Apr 6 2022
Noor Naseer

SXSW Reflections: Brands Can’t Afford Inauthenticity


After a two-year hiatus, SXSW finally resumed their 10-day interactive, in-person film and music event this year. While attendance was less than in years past, many of us were back in droves for the festival, brand activations, and conference sessions. The Advertising and Branding Experience track hit on a few key themes repeatedly, including AI, the metaverse, and (of course) NFTs.

But the marketing trend that most struck me as I attended sessions throughout the week was the importance of brand authenticity. According to panelists and speakers representing US and global brands across industries, authenticity is a brand attribute that companies must be more intentional about. When brands are inauthentic in their branding initiatives or messaging, it takes no time for consumers to call out the inconsistencies. Soon after, companies suffer the social and financial consequences.

What is Authentic Representation?

A session titled “Avoiding the Pitfalls of Brand Wokeness” covered the rising trend of brands attaching themselves to inclusivity- and diversity-oriented causes. The problem: if those external messages depicting cultural awareness don’t match with the values a brand actively espouses, the messaging can register as performative and yield negative consequences. A critical step for brands before announcing cause-focused messaging is to ensure that their internal actions align with their external proclamations.

Speaker Sydney Carlton impressed the importance of brands prioritizing inclusion and representation, sharing an Adobe study that found that 61% of those surveyed think diversity in advertising is important and 34% have boycotted a brand that didn’t represent their identity in ads.

Carlton also cited a program from Deloitte called the Heat Test, which attempted to measure the quality of representation among ads and found that the companies that scored highest experienced an average stock gain of 44%. This discovery highlights the insight that authentic representation is more valuable than the sheer presence of an underrepresented person in an ad, or similar efforts that fall into the tokenism trap.

The session emphasized that these trends are only expected to compound as Gen Z rises as the most racially and ethnically diverse generation in history.

The Anatomy of Authenticity

A second session dove deep into how brands have seen success through authentic representations of their identities. Like other session themes on this topic, the conversation leaned into the current state of consumers wanting to buy from brands that reflect their own values. A panel made up of DoorDash CMO Kofi Amoo-Gottfried, NASCAR and 23XI’s Bubba Wallace, and NBA CMO Kate Jhaveri explored the creation of marketing campaigns that reflect relevant shared values, as well as how brands can consistently stand for what they believe in while also reacting to noteworthy cultural moments.

Both Amoo-Gottfried and Jhaveri emphasized having crystal-clear visions of their corporate values and detailed how those values visibly permeate their businesses every day. Each CMO broke down how their values correlate with communities and causes they seek to serve, with or without external messaging. Jhaveri noted a pledge by the NBA to commit $3 million to Black and Brown communities, while Amoo-Gottfried called out DoorDash’s partnership with Bubba Wallace following his racial justice activism surrounding George Floyd’s death in 2020. By making sizable partnership and monetary commitments to those causes, both brands exemplify what it means to authentically uphold brand values.

Authentic Brands Stand Out

When brands take the time to identify their values and set up systems to uphold them, that work comes through in their messaging. These days, we're all overwhelmed with media that peddles generic diversity- and equity- themed messages, attempting to capitalize on the increased public attention on those issues. Consumers notice when brands try to ride these trend waves with minimal thoughtfulness.

A session entitled “Cut the Branding Bull” took on the challenge of showing brands how to build advertising campaigns that stand apart from the competition. With internet users endlessly scrolling, marketers are serving brand messages to compete for the attention of an overstimulated, always-on population. The session panel suggested starting with a concept that’s accessible, then turning that idea on its head via exploration and curiosity. In the process, a familiar concept becomes non-linear, memorable, and authentic. They also highlighted the importance of being open to unusual concepts in an age where people are quick to dismiss anything that isn’t eye-catching.

Most striking from the theme of brand authenticity was the intentionality and long-term commitment that characterize authentic brands. Successful brands that are embraced for memorable marketing campaigns have already put forth significant time and resources to live and breathe the values they deem as core to their businesses.

Even now, many companies find themselves looking for a fast fix to capitalize on a cultural moment or seasonal happenings, without deep reflection. That kind of disingenuous messaging doesn’t go unnoticed—and brands suffer the consequences.

Ultimately, brands must attune their messaging to consumers' increasingly adept “authenticity meters.” When those messages ring true, brands will reap the benefits of memorability and loyalty from the audiences they seek to connect with.