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Why brands should stop talking about authenticity and get real (with influencers)

Brand storytelling is shifting from product- to human-centric narratives, driven by consumers’ increasing appetite for content that is real and relatable. Transparent messaging, standing up for something they believe in, having a voice and creating a dialogue that resonates with consumers is table stakes; not just for brands but also the influencers they choose to work with.

So, how can brands engage in cultural conversation in a way that is truly authentic? That was the focus of a fireside chat between Emma Shuldham, Managing Director at ITB Worldwide and Drieke Leenknegt, Vice President, Global Marketing, Timberland at Brand Innovators’ Cannes 2021 Summit, which took place virtually during Cannes International Festival of Creativity. The discussion unpacked how brands can facilitate authentic connections and engage in the current cultural conversation by aligning with those who have powerful, human stories to tell.

“For me it’s about passionately working together with people that have impact – and the word passion is incredibly important,” said Leenknegt. “[It’s about] making sure that brands and influencers join forces and find a common passion about the same things – passion should be central to the conversation.”

Leenknegt explained that it’s about “understanding who you are as a brand and having a clear vision on that”. At the heart and soul of that process for Timberland is its mission and vision: ‘to inspire and equip its consumers, to step outside and work together to move the world forwards and to build a greener and more equitable  future’. To really make an impact, it’s about finding the right partners to tell your story who share your passion and vision, and can speak with honesty, integrity and influence to different communities.

To illustrate how Timberland put this at the centre of building up its influencer strategy, they looked at Timberland’s ‘Nature Needs Heroes’campaign, in which ITB played a role in casting some of the original talent for this project, including singer Loyle Carner, urban gardener Kevin Espiritu, photojournalist and activist Alice Aedy and many more. Each ‘hero’ was driving genuine change in their local community in different ways, so added credibility and expertise to Timberland’s planet first messaging.

It’s an art and a science

Whilst data is incredibly important for evaluating certain elements of whether an influencer is the right fit for a brand or campaign in terms of audience demographic and performance metrics, the storytelling piece has to be front and centre of the narrative; looking with a human lens at the story an influencer has to tell to ensure the match is relevant and real, explained Shuldham.

In discussing people-first narratives and the importance of telling real stories, both Shuldham and Leenknegt agreed that we can’t escape the word authentic; “ironically, it’s far too overused and rarely carries the weight of its true meaning”. Leenknegt likened the word authentic, in the context of this conversation, to human relationships: “In order to be true to yourself, you need to know yourself. That’s the number one starting point for brands to go into relationships. Know who you are, stay true to that and partner with people who are passionate about the same kind of thing. That is authenticity. If there’s a disconnect, consumers won’t get it.”

For brands to ensure their messaging is authentic, brands and influencers need to be on board with the same purpose. Brands need to stand up for something they truly believe in and then find the people who can express that passion “based on the understanding of who you are”. That means having partners of influence on side to build a journey together. If there’s no clear meaning, it’s short-term and transactional at best, and that only gets you so far.

“It’s about looking at the world of influence beyond a transaction; grow your ecosystem globally with people who are passionate about things [your brand] is passionate about,” said Leenknegt.

Watch the full conversation here:

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