The two most vital characteristics in brand building are authenticity and integrity—you need to be who you are and you need to stay true to your moral compass. The key to developing an authentic public brand is both consistency and acting in accordance with your core values, which you must actually believe. This is essential for building trust, credibility, and authority in any industry. A clear and consistent message, content, and point of view over time allows your audience to get to know and trust your brand. Think of it like any relationship where your target audience simply wants to know what they can expect from you and that knowing you and your beliefs allows them to make an informed decision on whether they can trust your brand. If your brand is built with integrity and your actions match your words, you will inevitably build credibility and public trust.
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One of the best ways to show your audience who you are is to make sure that your actions match your words. If you say that you are a company who believes in charity, make sure that you are donating and doing pro bono work that is in line with your claim. The internet has changed what information is readily available and publicly accessible so if you make a statement, know that it can easily be fact checked. This is also especially true with social media, which makes it extremely simple for a large, vocal group to dramatically affect the public perception of a brand, incident, or topic without needing any input from the subject itself. This can sometimes be what people refer to as “cancel culture,” but really, it’s just the free market working as it has always worked, and it’s as American as the Boston Tea Party (people using their voice and economic power to stand up for what they believe in—like the boycott of British goods during the American Revolution—is nothing new). Whatever you want to call it, the public holding companies to account will only continue—as social media makes what we say permanent and continues to give people a voice and platform—and consequently, any brand that is not built on integrity will inevitably face its wrath. At the same time, brands that are built on truth, transparency, authenticity, and integrity will withstand any sort of scrutiny because all of their actions will match their statements.
First, you need to figure out exactly who you are as a company. This is an extensive process, but brand building must start from the inside—you need to do some real soul searching here. What really matters to you and your customers? What are your core values? What do you want to put out in the world? Once you nail this down, you can really start investigating whether all of your actions are in line with the identity you’re shaping. This, too, starts from the inside. Does your team share and represent these values? What about your investors? Your leadership? Is your internal company culture consistent with your brand ethos? What about how you conduct business (e.g., if you’re a clothing brand committed to sustainability and fair labor, are your material sourcing and manufacturing processes consistent with those views)?
This is serious, challenging work and it can mean making some very hard decisions, but what’s right is rarely what’s easiest, and when it comes to building the foundation of your brand, you can’t cut corners. This can potentially mean rejecting money from investors that run counter to your core values or turning down clients that don’t align with your brand ethos (e.g., if you want to brand yourself as a green company, you can’t be taking money from fossil fuel companies). Some of these decisions may be extremely difficult, especially for a newer business that is trying to establish themselves and pay their employees. However, arguably, that is when it is the most important to be clear and stay true to your values and beliefs. Those early decisions will set the tone for your brand’s future. And every choice and ethical compromise made along the journey of building your brand identity can come back to haunt you. In the long run, the cost of having an authentic brand, that is never in danger of betraying public trust, is priceless and therefore worth far more than any check that could ever be written.
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You won’t always get things right, mistakes will inevitably be made. This is where being transparent and honest comes into play. If you realize that your brand has some connections, past or present, that are not in line with your values, it is important to be honest and upfront. Trying to hide or bury past mistakes only makes your brand seem dishonest and untrustworthy. Most people believe in second chances, especially when the brand is genuinely repentant and is making a robust effort to do better.
When building your brand, it’s not just about what you say—actions speak much louder than words. So what you’re projecting and what you’re saying has to align with what you’re doing. And when it doesn’t, you will need to address incongruities with concrete and tangible actions that demonstrate a clear change in course. An apology without changing action is meaningless and simply a platitude which will be seen through and called out. Social media has made it extremely easy to hold people and brands accountable in very real ways, so any resolution to a mistake must be met with actions that are in line with your apology.
One tool at your disposal, which far too many brands forgo, is consulting with and hiring not just communications professionals and crisis experts after a crisis, but before one ever actually arises. There is a growing cottage industry of influencers, academics, cultural experts that can help you create a company culture and brand that steers clear of crises in the first place.
Regardless of what your brand identity is, authenticity and integrity must be central in building it. Figure out exactly who you are, define your core values, and always make sure your company’s actions are in alignment with them. If you say you are a company dedicated to fighting racism, do more than tokenize employees of color. Support and empower them through fair compensation and placement in a variety of leadership roles. The same goes for companies building a brand identity on environmentalism or women’s empowerment. Building an authentic brand identity means always ensuring that the way your business operates, your processes, the way you treat your employees and customers, how you work within the communities you rely on, and every other facet of your company, all must be aligned with who you say you are.