WOM & Authenticity

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(Long live the King.) image copyright 2004 Olivier Blanchard

Grab your #2 pencils, kids, because it's word association time again!

Today's word is "Authentic."

Okay, I'll give you a minute to write down a few synonyms or whatever else comes to mind.


Ready? Okay, pencils down. Here are some of the synonyms my trusty thesaurus came up with:

for real

(source: Roget's New Millennium™ Thesaurus, First Edition (v 1.1.1) .)

I'll assume that everyone in the class came up with at least one of those. Good job.

Now, for the definition of "authentic":

1. Conforming to fact and therefore worthy of trust, reliance, or belief: an authentic account by an eyewitness.

2. Having a claimed and verifiable origin or authorship; not counterfeit or copied: an authentic medieval sword.

(Source: The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition)

Now that we're all on the same page, let's briefly talk about advertising, marketing, branding, WOMM, and how important authenticity is to all four, and particularly WOMM. (Don't worry, this will be fast.)

First of all, if your product, brand and message are not authentic, then they are:


(source: Roget's New Millennium™ Thesaurus, First Edition (v 1.1.1) .)

That's right: Either you are authentic or you are bogus. Period. End of story. There is no such thing as 75% authentic.

Authentic = trustworthy. Mess with people's trust, sell-out your brand's reputation to cut corners, and you will lose customers in droves.

It doesn't take people long to lose their faith in something nowadays, especially when that something comes from a corporate entity. This is in great part why word-of-mouth is so appealing a concept: Because it is peer-based, it promises to be authentic.

WOM, then, is relevant only as a consumer-based brand/product advocacy channel that exists beyond the realm of corporate influence. The voices speaking to us through word-of-mouth are those of our friends and neighbors and fellow discerning shoppers. That's why it works.

The reality of word-of-mouth: If a product is good, people will talk about it. If a product is bad, people will talk about it. For better or for worse. You can't stop that.

Does that mean that companies shouldn't play a part in WOM? Absolutely not. On the contrary, companies should get involved in this movement and capitalize on it, but in the right way. That's the difference between basic word-of-mouth (WOM) and word-of-mouth marketing (WOMM). While companies should not try to manipulate the message itself, they should be intimately involved with facilitating its outward journey to consumers:

1) By listening to their customers and giving them what they want better than anyone else out there, companies can turn them into fans. (Think "lovebrands" like Apple, Krispy Kreme, Starbucks, VW, etc.)

Believe it or not, that also applies to spark plug and urinal cake manufacturers. (More on that in a bit.)

That's the first step. Most companies should already have a dialogue with their customers... but many still don't, unfortunately.

2) The second step is to create an customer-brand ecosystem that gives these fans a public voice: Now that they love you, give them a chance to share the love.

There are many way of doing this... like setting up blogs and message boards, for starters... Or linking to your fans' blogs. Or publishing letters from happy customers. Or encouraging them to spread the good word. Give your customers a voice and embrace what they have to say. Facilitate the process. Help their voices be heard. Their story is your story. Help them tell it.

But don't fake it. (See WOMMA's code of ethics for guidance.)

If you don't like what your customers have to say about your products or brands... or if you have no idea what your customers would say about you if given the chance, then... maybe that's something you should spend more time focusing on. Marketing 101. Start at the beginning.

For all its wonderful potential, the reality of WOMM is that not everyone can be 'best in show'. Not everyone can have the coolest design, the highest quality products, the most pleasant customer service, the best flavor... Only the best can be the best, and only the unique can be unique. Brand advocacy isn't all that effective when it comes to "average" or "ordinary". You have to be extraordinary in some way for your message to be relevant. You have to have something that people will talk about. Something. Anything: The lowest price. The freshest flowers. The toughest coating. The biggest bubbles. The finest dining. Really cool green carpets. The fastest delivery in your industry. 100% honesty. Whatever. You get the idea.

Note: Even when it comes to commodity items, even if tou don't think that WOMM and advertising apply to your business, plain old word-of-mouth still does, andbeing a just "same as" company doesn't cut it. There has to be a reason why your customers prefer you over your competitors... or your competitors over you. Your reputation is your business. Find out what that reputation is, and if it's good, flaunt it.

Will that stop 'average' companies without anything relevant to talk about from jumping on the increasingly popular WOM bandwaggon? Nope. And here's where the trouble begins:

When such companies realize that they can't come up with real brand advocates, will they resort to... making some up? Will there be a temptation from such companies to pay "advocates" to paint a prettier picture than they should about them? Will we start seeing "fake" or manipulated blogs and WOM campaigns pop up here and there?

If WOM must be genuine and authentic in order to work, how do we keep it that way? It's difficult to police ethics.

Fortunately, thanks to how interconnected we all are these days, companies engaging in bogus WOM campaigns will no doubt see their efforts blow up in their faces. There are enough genuine watchdogs out there now press the alarm button whenever they smell a rat. In that regard, WOMM should kind of police itself, and that's encouraging, but will it be enough?

Until someone answers that question for me, let me speak to those of you out there now who might think little about putting ethics aside to make a quick buck off this suddenly popular "movement":

1) Instead of wasting precious time and resources on crafting bogus WOM campaigns, listen to your customers. Find out what they like and dislike about you. Then give them what they want. Let them help you make your business better. Create REAL brand advocates. Become the truth behind the lies of your bogus campaign.

2) If you lie to one of us, you lie to all of us. You will be exposed to the world faster than you can say "retraction". There are thousands of bloggers and hundreds of journalists just waiting for you to give them something to talk about. It isn't worth it. Trust me. You don't want to go down that road. Nobody likes to be lied to. Nobody likes to be taken for a fool. Remember that.

Be authentic. Be legit. Be trustworthy. Be the real deal. It's easier than you think.

... Or watch your business (and career) die a humiliating public death.

Your choice.

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