Why it matters for brands and in customer experiences
The role of authenticity when building trust in our relationships with others
I encounter the word “trust” at least 5 times each day lately. In one case, a client suggested that I read the book, The Speed of Trust, by Stephen Covey. I already read about 50% of it when I got the suggestion. And the book was amazing! But what I realized after reading it was that it’s hard to be trustworthy if you don't know who you are. To be trustworthy, you need to be authentic. And that may sound easy enough, but do you know who you are so you can live authentically? And if you don’t know who you are, you may be living a life that doesn’t reflect your true self, but it may reflect the life of who you wish you were. So you may living an authentic life according to the your self-image, but if your self-image is an authentic lie, then that life will also be an authentic lie about yourself to the world. Subconsciously you always know the truth about yourself. But the catch is that you may not ever consciously realize it, especially if you don’t know you. Although it’s important to be authentic to be trustworthy, if you can’t be 100% authentic because you don’t know who you are, that means that it will be hard to be trusted.
And this applies to trusting yourself, too. It’s hard to trust yourself if you don’t really know who you are and you subconsciously know you are lying about you to yourself all day, every day.
So, this raises the question: what does it mean to know who you are? Authentic living means that you know and live your personal values and allow them to guide your life decisions and actions. If you don’t do that, you’ll be inconsistent in your communications, including decisions and actions, and that disconnect between motivations, words, and actions will communicate to others that you are someone you’re not – or someone who you don’t want to be. So, you may appear to be lying about yourself and not even realize it. People around you may label you as a hypocrite and you may not quite know why, but they may be doing that because they can most likely sense that you have a self-image that you portray to the world while you as a person are someone very different. And if you buy into that self-image you portray to the world, you may not understand why they call you a hypocrite either. And the confusion continues to create this vicious loop.
For my own self-improvement, I got a personality test done to better understand my strengths and weaknesses with the hopes that I could better define my personal brand. Sometimes how we see ourselves is completely inaccurate because our self-image is often based on what a few influential people in our lives tell us about ourselves. And their insights are based on their perception of who we are, which may reflect what they want us to be or who they assume we are. Most people see a small side of you, which is why someone may say, "I knew this person for years! How could they do this action that I don’t understand?" Simple. You never saw that side of them or you didn’t want to see that side of them.
That’s why it’s good to get feedback about yourself from others but not take it to heart; their feedback may not actually represent who you are. Their story may not reflect a true story only their perception of you, but if you trust them, you may think they are right, when they aren’t. So, with this personality assessment, I got a more unbiased, yet true story about my strengths and weaknesses. It was enlightening and I changed how I talked about myself. I started focusing on my strengths, which gave me more confidence, which subsequently led to greater self-trust. Your self-knowledge helps your authenticity grow, because you are validating who you are, and that action alone inspires others be accountable to be themselves too. And the cycle continues.
That is what happens with authenticity at a personal level. So imagine the power of a brand if it is authentic?
Why authenticity matters when you build trust in brand relationships
When a brand is authentic to its vision, mission, and values, it becomes an engine. But what happens when a company isn’t authentic to its vision, mission, and values? Exactly what happens with individuals. The customer experiences won’t reflect the brand and conflict with all brand communications causing some hypocrisy. Often such companies go out of business. Let’s consider an example like Target that has succeeded in the US but failed in Canada. Why? It has to do with Target expressing its authenticity in one country and not the other.
Target is a brand that’s about people. It may be a store that sells objects, but it does it with the intent of improving people’s lives. Every ad shows how someone’s life can be improved with goods from Target – from cleaning solutions to home goods, to clothing, or toys.
And Target communicates this through its brand promise: Expect More. Pay Less. Or rather, expect value for your dollar. They don’t sell luxury items, but they do sell quality merchandise that will last at a reasonable price. And that’s what their customers want – value for their dollar. They offer brand names, low prices, lots of selection, and set an expectation that all items are in stock unless they tell you otherwise. This allows a value hunter to update their personal style and home effortlessly, easily, and affordably. And if you look good and live in great surroundings, often you feel good. And this speaks to the “expect more” message. Expect more not just from Target, but from your life and living.
When it comes to employees, the brand openly supports human rights and justice. In many ways, this speaks to the “expect more” side of their brand promise. Inclusivity should be expected. Same with their compensation. Sure, you may say, what can you really expect? It’s retail. But Target employees received COVID benefits, a holiday bonus, and other benefits.
Happy employees make happy customers. And an authentic brand will foster the existence of both. And this will foster customer and employee loyalty to the brand if the brand is loyal to them. And more on that in a bit.
So why did Target fail in Canada? Let’s consider what it means to be transparent and accountable by delivering on a brand promise – expect more and pay less. For a store like Target, that means that they need a transparent and accountable supply chain, which is an integral part of accountability. That’s the more part. That’s why Target’s successful entry into Canada required a solid supply chain to keep shelves stocked and items priced low. But instead of customers going to the store and seeing fully stocked shelves, customers went to the store and got nothing. So, they stopped expecting anything, saw the brand promise as faulty if not an outright lie, and shopped elsewhere. Target wasn’t delivering on their brand promise agreements in Canada and their prospective customers expected less and less from them. They had no option but to leave Canada within two years. How they entered Canada wasn’t representative of their brand and didn’t represent their standards for accountability or transparency.
In the US, Target seems to have resolved its supply chain issues thorough mail delivery, same day delivery through nearby stores and delivery services, and by building smaller stores in more diverse locations. Although large Walmart megastores are everywhere and Amazon literally delivers anywhere, Target wins in brand trust because of its focus on people and building relationships. You expect more and pay less at Target. It’s not about cheapest or easiest to get. It’s about quality. And this speaks to the experience at the store in all ways.
I’d like to share a personal story about how Target treats customers and how they use customer loyalty to build brand trust. I placed an order for toilet paper and it didn’t arrive when expected. Somehow the order got lost in the warehouse. I was upset because I needed the order, I was running dangerously low on toilet paper, and now I had to get it from Amazon rather than Target because they deliver so fast. So I called and submitted my issue on the site. I think I made more of a mess of things than necessary by contacting all channels, phone and chat at the same time, but I was pretty upset. But Target looks at the long-game with the customer relationship rather than short-term results. They didn’t just rush the delivery, they gave it to me for free. I felt bad that they gave me so much, but in their eyes, they didn’t. To them, they lost the order – I mean, who does that? And yes, I still buy my TP from them via delivery. And yes, they deliver their orders on time. But after that problem, I learned how to trust them more and to know that they have my back. So I keep shopping at Target.
Just for the record….Amazon’s response would have been to resend the order for a charge. Not for free.
Target consistently demonstrates brand authenticity, transparency, accountability, and loyalty to their customers. It’s why they are generally a trusted brand and of course, the press treats them okay. Except for Mondawmin Maryland with just reason. Generally, though, there is consistency in their communications – actions and words. They are authentic. And they have a powerful brand because of that.
Authenticity helps create consistency and builds trust in people and in brands. And if a brand isn’t able to execute on the authenticity of who it is, it will seem hypocritical, and the company won’t do well, if not outright close down due to the damage the hypocrisy and inconsistency causes in expectations, agreements, operations, and most importantly, the trust a customer has of a company. Break that trust deeply enough and a customer will be encouraged to find a new company to help them solve the problems, giving that new company a role in their lives as the trust with them grows.
Trust and brand: Target and the Mondawmin Mall in MD
Another recent example of how Target is not delivering on its brand promises 100% was outlined in a recent article in the New York Times. Target was being called out for exiting the Black community in Mondawmin Maryland. Target claims that it was losing money at the store, including shrinkage problems, after some severe protests in 2018. They decided to close. Sure, business was returning to the store, but not at the pace Target wanted. Whether closing was the right solution is debatable. But the community saw the benefit of the stores being in their neighborhoods and the positive changes it brought, like adding job opportunities, making an otherwise slow mall a destination for all people, and igniting general life to the neighborhood. The idea of expecting more inspired the neighborhood to change for the better. By leaving, Target didn’t just take away the store, it took away that inspiration. This story is making the New York Times because the actions of the Target store conflict with the meaning behind the Target brand “expect more.” The community mentioned in the article, Mondawmin Maryland, should expect more and deserves better. Target helped the community embrace a new direction. Target leaving shows how its brand is being inauthentic in many ways against what it stands for. If Target was serious about encouraging people to expect more, they could have openned a smaller store in the neighborhood or maybe find another way to continue tto support the community. Leaving a community doesn’t need to be the only solution. And it seems that Target’s corporate response doesn’t match what people expected the brand response to be or else it wouldn’t have the New York Times.
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