With fake social media accounts, fake identities, fake reviews, and fake news, it's hard to know what's real sometimes. Even Payless Shoes fooled "luxury" influencers by creating a pop-up store filled with luxury items that turned out to be fake.  

How can we trust or know if anything is real anymore? Authenticity and visibility are in great demand, but these are usually hard to find. Even the tech support or customer services you encounter are often an automated system, or a chatbot if you're online.

Brands that truly want to stand out must prove, beyond what has been demanded before, that what they do is real. That includes conducting their own research, working directly with consumers, and making sure they stay engaged with customers.

If you create a model for authenticity for your brand, you'll be able to differentiate yourself in the market from those brands still convinced they can fool audiences.

DIY Market Research

Hiring a market research firm or using existing data can provide key business insights. The only problem is you were not directly involved in gathering the information and you probably can't authenticate or disseminate the truth or error of the figures.  

Conducting your own research involves collecting primary source data related to your industry, business segments and customer problems. In gathering this information about customers, competitors, and the overall environment, you'll have a better context for how all of these spaces affect your business.

For example, Github hosts its own industry conferences and training sessions for the tech community. If you try something similar, you can share your company's research and encourage others to do the same. In return, your brand can become aligned with providing insightful knowledge and credible information.

How does this documented information enhance customer loyalty? It gives customers verified information straight from the sources that impact their business and lets them react more quickly. Customers get a more personalized, authentic experience more rapidly. Market research firm reports may not deliver that.

Genuine Consumer Feedback  

Giving customers a platform to provide feedback can increase their loyalty. People respond when they see you value their opinions and turned their comments into action. However, creating an honest and open dialogue with customers won't just happen overnight.

To have meaningful conversations, your outreach must focus on the customer experience. Asking them how you can serve them better goes a lot further than simply asking what they think of your company or brand. They'll know you really want to hear how they feel.

Co-creation through feedback has greatly benefited brands that start online communities for customers. On such online hubs, thousands of people provide ongoing opinions about everything related to the brand. Such feedback mechanisms can help a company improve its product lines and overall brand experiences.

Other available influences include real-time online chat through your website and social media sites, customized email surveys to your database, or in-person video conference focus groups. Address abandoned online shopping carts and send in-store receipts to collect more information about customer experiences and let them participate with you.

In-Person Interactions

Finally, look for more ways to have in-person interactions that will prove your authenticity and make connections that are fundamental to customer loyalty. Your brand can hide behind a virtual presence some of the time, but it's difficult to maintain this "incognito-me" environment for customers who want a personalized in-store experience.

According to a 2018 "Gen Z report" from ad agency Hill Holliday, about 58 percent of Generation Z consumers want relief from social media and more personal interaction. A study from the IBM and the National Retail Federation found Gen Z-ers are three times more likely to shop in stores versus online shopping. A logical conclusion here is that people are searching for more of a personal connection with brands.

If you're trying to create a more authentic in-store experience, encourage more customer engagement from employees, as well as hands-on experiences. People like interacting with products, looking at them and feeling what they're all about. For example, Tiffany & Co. opened an interactive pop-up shop in Los Angeles before Valentine's Day. 

The small space was designed to look like the iconic Tiffany blue box. This offered a unique experience. The whole Tiffany experiment shows true authentic qualities that Gen Z and others really crave.

Authenticity

Authenticity in branding and customer engagement involve ethics and transparency throughout your business. If you collect your own research, include feedback from customers, and implement those insights, you will develop a reputation for genuineness, originality, and concern for the customer. Those things alone may be what it takes to separate you from competitors.

Published on: Feb 20, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.