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Why can’t I use the word “authentic” in my brand strategy?

Lindsay Says

An overused word is a useless word.

When used precisely and deliberately, the words you choose for your brand strategy multiply its power. Conversely, when you choose heavily used words like “authentic” – or “honest” or “trusted” – you undermine your brand’s success. Worst-case scenario: imprecise words make even doing a brand strategy pointless, and that’s a huge waste of time, effort and money.

Let’s take a look at how words become overused, and how to avoid leaning on them in your brand strategy.

Why does everyone want to be “authentic”?

A few years ago, I observed that in every single brand strategy I was crafting, the business owner wanted to describe the business’s personality as “authentic.” At first, I found it curious but I went along with it, because I liked the word “authentic” too. It made sense that in our increasingly technology-driven world that there would be a hunger for authenticity. But after the third or fourth time that someone wanted “authentic” in their brand strategy, it began to smack of cliché.

This word “authentic” started out with a precise meaning, but is now almost comically overused. As a buzzword, it has become a capsule for all things good and not fake; it is no longer defined by what it is, but by what it is not. It’s a placeholder, a platitude; people don’t take the time or energy to deconstruct what they truly want when they choose this word.

The Circular Logic of “Authenticity”

A deeper look shows that it’s not just buzzword status that plagues this word; it’s the definition itself. Derived from the Greek for “self” and “to do or be,” “authentic” means “to be one’s self,” and today we use the word when we want to describe being genuine, acting on one’s own authority, or possessing an immutable truth.

If you’re using the word “authentic” in your brand strategy, you are hiding behind circular logic: you’re essentially saying that you are yourself. This is not useful if you are working toward clearly defining your brand, as it gives no information to your potential customers. A brand strategy must answer questions like:

  • Who are you – exactly?
  • What are you like – precisely?
  • How are you different from your competitors – specifically?

What do you really mean by “authentic”?

When I’m working with businesses on their brand strategies and the word “authentic” comes up, I insist we dig deeper. I always ask them to elaborate more on what they specifically mean, and we pursue this line of thinking until we arrive at the brand’s core.

For example, upon deeper consideration of a particular brand, we could discover that “authentic” actually means “informal.” If the brand were to be represented by a person, that person could be described as someone who is casual, speaks with contractions, wears jeans to work, and may sometimes swear in meetings. This definition is precise, and therefore truly useful. We can use this description to gain a much better understanding of a brand and its customers.

Watch Out for Vague Replacements

Sometimes the word that replaces “authentic” might mean something equally useless. Take “honest” as an example – honesty is foundational for any good brand, so we need to ask more questions. What do we mean by “honest”? Do you actually mean that your brand is blunt? Are you direct and frank? “Honest” is a universal good, and therefore is not enough of a choice.

The same line of questioning holds for “trusted.” Would anyone ever describe their brand as “untrustworthy”? No – every brand wants to be trusted, therefore this word is pointless as a brand signifier.

The uncomfortable truth is that a brand that tries to be all things to all people is loved by no one. It can be tempting to try to be widely liked, but being precise about your business’s essential truth is unquestionably foundational to your brand strategy.

If unclear or overused words are slipping into your brand description, take a step back and get more granular! The words you use to describe your brand should not be words that all brands embody.

How to Find Your Precise Meaning

Here are some examples of more specific words that might be what you’re trying to get at when you are relying on an overused word. In fact, buzzwords or not, I recommend going through this exercise for every word you choose to describe your brand. It’s worth the effort to drill down to the most accurate description you can possibly narrow in on:

    Informal, earnest, forthright, salt of the earth, bold, soulful, unadorned, handmade

    Frank, direct, blunt, hard-working, plainspoken, straightforward, moral

    Dependable, reliable, friendly, quiet, safe, homegrown

How to Define Your Brand Character

Another way to use words to precisely describe your brand is through the extremely useful filter of brand character.

Your brand character is your business’s true personality. This character is what makes it easier for your customer to connect with your business: we humans are evolved to bond with people, not inhuman entities. By articulating and expressing your brand character, you give heart and soul to your offering, thereby making it more meaningful, attractive and memorable to your customer. A distinctive and consistent brand character can be the difference between a brand that is liked or not liked, trusted or not trusted, celebrated or ignored.

When defining your brand’s character, it is useful to envision your business as a person, and then to decide which characteristics describe that person. For example, if Nike were a person, they might describe themselves as brave, strong and ambitious. If Etsy were a person, they might describe themselves as open, imaginative and resourceful.

So here’s another exercise to help you clearly delineate your brand:

  • If your business were a person, what kind of a person would it be?
  • What is this person like?
  • What is their nature, their character, their traits?
  • How do they talk, walk, dress?
  • What are their goals, their desires, their modus operandi?

The Pen is Mighty

The power of words is something that far too many businesses overlook. The purpose of choosing precise language to define your brand is to aggressively zero in on what lies at the core of your business, so you can meet your target audience in the marketplace accurately and appropriately, ultimately making it easy for them to purchase your offering.

The words and phrases you select will articulate your brand’s character not just to potential customers, but across your entire organization and to external partners as well.

So choose your words with great care, and resist hiding behind overused buzzwords. After all, a brand strategy is about shining a spotlight on your unique business, what you can offer customers, and how you do it in a way that no other business can.

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