• Transform magazine
  • May 18, 2022

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Get out of your own way

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Brands can’t learn to be more authentic, but they can unlearn inauthentic habits. Colin Kennedy, CEO of London-based creative studio Redwood BBDO explains why being fast and unfiltered holds the key to getting real.

To rip a riff from Hamilton “Can I be real a second… tell the people how I feel a second?” This is supposed to be an article on authenticity, but the truth is articles on how to be authentic are snake oil. Authentic isn’t something you can do. It’s something you are.

Ben and Jerry are authentic activists. That’s why they can stand full square behind PR statements like “We must dismantle white supremacy.” It’s also why they recently stopped selling ice cream in the occupied Palestinian territories.

These are not marketing moves Calippo can pull.

Rhianna, meanwhile, built Fenty beauty into a billion-dollar brand by crushing every possible gap between product, ambassador and audience. Fenty is Rhianna just as Rhianna is also the target customer – the under-served women of colour pen portrait from the strat deck, albeit with a side hustle as a superstar.

Every brand could afford to get closer to the end consumer, but it’s a category error to think Rhianna then does authentic advertising. She is advertising. After all, not every CEO has 105 million followers on Instagram. In fact, most of everything you need to know about being a more authentic brand boils down to this: you are not Rhianna.

In other words, get real.

But while you can’t really learn to be yourself, you can at least learn to get out of your own way. Authenticity is fragile –the fewer hands that touch an authentic idea the more likely it is to remain true. Influencers don’t make brands authentic, brands make influencers inauthentic. The most effective thing brands can do when working with influencers is drag their talking points to the trash.

The faster your brand can move, the more unfiltered your comms are, the more your authenticity can shine through. The common thread between the Vermont dairy kings and the Bajan beauty queen is that they are both lightning fast and totally unfiltered. The agency and client machinery that typically throttles authenticity is swept radically away.

How did The Washington Post amass one million followers on TikTok while a peer newspaper like The Guardian can’t crack 6K? Because @washingtonpost is a guy named Dave. And during lockdown Dave made two TikToks a day to stop himself from climbing the walls – and in so doing helped keep much of a news-junky-nation sane.

Dave’s homemade TikTok’s are, by definition, fast and unfiltered: no editorial oversight, no budget, no A/B testing and no time delay. Dave doesn’t try to be authentic and much more importantly his bosses don’t try to help him be authentic.

The best social campaigns of Tokyo 2020(1) streamed live and direct from the Olympic village – as athletes pulled back the curtain of life under quarantine. Sponsors like Samsung and Ralph Lauren had no choice but to “tag along” with this BTS content as it was injected straight into social feeds, fast and unfiltered. Turns out a fussy client and a pricey director don’t always make the work better, who knew?

To be fair – throwing talent into the mix of a brand campaign will often complicate matters but there are techniques emerging to help tell real people stories in ways that feel unfiltered but are still true to the brand. At Redwood BBDO, we borrow best practice from both premium documentaries and reality telly to create structured reality treatments that throw up real spontaneity while staying the right side of legal and compliance. We also co-create with talent at the development stage and ask clients to sign off “scriptments”. And we let branded entertainment breathe over a three-act structure that often features genuine dramatic jeopardy and runs as long as necessary.

But the truth is, production principles are secondary – unless your brand and agency mix, and can make the cultural shift to a fast and unfiltered mindset, these TV-tricks won’t help you. The machinery will get in the way. Authenticity will be lost. If you want to get real you need to get real about getting real first. You are unlikely to be as politically engaged as Ben & Jerry. You are not Rhianna. But you do already have everything you need to be every bit as authentic as they are. Just move a little faster, be a little more unfiltered, and find ways to get out of your own way.