Authentic branding

Alice van Beukering & Vivian van der Burgt

“Designers should play an important role on the strategic level of a company by implementing design skills and knowledge to extent and support the brand managers, in order to reach an authentic brand experience. The Authentic Branding Canvas serves as a tool for top management to act as a connector in this process.”




History of Consumption

Over the last 25 years the consumption behaviour of consumers has changed tremendously (Kar, 2010). The introduction of the US Consumer Bill of Rights in 1963 gave consumers a higher status, by protecting the rights of the consumer: the right to safety, the right to be informed, the right to choose and the right the be heard, forms the origin of the changes in consumers’ consumption behaviour over the years. From this moment, the needs and desires of the consumer had to be taken into account, through which manufactures couldn’t continue the “simple production” of products.

A few decades ago, the consumption behaviour of consumers was mainly driven by the desire of the consumer to improve their social conditions by owning material goods. However, this behaviour of hyperconsumerism (excessive consumption) leaded to the so-called “paradox of happiness”, which can be described as: “once the basic level is provided, happiness does not increase with income above this limit” (Drakopoulos, 2008).

In reaction to the era of hyperconsumerism, consumers started to search for authentic experiences: more meaning, more connections and more purposes (Euro RSCG Worldwide, 2010b). Subsequently, the new consumer tends to refuse to buy mass-products and prefers products that claim authenticity in a way. The consumption behaviour of the new consumer is fuelled by information, which has greatly expanded due to technology and the Internet, making information cheaper and more accessible than a few decades ago. This enables the new consumer to make more careful judgements about future purchases and thereby providing greater control over consumption. “New customers check labels and study the content of products, compare prices, review brand promises, weighing options, puts pertinent questions and knows his legal rights. All these pave the way for a consumer to become better, more active and more responsible” (Voinea and Filip, 2011). Moreover, the current consumer is characterized by a cynical attitude for classical advertising and branding strategies (which tell him to buy something, but not explain why) and is addicted to the Internet as a tool to gain access to the opinions of others about the products (Onete et al., 2010). “Consumers credit less and less the brand message transmitted through TV commercials, they are more inclined to take into account what others tell them, with which they interact in different environments, especially online” (Voinea and Filip, 2011).



In the beginning of the 20th century the branding strategy of large firms contradicts the economic system of capitalism, which asserts that the consumer has the freedom to choose what he or she wants to purchase. Large marketing firms claimed authority and power over the lifestyle of the consumer through their branding. The consumer cultural of that time allowed companies to acts as cultural authorities. Through the invention of the TV (during the fifties), companies started to push even harder and became more aggressive in their persuasive communication to spike demand. Companies became convinced of using clinical psychology to tap into the deep unconscious of consumers to pull consumers to their brands with archetypal images (Horowitz, 1998).

Eventually, this marketing and branding strategy leaded to a widespread resistance and had hit a cultural dead end. This leaded to the postmodern consumer culture in the 1960s. Increasingly the consumer didn’t tolerate the idea that they had to live as told by a company-generated template. The consumer believes it has to be able to experience consumption as a way of personal development, authenticity of the self, achievement and self-creation, rather than obeying market dictates (Dickstein [1977] 1997).

Companies have to adapt their branding style to the needs of this new consumer and have to serve as a valuable ingredient in producing and developing the self (= the consumer). In order to become a valuable ingredient for the consumer as contributing to their personal development the products as well as the brand of the company delivers must be perceived as authentic. In order to be authentic Holt (2002) argues that brands must be perceived as invented by parties without an economic agenda, and by people that are intrinsically motivated by their inherent value. Branding efforts are perceived as inauthentic by the new consumers, because it is all about the commercial intent and economic benefits. The consumers today understand how marketers relate stories and images to brands, which actually have no relation to the brands’ real history and consumption. Firms, due to the competition, tend to pursue the old more aggressive and persuasive techniques to convince the consumer of their “authenticity”. The usage of persuasive communication triggers the consumer to raise the bar on what is considered as authentic, as they feel firms in this way create a “fake” kind of authenticity with commercial intent.

In order to be perceived as truly authentic, corporations can’t simply act as authentic but must show their corporate bodies towards the consumer. The consumer should become authorized to look “backstage” to see if what the company does is in line with what the company presents. Subsequently, companies are not longer able to hide their commercial motivations.


The brand experience is built up from three key elements: the ideal experience (= brand promise), the actual experience (= brand implementation/product delivered) and the subjective experience (= consumer’s perception/the actual meaning that arises in use and context).

Schermafbeelding 2013-02-26 om 09.41.29

3.1. The ideal brand experience
The ideal brand experience embodies the brand’s promise and therefore is under control of the organization/company and forms the basis for the consumer’s expectations of the brand. The brand’s promise is created by what the company is able to deliver and what the needs and desires of the consumers are.

3.2. The actual brand experience
The actual brand experience is about the implementation of the brand’s promise into products as an effort to deliver the brand’s promise.

3.3. The subjective brand experience
The subjective brand experience is about the way the customers perceive and experience the brand through their own eyes. The subjective brand experience is the result of the combination between the ideal and actual brand experience through the eyes of the consumer.


4.1. The definition of authentic branding
First, it is important to define the word “authentic” or “authenticity”, in order to have a clear understanding of what we mean with “authentic branding”. “Authenticity” refers to the qualities of genuineness, truth and reality (Grayson and Martinec, 2004; Rose and Wood, 2005). In psychology literature, “authenticity” is defined as “owning one’s personal experiences (e.g. thoughts, emotions, needs, wants, preferences, or beliefs) and acting in accordance with the true self (e.g. expressing true thoughts and beliefs and acting accordingly) (Harter, 2002). Hereby, it is important to note that one is neither completely authentic nor inauthentic, but are best described as existing on a continuum from more to less authentic (Erikson, 1995).

For us, “authentic branding” can be defined as “the consistent, true and genuine equality between the brand’s promise and products delivered by a company, whereby these are in accordance with the internal qualities or competencies of the company. Furthermore, authenticity exists on a continuum, which means a company should continuously strive for authenticity within a changing socio-cultural context and adapting to the changing needs of the consumers.”

4.2. Brand authenticity framework
In order to reach authenticity, the ideal, actual and subjective brand experience should become aligned. This means the brand’s promise, the implantation in the delivered products and the perception of the consumer should become aligned in order to reach authenticity.

“Brand Authenticity Framework” (Robbins, Colligan and Hall, 2009)

Glorified brand experiences shape extremely high expectations about the brand, however these companies are not able to implement the brand’s promise in the products that are delivered. The competitive advantage of these companies is based upon the consumer’s perception rather than the real implantation of the brand’s promise in the delivered products. These companies should focus on improving the implantation of the brand’s promise into their products.

In the end, the perception of the consumers is generally favorable if the brand experience meets or exceeds the consumer’s expectations. If not, the consumer’s perception is less favorable.




We, as a design consultancy hired by the top management, present ourselves to medium sized companies within the industrial product design sector, who search for new strategies and are willing to improve their brand experience.

In our position, designers should play an important role on the strategic level of a company by implementing design skills and knowledge to extent and support the brand managers, in order to reach an authentic brand experience. Brand managers have knowledge about the company on an abstract, strategic level, the core values and the brand strategy. Designers on the other hand, operate on a concrete, realization level and have a detailed view of the production processes of the company. By putting the designer on a strategic level of the company, the development of the brand’s promise and the actual brand experience can become more interrelated, which is key in reaching authenticity. The top management should acts as a connector between designers and brand managers. In order to align the ideal experience and the actual experience, the brand managers should not only be critical towards the designer, but the designer should also become critical towards the brand manager.


This canvas shows the interrelationship between the skills and qualities of the designer and the brand manager. Designers have specific skills and qualities the brand manager doesn’t have, which are pointed out in the canvas. Eventually, an authentic brand experience can’t be reached without the designer or the brand manager, because they have complementary skills that are both crucial in reaching authenticity.

Overall, interrelation between design and brand management will lead to mutual respect and inspiration between these two parties.


Volvo design

In the case of Volvo the brand values are transformed into value based design features, which generate intended meaning of the products. Designers played a big role in translating brand values to design philosophy. Through renewal of design philosophy the design managers were doing something different than Volvo was used to. By paying attention to the brand’s past iconic designs, design managers created points that best expressed the core values. They inspired all the other parties in the company. In this particular case the design managers interacted with the brand managers on a strategic level.

Volvo was losing its consumers. They needed to react on the changing market whereby car brands like Renault and Citroën also designed safer cars with better material use than Volvo. Volvo translated this in a new design with new material use, but kept safety as a core value. However, they needed to stay close to the strong heritage and brand recognition Volvo had achieved and maintained in the past. The design philosophy was guided by core values like safety, Scandinavian design, and a more dynamic image for the brand. The strong shoulders made the sided look more solid and thicker, thereby appearing safer. The clean, simple controls and instruments implied the Scandinavian approach to design. The simplicity inside the car, whereby controls reduced unnecessary information and potential distractions to the driver, are indications of the safety of the car. The outside of the car had a new muscular look, V-shaped bonnet and the flowing roofline created a strong impression of movement. These new design features where promoted to the public to reinforce their recognition. The strategic renewal implied major changes in the design of Volvo. Because of this, they needed to make references to past models and communicate that the new design philosophy was connected to the past designs.

Volvo stayed consistent in communicating their core values through a new design philosophy. Volvo strived for authenticity with staying close to core brand values within a changing socio-cultural context and they adapted to the changing needs of the consumers. If the core brand values are clear and agreed upon by all parties in the company, it becomes easier to employ design for creating visual brand recognition. The strategic role of design can play an important role in innovation processes and NPD, when top managers are able to act as a good connector between designers and brand managers.


In the end, the priority of a company is the economic value authentic branding can bring. Therefore, we point out the short-term advantages and long-term advantages of authenticity. In this way, we translate the values of authenticity into economic values.

Short-term advantage
• Communicate authenticity
Consumers value products made by parties with intrinsic motivation and inherent value about the product. Therefore it is important to communicate your new design philosophy in relation with the core values of the company to communicate your authenticity. In this way the brand will differentiate itself from others and will be more transparent towards consumers.

Long-term advantage
• Brand loyalty
Authenticity is a long-standing factor in consumer choice of consumption (Grayson and Martinec, 2004). Consumers that search for authenticity are extremely high on loyalty to authentic products. The loyalty of the consumer is primary targeted at the products that fulfil authenticity requirements, rather than a particular brand fulfilling the need for authenticity. This implies that brand loyalty relates to the user-experience (meaning of the product).

• Dislike of imitation
Consumers with a high need for authenticity would refuse to buy imitation products, these consumers only purchase the original or licensed products. Moreover, these consumers would refuse lower priced imitations, which have no quality assurance, and insist instead on authentic products.

• Impact failure is less
When brand loyalty is reached, the impact of a product failure will be less, because consumers are more likely to forgive. A failure is part of humanity and thus of authenticity.


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