It’s rare to come across a brand that hasn’t incorporated the notion of authenticity into a creative brief or brand vision statement in recent years, but a new study from FleishmanHillard suggests there is a widening gap between how brands portray themselves and how they are perceived.
The global PR network describes it as “the authenticity gap,” and says the impact for brands can be dire—from increased vulnerability during a crisis, to hurting the leadership team’s credibility and even causing stock prices to tumble.
The potential also exists for direct consequences on sales. “The reality is when companies fail to bridge the gap between brand and reputation, they are creating a vacuum—and consumers are going elsewhere to fill it,” the study says.
The findings are based on a survey of 7,364 “engaged consumers” between 18 and 65 in Canada and five other countries: Brazil, China, Germany, the U.K. and the U.S. (See below).
But brands that fail to “walk the talk” in terms of how they present themselves are increasingly finding their efforts undermined—as consumers are increasingly calling out actions or behaviour that don’t align with the image they’re attempting to portray.
“When what you say matches what consumers say about you, you can create authentic engagement with audiences, build a competitive advantage, and insulate yourself from potential issues down the road,” wrote Kent Carter, senior account director with FleishmanHillard HighRoad, on the company’s blog. More than half of the survey respondents said their perceptions of companies are now “shaped by how management behaves and how the company is having an impact on society.”
“A very dangerous place for some of these bigger organizations is [the fact] consumers are more critical than they’ve ever been and want to know that the companies they’re buying from are speaking the truth, and what they’re saying and how they’re behaving are aligned,” said FleishmannHillard HighRoad president Angela Carmichael. “We all know that people want to buy from companies that they trust, and the risk for companies is paying lip service.”
Social media has empowered consumers to call out brands whose actions don’t fit with the image they portray, says Carmichael. “Companies are dealing with issues today that they would never have had to deal with in the past, because there was no way for a consumer to broadcast their own distaste,” she says. “It’s created a whole new world of problems they have to deal with,” she said.
The High Road study found that banking customers have the highest expectations of brands across the 20 industries measured in the study, which is no surprise since consumers tend to have strong feelings about their personal finances.
While the FleishmanHillard study found that banks tended to meet or even surpass consumer expectations on metrics such as “taking care of the environment” (+5.6%), “innovation” (+3.7%) and “employee care” (+2.9%), there were significant gaps around “customer care” (-17.2%) and “better value” (-9.9%).
“A lot of [banks] are swimming in a sea of sameness, and it’s really hard to differentiate between them,” says Carmichael. “Consumers are hearing the same message over and over, but it’s not the experience they have.
The study also found that Canadians and Americans tend to be more concerned about the importance of data security than respondents in other countries, which Carmichael attributed to recent headlines about high-profile breaches. “As consumers we give away our information pretty easily to companies because we absolutely have to have that product.”
Different Canadian business sectors also performed well around FleishmanHillard’s nine key drivers of authenticity. Airlines led all business sectors around employee care and community impact (3.6% and 3.3% respectively), for example, while online and media services scored well around products and services that offer better value (7.7%) and investing scored well around innovation (+7.8%).