everyone should be as ‘authentic‘ as possible – whether in politics, business or culture. No matter whether as a normal employee or as a top decision-maker – whether professionally or privately.

Metro CEO Olaf Koch is repeatedly quoted with “It is important to remain true to oneself” or Peter Terium (Ex-CEO Innogy) as saying he would aim “to lead without losing authenticity“.

At first glance, this sounds like the recipe for success for accomplished external communications.

Especially for auditors, strategy consultants and lawyers, differentiation is the central challenge – both in corporate and personal branding. And this is becoming more and more difficult, especially with commodities like consulting services.

Of course, personal nuances in addition to specific content are helpful. Hence storytelling is a great strategy – because:

Personal brand stories by people for people create a sense of connectedness. I have given tips in one of my previous columns: „Modernes Storytelling: Was Berater von Cowboys lernen können“ (“Modern storytelling: What consultants can learn from cowboys).

Susanne Mathony - Storytelling

Two important books in this context

It is important to consistently separate the personal and the private and to explore the limits of authenticity.
Especially in my media trainings – but also in CEO positioning/personal branding projects for Professional Services decision-makers on LinkedIn – I like to refer to two books:

  1. Rolf Dobelli „Die Kunst des guten Lebens“ (“The art of good life”)

as well as

2. Stefan WachtelSei nicht authentisch! Warum klug manchmal besser ist als echt
(“Don’t be authentic! Why smart is sometimes better than real”).

In Rolf Dobelli‘s case, I am attracted to his thesis of the ‘authenticity trap‘. Everyone should create a second personality for the outside world, a kind of ‘Foreign Minister‘.
He defines this as a “professional, consistent, reliable attitude to the outside world.” The rest is “reserved for the diary, the significant other or the pillow“.

Stefan Wachtel, one of the best media trainers in Germany, is a must read anyway. In his book he dismantles the ideology of authenticity. According to him, one should be much more than ‘oneself’.
His advice: “Leave your inner being where it is!”

Instead, he is an advocate of professionally elaborated roles qua training. A top manager is not paid to rely on his ‘natural talent’ and say whatever comes to his mind at the annual press conference. […] When we work on our impression, we beat the ‘professional’ good guys.

Five tips for the balancing act between authenticity dogma and reputation crash

  • Be aware of the clear distinction between the personal and the private in every marketing and communication activity. The latter does not belong in the professional external appearance. The former should only be carefully dosed.
    This does not exclude that you share private thoughts with long-time clients – for example on a walk in #socialdistancing times. But these stories remains – to use PR jargon – “under three” and have nothing to do with marketing.
  • If you should decide to integrate personal information into your external communication – for example on LinkedIn – think about content and messages three times before you start.
    So what is ultimately more important:
    Collecting likes or strategically curating a ‘persona’ for the benefit of your consultancy or accountancy firm?
    Please never forget: The web never forgets anything. So you better have your narratives under control at all times.
  • Consider whether the recommended internal ‘Foreign Minister’ could be your filter, your ‘reputation bodyguard‘ in public.
    If you also have a PR pro at your side whom you trust 100% and whom you really meet at eye level: So much the better!
  • Authenticity and individual fit are important, as sketched in the initial example. Therefore, consistently keep your hands off all marketing topics and projects that do not interest you in the least. Anyone who reads a lot of non-fiction and business books in private can convincingly award a business book prize in the name of a Professional Services firm. He/she will not only give a convincing laudation, but can also continue to spin the threads in a conversation with clients thereafter.
    Where this is not the case, but where reading is limited to Börsen-Zeitung and Handelsblatt: You better look for another field.

    last but not least:
  • Keep it like the pros and train, train, train. Those who praise the rhetoric and appearance of the Obamas as super-authentic may be a little bit naive. Both have invested more time in media training with experts than any other US presidential couple before them.
    Please bear Stefan Wachtel in mind and consider the distinction between expression and impression PLUS the distinction between appearing authentic and being authentic. Define for yourself how you want to be perceived. This prevents painful damage to your image.

To cut a long story short…

The hype “Be authentic!” is based on a big misunderstanding. If you want to do something good for yourself and your brand, it is better to smoothly follow the tactics of a professional chameleon. The flawlessness of your own credibility is the more valuable asset than the number of your likes on LinkedIn.

Let us have a chat on the phone about your authentic positioning with attitude! No matter whether in the area of classical PR or #personalbranding on LinkedIn.

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