Cohn & Wolfe’s Geoff Beattie on the value of brand authenticity and the death of spin

Geoff BeattiePR agency Cohn & Wolfe recently conducted a consumer study of 12 countries, including Indonesia, China, Hong Kong and India, on the value of authenticity for brands.

Mumbrella’s Asia editor Robin Hicks caught up with Cohn & Wolfe’s global leader for the agency’s corporate practice, Geoff Beattie, in Hong Kong to ask him what defines authenticity for a brand, why McDonald’s is rated as the world’s most authentic brand, and whether PR agencies should think more about authenticity too, and less about spin.

So what is your definition of an authentic brand?

Good question. We asked 12,000 consumers what they thought brand authenticity means, and the results were revealing. It is, of course, about a brand being honest and transparent, but there were a few responses that stood out that I liked. A brand that is true to its mission and its values. A brand that can admit when it is wrong. And a brand that has a social purpose, and is not just out to make money.

The top response in your survey of what people think how a brand should behave is, “communicates honestly about products and services”. How do you interpret that? And were the results the same for Asia?

Cohn & Wolfe survey

Which of these behaviours are important for companies to display (Click to enlarge)

It was the top response everywhere, including Asia, beating the things you might expect people to value in brands, such as innovation or being fashionable. Authenticity comes out on top of the 20 things we asked.

Why do you think this is?

When you’re buying a brand you’re probably not thinking that the one thing you want is honest communication. But I truly believe that people are crying out for a different type of relationship with a brand. They want a more adult peer to peer relationship with a brand. It’s the same thing with a marriage. If you don’t have honesty, you don’t have anything. People are fed up with companies lying. If a company does that, particularly if you’re in the food industry, you’ll lose customers forever. Authenticity is the foundation of any good brand.

Do you think that brands are living up to that?

No. Most brands do not get the idea. They don’t understand the depth of feeling that goes into a brand, and they don’t place enough value on building authenticity into their brands. Too many companies are making bad mistakes.

Take two recent car product recalls, one for General Motors, the other for Toyota. Toyota recalled their faulty products immediately, and openly, to the extent that the incident was quickly forgotten. But GM sat on their problem until it was leaked. And they’re facing a multi-million dollar law suit.

You can’t hide these days. In the age where every citizen is a reporter, you can’t assume that any information will be kept secret.

I notice that “have a relevant and engaging story” is near the bottom of your survey, and yet every conference I go to these days is about the power of storytelling. Are the people at these conferences wrong?

Here’s the challenge for brands – a story is a fiction most of the time. I come from a journalism background [Before going into PR, Beattie was a producer for GMTV and STV in the UK and was a reporter for the Scottish Daily Record and the Sunday Mail], and I get the sense that companies completely misunderstand what storytelling is really about. Rather than tell me a story, I want a brand to treat me with respect. I want an honest, open relationship.

Why do you think McDonald’s is the world’s most authentic brand? The company seems to forever be on the receiving end of exposé videos that show how its products are made, in a bad light.

Source: Cohn & Wolfe

Source: Cohn & Wolfe

McDonald’s – who by the way are not a client of ours – have made a big effort to be more transparent. On their website they’ve asked consumers to ask them whatever they want about how they’re products are made. They were the first to put the calorific value of their food items on their menus. That takes courage, and it seems to be working for them. People are giving them credit for their honesty.

The results of our survey are partly, I feel, to do with the nature of these brands’ relationships with consumers. If you’re delivering a brand proposition time and time again, you have to be upfront about it. Which is why supermarkets also rate highly. The likes of Wallmart have to deliver time and time again on their brand promise. A lot of people hate these companies, but the vast majority of people have a good experience.

Why do you feel that there are no social networks in your top 20, such as Facebook or Twitter?

It could have something to do with the data privacy issue, which is really starting to bug people. Users are now aware that when they use Facebook data their data is being used elsewhere, and they don’t like it. Have you tried reading Facebook’s privacy policy? It’s a very hard read. It’s as if it is designed to conceal information.

Tim Cook [the CEO of Apple] recently publically said ‘We don’t sell your data. We make great products, pure and simple’. It was a clear attempt to distance Apple from the privacy issue.

Talking of Tim Cook, what impact do you think his revealing his sexuality had on the authenticity of the Apple brand? Do you think his decision to do that was purely personal or was there a business reason for doing so?

Tim CookI don’t think he’d have done it if he thought it would harm the business. When it happened, there was a clip from a CNBC interview when someone inadvertently outed him on camera. Clearly the assumption was that Tim Cook didn’t want anyone to talk about this. But he did what any good brand should do. He took something that was a potentially uncomfortable truth, and aired it. In the process, he has turned his public persona from being someone who was faceless to someone who matches up to his predecessor. Now he has become something of an icon. And he can really build on that.

Why are there so few Asian brands in the ranking, besides Tata and Samsung? Are Asian brands not trusted?

Source: Cohn & Wolfe

Source: Cohn & Wolfe

In the China survey, there are a few domestic brands such as Huawei and Lenovo. But FMCG brands are absent. I think this is probably because there have been so many food scandals that people are genuinely worried about being lied to about where their food is coming from. This sector needs a completely different approach to the conversations it has with consumers. It needs to be far more open and honest.

One example I’d like to put to you on authenticity is Asia Pulp & Paper, a client Cohn & Wolfe has represented for years, and has been accused by Greenpeace and other of cutting down Sumatran rainforest. Now they’ve come out and said they’ll no longer cut down trees unsustainably and want to lead the paper industry as a champion for sustainability. Can that claim reasonably be expected to be seen to be authentic?

I can’t comment on our clients. But generally speaking these principles apply to all sorts of companies. Let me put it this way, a company’s principles are really tested in a crisis situation. It goes against the instinct of most companies to be transparent when there’s a problem. But the companies will be rewarded who say ‘we got this wrong and need a rethink what we’re doing’. But not many have the courage to do that. Usually the approach is to batten down the hatches and defend, defend, defend.

What about PR agencies. Is there scope for them to be more authentic? You’re paid to spin, surely? I had a conversation with a PR guy who hated the description “spinner”. Is he right to be offended by that?

The industry is going through profound change. It was about spinning in the past. When I started out as a reporter 30 years ago, you couldn’t find any information about companies. You’d have to get a confidential document in your hand that was leaked to you. And even if you did stand the story up, you’d have to go on TV or get the story in a newspaper. Now we’re in a world where the truth will emerge from any source imaginable.

Spinning doesn’t work in this age anymore. A conversation about a company dominates the brand. You can’t spin. What you say immediately becomes respun in social media. You need to listen to the world and change based on what people are telling you.

To read Cohn & Wolfe’s report on authentic brands, click here.


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