By Red Slice on May 4, 2011Reprinted here by express permission of Red SliceType “authentic branding” into Bing and you’ll pull up 581,000 results. The advice to “be authentic” hits business owners and entrepreneurs more than gray skies hit Seattle from October to May. And, yes, I give this advice to my clients.

But what does being “authentic” really mean?

This term has been bastardized a bit in the intersection between entrepreneurship and personal development. Many coaches and consultants are advising people to “live their passion” and “live an authentic life” and to find careers and businesses that “authentically” play to their strengths. This is all great advice.

But some business owners confuse “authenticity” with “only the stuff I care about.” And that’s not really what we’re talking about from a branding perspective.

Having an authentic brand means that you deliver what you promise. Period. You do what you say, You walk your talk. When I go to Walmart, I don’t expect great service or quality fashion. I expect what they promise: low prices. That is authenticity. It has more to do with company values, service quality, product line and image. It means that if you advertise your brand as hip, sexy and cool, then your products, your company – heck, maybe even your people – need to walk that talk. It means if you are going to tout “Customer Service is our #1 Priority” that you authentically take care of your customers, go above and beyond, and empower your call center employees to do whatever it takes to solve their problems quickly and painlessly. It means that if you claim to be cheap and disposable, that you ARE cheap and disposable, because that what people want from you if you are promising that.

It means don’t write brand checks your business can’t cash, to use a phrase I love.

Too often I hear the battle cry of “authenticity” used to defend an unprofitable business. “But I’m following my passion, I’m doing what I want to do.” Great. But if customers don’t care about that – or are not willing to pay for it – you don’t have a business: you have a hobby.

Having an authentic brand means starting with the values and practices you believe in and delivering on that promise to customers – but it only matters if your target customers care and respond.  Personal preference is great and should be your foundation. After all, it’s your business – you should do what you like. But if you’re not making any money, you need to evolve or adapt to still play to your strengths but in a way that offers value for which customers are willing to pay.

Maria Ross is the founder and chief strategist of Red Slice, a branding and marketing consultancy based in Seattle. Her passion is storytelling and she has advised start-ups, solopreneurs, non-profits and large enterprises on how to craft their brand story to engage, inform and delight customers. Maria is the author of Branding Basics for Small Business: How to Create an Irresistible Brand on Any Budget (2010, Norlights Press).

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