Authenticity has become an overused buzzword. No one uses “authenticity” authentically any more. And this weekend, there was a lively debate in the media about its true meaning – and more importantly – about its benefits and potential dangers related to success.
On Sunday, The New York Times published Adam Grant’s editorial, Unless You’re Oprah, ‘Be Yourself” Is Terrible Advice. In it, Grant calls out Brené Brown – America’s #1 vulnerability guru – and her definition of authenticity: “The choice to let our true selves be seen.” Then he rails against Brown’s central tenet, without mincing words when he says, “If I can be authentic for a minute: nobody wants to see your true self.”
Ultimately, Grant’s position is that we’re less successful when we’re more authentic. And he ties authenticity to self-monitoring, or the need to say whatever’s on your mind in any moment.
Brené Brown struck back on LinkedIn with her response. In it, she rails against Grant’s article and the fact that he narrowly – and incorrectly – quotes her definition of authenticity. She says that Grant missed the point, because he altogether misunderstands authenticity, which is, “the courage to be imperfect, vulnerable and set boundaries.” And she further rails against institutions and social constructs that require us to be less than authentic in order to thrive and survive.
I found both articles fascinating. And even more fascinating were the comments. Executives, psychiatrists, philosophers, coaches and so many more wrote thoughtful and though-provoking comments about whether or not it is, as Grant proposes, bad advice to “be yourself.”
Do we stand with more to lose than gain by showing our true selves and our vulnerabilities?
And while an enthralling conversation ensues online (comments are still going strong on both articles), I’d like to turn the discourse slightly here, to talk about the reigning subject of Strategic Juju: branding. In my online course, Unforgettable U and in much of my writing, I talk about the benefits of building authentic brands.
There are lots of elements of a brand that lend themselves to authenticity (or not), but the main ones are:
-Brand values (including the brand’s core reason for existence, or the “why”),
-Brand story (or the owner’s backstory), and
-The brand’s personality (or how it walks and talks in the world).
In my branding program, I encourage business owners to fully – and authentically – develop all of these elements to create a brand that completely engages a target audience: a brand that truly connects.
But just a couple of weeks ago, Katie, a commercial designer who’s developing a brand through Unforgettable U, asked a question that relates to Adam Grant’s position. A question about why brands are NOT authentic. Specifically, she said:
After reading the “About” pages of brands I love, the consumer-driven brands had values that aligned with mine. Then I looked at brands I love that sell to other businesses – which was very different.
Take Pixar, for example. For the consumer, their touch points include their animated films and the iconic Pixar intro (the bouncing lamp). Their brand is playful, fun, creative, and adorable. But when I visited their website (which I’m assuming targets business/professionals), it wasn’t playful or creative. It was static, technical, and not engaging.
Which ultimately led Katie to ask (my words here, not hers), “If I’m selling to other businesses, is it better to shutter my values? Would I be safer, and more successful if I just played it straight?” And this question isn’t just about consumer vs. b2b communications.
The real question becomes: is it advantageous to have authentic brands in some industries (or in some business situations), but not others? Do we limit the success of our brands if we show our true selves?
And my answer is: It depends on how you define success.
Setting aside Brené Brown and Adam Grant for a moment (this is a conversation about branding, here), the reason for developing authentic brands (that openly and outwardly show a company’s true self) is connection.
When we connect, two things happen: 1) We sell products and generate revenue, and 2) we – the humans running the businesses – experience joy. The combination is a stellar one.
Money and joy?! No way!!
And if that’s the one-two punch you’re after in your business life, then an authentic brand is for you.
But here’s the thing about connection: it’s two-sided. We connect with people who feel the same way we do, or who are inspired by our cause or purpose. And the more emotional, deep, or raw our public values are, the greater risk we run of repelling people who don’t share those same values.
When I was a kid, there was a saying: “Never talk religion or politics at the dinner table.” And I would say the same was true for business. These topics are polarizing, and businesses didn’t touch them if they wanted to be safe. Today, lots of businesses make both topics key tenets of their public relations and donations policies.
The truth is this: if you run around with your business heart on your sleeve, there’s a chance you might lose some customers who don’t like what you stand for. (For the record, your values don’t have to be political or religious… I’m just laying out the biggies so we can take a look at them.)
So, with connection in mind, I would suggest that you ask the following questions as you develop your authentic brand:
–How important is it to me, and to my sense of personal joy, to be able to show myself completely and authentically within my business environment? The answer will guide you in terms of what markets you serve, what types of employees you hire, and what types of business practices and policies you develop.
–Do I have values that are polarizing in today’s social climate, which I cannot live happily without expressing in my daily business life? Work to understand the financial implications of expressing those values – and set clear boundaries for the conversations in which your business will participate.
–Does the industry I play in have a certain “protocol” for brand personality? And if I my brand personality refuses to follow that protocol, will I lose business? Do a competitive scan. Do you stand out or fit in based on the way your brand behaves? And what are the implications for your business?
I have strong feelings about authenticity in business. I walked away from a successful executive career in the financial industry because I didn’t fit in. I was tired of being the loose cannon. I could no longer shove myself into a box that was the wrong size. My beef was never that the industry was inauthentic. Just that it wasn’t “my” industry.
When I left, I went half way. I created a consulting firm that served the financial industry. It was a step in the right direction for me. What I needed at the time. But since then, I’ve gone the full distance. Today – I try not to even go to the bank. I’m not “that girl” any more. And I feel free and easy.
Money and joy? No way!
As you develop your authentic brand, you may be faced with the same types of decisions.
Do you want to stay and play, even if it’s not a game you love, because the money is good? And if you do, how long can you lead a company and a brand by being someone you’re not, or never showing who you are? Can you (or should you) hire someone else to lead and create your company culture? Or should you just find another playground?
Share with me in the comments below.
How do you feel about developing an authentic brand? Does it limit your success? Or enhance it?