Authenticity: Is it Organizational or is it Marketing?

by cv harquail on April 8, 2008

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Of all the current conversations about authenticity and organizations, none is more vibrant- and confused- than the conversation that mingles authenticity, authentic brands and authentic organizations.

The Harvard Business Review March 2008 issue has a case by David Weinberger about the fictional Hunsk Engines, entitled “Authenticity: Is it Real or is it Marketing?“This case offers a great context for beginning to untangle the relationship between brands, organizations and authenticity.

The new VP of Marketing at Hunsk, Marty, sees that sales are down. He concludes that the Hunsk motorcycle brand is no longer vital because the brand has lost its authenticity. His overall goal is to restore the authenticity of the Hunsk motorcycle brand/product. To do this, Marty plans to address issues of marketing, sales, product development, and customer service.

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The problem is that Marty also believes that he needs to change the Hunsk organization itself, not just the conventional marketing functions. Marty makes two wrong assumptions about relationship between brand authenticity and organizational authenticity, that 1) The authenticity of a product/brand depends on the authenticity of the organization, and 2) The attributes (qualities) of the brand are inherited from the attributes of the organization. These two assumptions lead him astray, and he sets up an action plan that won’t get the job done. Why is he wrong?

Assumption 1:
The authenticity of a product/brand depends on the authenticity of the organization.

If it were true that the authenticity of a product/brand depends on the authenticity of the organization, it would make sense to try to influence the organization’s authenticity. But Marty confuses brand authenticity and organizational authenticity.

Brand Authenticity and Organizational Authenticity are two distinct and different evaluations.

Brand Authenticity depends on consumers’ perceptions of a product. For a brand, authenticity is the perception of ‘real’ness. Hunsk motorcycles no longer feel real. The product/brand has lost its authenticity because consumers no longer experience Hunsk motorcycles as real-  they feel a disconnect between what they experience and what they expect or hope to experience. Marty’s challenge is to restore (customers’ perceptions of) the product’s authenticity as they-the customers- experience it.

not authentic brand not authentic motorcycle Harvard Business Review Marketing

Organizational Authenticity depends on stakeholders perceptions of the congruence between who the organization is, how it presents itself, and how it acts. An organization isn’t authentic when it has the same attributes as its brands. It is authentic when its identity, image and action are congruent.

Brand authenticity and organizational authenticity are independent. The authenticity of the brand — whether the brand delivers the experience that it claims it will for consumers — does not depend on whether the organization is who it claims to be, or whether it acts in ways that it reflects who it is. An authentic organization can produce an inauthentic brand, and an inauthentic organization can produce an authentic brand.

Because Marty fails to separate brand authenticity and organizational authenticity, he diverts his attention from issues directly related to the customers’ experience of the Hunsk brand/product. Instead, he goes directly to work on the organization. And, in addition to focusing on the organization instead of the consumers’ experience, Marty just assumes he knows what Hunsk Engines needs “to be”. He believes that Hunsk as an organization needs to be more like their brand/product’s promise. Therefore, Marty wants the organization to acquire as part of its culture and identity some of the attributes of the Hunsk products/brand. He also wants Hunsk employees to have the same qualities and enthusiasms as Hunsk customers. As Marty himself says, “We need a management team that’s got the same DNA as our customers.”

In other words, Marty wants all of the managers at Hunsk to “live the brand”.

antique motorcyclist authentic real marketing Marty believes that an inauthentic organization causes the brand to seem inauthentic to customers. But as Gilmore and Pine say, “No amount of talk about being a real company can substitute for offering actual experiences that personally engage customers.” It is not the attributes of the organization but the quality of customers’ experiences with the product/brand that make the brand authentic.

If Marty really wanted to lead the organization to be more authentic

Holding aside the question of whether or not Hunsk Engines needs to be more like the Hunsk motorcycle brand, Marty can’t just assume (unilaterally, no less) that he can make the organization more authentic by adjusting a few of its attributes. Who knows whether the qualities that Marty wants to instill into Hunsk Engines will help them align in their identity, image, and actions?

If Marty really wanted to make Hunsk Engines more authentic, his first step should be to focus on the three elements that provide the foundation for organizational authenticity: identity, image, and actions. His second step should be to ask three questions to assess the organization’s authenticity, preparing to involve identity, image, and action simultaneously to increase organizational authenticity.

Marty wants to instill the brand/product’s attributes into the organization not only to make Hunsk a more authentic company, but also because of his second assumption:

Assumption 2:
The attributes of the brand/product are inherited from the attributes of the organization.

If it were true that an organization passes on its own identity attributes to its brands/products, then it makes sense to want the organization to have the attributes itself. Working on the organization’s identity even starts to seem like an additional lever for getting certain attributes in/with/for the brand.

But consider how, for many kinds of brands, the organization’s identity is irrelevant. Brand X shampoo makes your hair feel shinier, bouncier, and sexier; or it doesn’t. Whether it does or doesn’t is independent of the attributes and the identity of the organization making the shampoo.


The assumption that brands inherit the attributes of their organization’s identity ignores the fact that a brand is something an organization creates. Certainly, in the process of creating a brand/product, the organization can use its organizational reputation/image to help construct the brand’s identity. However, this is a choice, not a requirement. Marketers need to remember that:

Branding is not a reproductive process.
Branding is a creative process.

Brands/products do not automatically inherit the qualities of the organization’s identity. The attributes of a brand are not derived or directly descended from the organization’s identity.

The attributes of a brand are designed in
through the marketing process.

Sometimes the entire brand identity is created by the marketers themselves. Sometimes consumers and consumer communities create additional qualities for a brand that are beyond what marketers intentionally designed in. And, in some specific situation, consumers will impute attributes to a brand/product based on their assumptions about the organization itself (from their direct experience, from the organization’s reputation, from its other products, etc). In these specific situations, it is appropriate to say that “corporate culture needs to reflect the authenticity of the branding message it sends out”. However, the degree to which attributes of the organization are used to bolster claims about attributes of the brand’s identity is the result of decisions that marketers make.

The relationship between a brand identity and an organization’s identity is the outcome of a creative branding process.

Brand authenticity is ‘rendered’ through skillful marketing.

Organizational authenticity is sustained through skillful management.

authentic organization authentic brand employees

{ 1 comment }

sensemaker99 April 15, 2008 at 12:50 pm


Your writing is inspiring and persuasive as always. However, I wonder if the distinction between brand and organizational authenticity isn’t a little less clear-cut than what I understand from this. In my own research, I find that it is not that uncommon for people to judge brands by the actions of the companies behind them. Brand messages around, say, a passion for sports cars are juxtaposed against activities of the brand owner that are, e.g., interpreted as overly concerned with profit-maximization. In other words, consumers do question the alignment between identity, image, and actions.

Your view seems to be that this might happen in “specific situations”. The question is how specific these situations really are. Quite a few brands rely on the history, heritage—and current practices—of the producing company. What’s more, it seems to me that the boundaries between organizations and their brands are increasingly blurry.

As many organizations have consolidated their investments in search of efficiencies, the corporate brand has become somewhat of the default focus of brand-building efforts. This makes it difficult to separate corporations from brands. In addition, critical consumers, media, and anti-brand activists are more and more interested in exposing the link between successful brands and the people and processes responsible for them. Or, as Douglas Holt (2002, p. 86) puts it: “Sovereign consumers are no longer willing to watch whatever companies choose to present onstage. Rather, they now feel that they have been granted the authority to walk backstage to see the what the wizard is doing behind the scrim and to make sure that his character is consistent with what is presented onstage.”

In this perspective, the link between brands and corporations is even a centerpiece of consumer perceptions of brand authenticity: “Postmodern consumer culture has adopted a particular notion of authenticity that has proved particularly challenging to marketers. To be authentic, brands must be disinterested; they must be perceived as invented and disseminated by parties without an instrumental economic agenda, by people who are intrinsically motivated by their inherent value. (Holt 2002, p. 83)

So, I’m not saying that organizational and brand authenticity is the same thing, but don’t all the contemporary calls for more “transparency” and “accountability” suggest that quite a few people believe that corporate attributes do matter in a brand context? What do you think?


Holt, Douglas B. (2002), “Why do brands cause trouble? A dialectical theory of consumer culture and branding,” Journal of Consumer Research, 29(1), 70-90.

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