Get All Access for $5/mo

Authenticity -- What It Is, What It Isn't and How to Get It. There are a few ways to get it right and a million ways to get it wrong.

By Ryan Vanni Edited by Dan Bova

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Thomas Barwick | Getty Images

At any moment in time, there is a word (or two) that becomes so ubiquitous in the marketing world that it almost (or totally) loses its meaning. Not just a word, but an idea that is so pervasive, it has a way of shaping almost every conversation and definitely each brainstorm. Today, yesterday and probably tomorrow's number one cultural, trend-setting concept has to be the notorious "millennial." But just as soon as we get that off our tongue, right behind it comes "authenticity."

Why does authenticity even matter?

A series of related and unrelated cultural milestones have brought us to a place where authenticity isn't just desired, its expected. What isn't as easy to tackle is how a brand -- a company marketing a product or service they want to sell -- can be authentic. Some companies knock it out of the park, while others totally misuse or even abuse the concept.

Related: Why Vulnerability, Authenticity and Love Are 3 Must-Haves For Entrepreneurs

Before understanding how to incorporate authenticity as an actual tenant of your brand, or even just your campaign, its important to understand why this is a thing in the first place. Here are a few of those cultural milestones:

  • Brands once controlled 100 percent of the message.
  • The internet happened. And information democratized.
  • People got their own channels free of interruption -- email, chat rooms, texting, Facebook, Instagram, etc. That is, until the marketers moved in to those places too.

Meanwhile ...

  • 9/11 happened.
  • The country went to war for an unknowable period of time.
  • And the economy crashed -- because of corporate and consumer greed.

As a result of some varying degree of these and presumably many other shifts in culture, transparency became something of value. Someone, something, somebody who just kept it real -- authenticity. This now leaves companies and marketers an opportunity to lay it on the line; to let people behind the curtain. It also provides them with an opportunity to get it wrong, manipulate the very idea and miss the whole point.

What authenticity isn't.

Authenticity is not looking at your target and reflecting back some aspect of themselves, unless of course, this is also an ownable aspect of your own. Authenticity is not being at SXSW because that's where millennials are, unless music, film, creative culture or BBQ and Pabst serve a legitimate part of your culture, history, product, service or otherwise. And finally, authenticity is not parroting back elements of a conversation, unless you were just in the middle of the conversation yourself.

The simple way of saying what authenticity isn't is -- it's not being or saying anything other than what you already were, or have been -- the whole time.

Related: Why Millennial Women Crave Authenticity

Five places to find authenticity within your brand.

We all know what it means to be authentic. The question is, how can a brand, company or entity defined by a tax status be authentic? The truth is it's much easier than it seems. Knowing that authenticity is simply being what you already are helps narrow the places you can look to find it. Here are a few places to check first, before you look anywhere else:

1. Origin story -- Why was the company started to begin with? Who started it? What was their story? What values/purpose/reason for being gave them the determination that got the company to where it is today?

2. Product story -- Why was it created? What problem is it trying to solve? What hurdles were encountered bringing it to market?

3. Makers story -- Who is behind the product? What drives them? What hurdles do they encounter? What is their process?

4. Values -- What are the driving reasons for being behind the organization, and how can they be shared with people who share those same values?

5. Shared points of interest -- This can be a tricky one and easy to stretch, spin or fib. For example, if you are an athletic shoe company that provides product to elite athletes, it is fair to say you share a love for sports, and even the athletes themselves. So sports, got it. However, if you are a chip company that wants to leverage hip-hop culture to connect with millennials -- but you have zero ties to hip-hop itself -- that may be relevant, but it is not authentic. You have simply co-opted cool as a slide of hand trick. The places to look are usually something adjacent to the product, shared passions of the founders or the company's legacy (think climbing and CLIF Bar), or something alive and well in the corporate culture of the company.

Related: What Are the Most Authentic Brands in the World?

It's where loyalty is born.

The gold at the end of the rainbow, or the fruit of all of this effort, is real and hard-earned loyalty. It's not just millennials who feel and want truth. It just took an emerging generation of young adults -- and the internet -- to open our eyes.

Ryan Vanni

Founder and CEO, BKWLD

Ryan Vanni is founder and CEO of BKWLD, a digital agency based in Sacramento he formed in 2001 at the age of 21 to offer strategy, design and execution across all digital channels to a wide range of consumer brands. Vanni oversees the direction of the agency and spearheads business development while working directly and intimately with agency clients to ensure alignment between brand and digital strategy.

Want to be an Entrepreneur Leadership Network contributor? Apply now to join.

Editor's Pick

Business Solutions

Increase Productivity with This Microsoft 365 Subscription, Now $25 Off

It can make the entrepreneur life a lot easier.

Business News

Apple Pay Later Is Ending. Here's What's Taking Its Place.

The program was available for less than a year.


This Artist Answered a Businessman's 'Powerful' Question — Then His Work Became 'the Poster Child for Juneteenth': 'Your Network Really Becomes Your Net Worth'

Reginald Adams was the executive director of a Houston-based art museum for more than a decade before he decided to launch his own public art and design firm.


Harvard Business School Professor Says 65% of Startups Fail for One Reason. Here's How to Avoid It.

Team alignment isn't nice to have -- it's critical for running a successful business.

Business News

Here's What Companies Are Open and Closed on Juneteenth 2024

Since it became a holiday in 2021, Juneteenth has been recognized by some major corporations as a paid day off.

Growing a Business

I Hit $100 Million in Annual Revenue by Being More Transparent — Here Are the 3 Strategies That Helped Me Succeed

Three road-tested ways to be more transparent and build relationships that can transform your business — without leaving you feeling nightmarishly over-exposed.