Excerpts from Chapter 1: Facing the Truth: There Are Too Many Faceless Companies

Today’s competitive business landscape demands differentiation. Companies must stand apart to be noticed. When evaluating the options—one can look at those brands or corporations that have done this exceptionally well and pinpoint the factors that have contributed to their success. In The Authentic Brand we go inside the minds of some of today’s most prominent entrepreneurs to see how they achieved their success.

We begin by asking a simple question that many entrepreneurs ask: How can a company or brand stand apart when such a large number of competing companies and brands are vying for our attention? One way of achieving this is to put a face on your company, and to give it an identity that separates it from the often faceless competition. As we have seen with the entrepreneurs featured in this book, sometimes that face is the entrepreneur’s own!

As Jeff Taylor, founder of the Monster Board job listing service and the first CEO of Monster.com, told us “You’ve got to put yourself out in front of your brand.”

Today, among those faceless companies are too many who forego authenticity for homogeneity. Just go online. Website after website touting a company’s products or services looks just like the next. Strip malls are a great example of the vanilla retail landscape that has lined our roads from coast to coast. And beyond that, what percentage of the products, services or businesses are truly authentic? Is it two, or maybe three, percent? Which insurance company should you select? Isn’t that really based on price or your local insurance broker? What technology company should you hire? Isn’t that hit or miss? What real estate company will get your listing? Aren’t most really the same? What brokerage firm should you trust? Do any stand apart for their integrity, compassion, exceptional service or other attributes that immediately come to mind? What accounting firm stands out for these traits? We are sure that you get the idea that being truly authentic is uncommon.

In The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century, Thomas Friedman gives a couple of wonderful examples of people who are outstanding examples of authenticity in the form of spokespersons for their product. These people are so authentically engaging that they make you go out of your way to buy their product. The first is a lemonade vendor who works the lower deck at Camden Yards during Baltimore Orioles home games. He has, as Friedman describes it, “perfected a dance routine around how he shakes and prepares the lemonade. He does a little jig and then high-fives you before he hands you the drink.”

Friedman writes, “I love to watch him operate because all he is selling is water with sugar and a lemon in a plastic cup. It couldn’t be more of a commodity. It couldn’t be a more vanilla job. Yet I always notice that by the end of the game he is carrying around a wad of bills-and tips-that is thicker than any other vendor I see.”

Answering the question “Why?” Friedman explains that here is a man who has taken an ordinary job and he has creatively put his personal touch on the way he delivers his product. Consumers, who could buy soft drinks or water from other vendors, patronize the lemonade man because, as Friedman points out, he puts a smile on your face.

Another example cited by Friedman is an African American woman who works at the Caribou Coffee outlet near his K Street office in Washington, D.C. As he describes her, “she goes out of her way to be helpful and asks me about myself—not in a phony, over-trained way, like the staff at the Ritz-Carlton, but in a sincere way that I find charming.”

In both examples, Friedman might also have added the adjective authentic.

To solve the problem of facelessness, some companies have opted for using celebrity endorsers, such as professional athletes, to promote their products. Does this give you the idea that they are truly authentic? In fact, studies—including those that led to creation of the National Credibility Index—have shown that celebrity product recommendations lack the level of credibility that is given to a product or company when the person responsible for the product puts his or her identity on the line to promote it. The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) undertook the creation and development of the National Credibility Index to measure and track the extent to which the American public perceives its leaders and/or public figures to be believable sources of information and guidance on major issues. The study shows that business leaders, experts in a given field and educators rank most credible, while celebrities and professional athletes ranked towards the bottom of the list. At the top of the list are the people who are actually behind the company. What’s more authentic than that?

The entrepreneurs with whom we spoke when writing this book have built successful brands while putting their own names and faces on the line. By so closely identifying themselves with their products, these entrepreneurs add an emotional element and genuineness to their brand that is generally absent in the Brand Xs of the world. Through this personal connection, these companies have turned out true consumer and customer advocates.