Lisa Lillien, founder of multimedia, guilt-free food-focused brand Hungry Girl, credits authenticity for helping her build Hungry Girl from a tiny email subscription service to a multi-million dollar empire. She asserts that today's customers are savvy and can see through brands that are faking it. And data backs her up--a 2016 survey by Cohn & Wolfe of 12,000 people across 14 markets revealed that as many as 80 percent of respondents acknowledged an "authenticity deficit". People want companies to drop the act and just be real. But how do you prove to everybody else that you're different, that you're not putting on a mask every time you open your office door? Here's what Lillien says is critical to do.
1. Communicate with authority...
"When I think back to when I started Hungry Girl, I do remember feeling like I was approaching [the] brand as if it had existed forever. When I wrote, I had strong, confident opinions, and I felt that those opinions mattered. I think people really responded to that [...and that] it gave me some credibility."
Remember here that authority doesn't just mean pulling stats or quoting major agencies, although it helps. It means that no matter what comes out of your mouth, people have the sense you're not going to walk your statements back.
2. ...But talk to people like friends.
Even though confidence certainly will encourage trust from your consumers, Lillien says brands that have casual and relatable voices are the ones that really resonate with consumers. That's because it makes people feel like they're qualified to be in your group, and because they take some comfort in the familiarity they see in you. You can tap a casual approach by
- Listening actively and asking questions.
- Imagining how you'd write what you want to say in a journal.
- Connecting your thoughts to their experiences or environment.
- Telling stories.
- Worrying less about impressing and more about confessing. Every customer is a confidant. It's just that you might have millions at a time.
The bottom line is, get in touch with the people you're selling to. See their needs and wants firsthand and show that you "get it".
3. Be consistent.
Lillien acknowledges that some rule changing or breaking is OK to a degree--after all, that's the very definition of innovation. But consumers also trust brands precisely because the brands give them an experience that matches what they expect. If you do want to change something, make sure it's not a surprise, and don't make a ton of changes all at once.
4. Have a clear vision.
Without a clear vision, it's much easier for inconsistency to run rampant, simply because there's no clear target that specifies just how much value particular business tasks have. Keep your eye on the prize, be unwaveringly honest and transparent and don't let your desire to grow the business compromise your values.
"From the start I have only ever written about and/or partnered with brands and products that I believe in," Lillien says. "Realize the brand [you're] trying to build is not going to be liked by everyone. So just be true to your vision and to yourself, and the people who are going to like you will like you more because of that."
Lillien acknowledges there are some pretty heavy barriers to authenticity. People often are afraid to fail, she says, or they're scared to follow their instincts or put themselves out there. It can feel risky. But Lillien knows from experience that committing to authenticity brings a competitive edge. The healthy recipe queen now has 2.5 million email subscribers and social media followers, regularly appears on programs like Good Morning America and The Dr. Oz Show, and has authored 12 bestselling cookbooks (six of which debuted at #1 on The New York Times Best Sellers list). She's also launching Hungry Girl Magazine through Meredith Corp. in January 2018.
So take the chance. Be who you are. Then, when you crush your competition over and over again, you can look back with legitimate pride and say, "Yep. That really was totally all me."