How Getting Real About Body Image Can Boost Brand Authenticity

When Dove’s landmark ‘Real Beauty’ campaign debuted 15 years ago, it was nothing short of groundbreaking. Real women? Showing off their real bodies? Imperfections and all? Looking back, it’s almost quaint that such a concept was earth-shattering enough to earn accolades as the top ad campaign of the 21st century and to help Dove nearly double its sales. But in 2004, showcasing scantily clad women with anything less than ideal figures was a fairly novel idea in advertising. And the overwhelmingly positive response to the campaign was indicative of consumers’ thirst for something sorely lacking in the industry: Authenticity.

A decade and a half later, not much has changed. “In this age of fake news, Photoshop and Instagram filters, it’s hard to find content that hasn’t been manipulated to support the author’s favor,” writes Farshad Fardad, CEO of GlobalWide Media, for Adweek. “This lack of authenticity has people yearning for content that can’t be digitally manipulated.”

Indeed, one recent survey found that 87 percent of consumers worldwide believe it is more important for companies to be authentic than to innovate (72 percent) or to deliver unique products (17 percent). And another new study found that authenticity can drive not only positive attitudes toward an advertisement, but also influence purchase intent.

The study findings—which are strongly reminiscent of what Dove learned years ago—revealed that consumers preferred advertisements featuring a plus-size model who was not digitally enhanced, as opposed to ads that showed an idealized, retouched image. Further, they were also more inclined to buy the product featured in the more true-to-life advertisement.

The preference, the study authors noted, was rooted in authenticity: Brands that chose to feature real-looking models without digital alteration enjoyed greater perceived authenticity among study participants, which in turn boosted consumer attitudes and purchase intent. “Using models who are perceived as being authentic may raise the reputation of the brand and align it with the idea of being ‘real,’” the study says. “The average woman in the United States can relate to the body of a plus-size model and notice when an arm or other body part looks suspiciously thin.”

Yet while many brands today recognize consumers’ desire for authenticity in advertising, there’s no clear definition of what that actually means, or how to attain it. “Traditionally, the word ‘authentic’ in a commercial and brand-related context signaled that a product was genuine,” the study says. “The term has evolved in recent years to envelope values that may be placed on brands. Consumers have begun to seek out brands that display their values, which are often in line with social causes and social responsibility.”

So how does a brand achieve authenticity? Hiring “real” spokespeople and using unmanipulated images is clearly one place to start. Speaking to consumers’ shared concerns and experiences and exhibiting an allegiance to core company values beyond the bottom line can certainly help. But as more brands push to make themselves authentic in the eyes of consumers, they must also be careful to avoid reducing authenticity to merely an industry buzzword.

“You can’t tell consumers you are trustworthy—you have to show them,” Fardad writes. “Your brand doesn’t have to have a G-rated, cookie-cutter image to be trustworthy. It does need a consistent tone of voice. One way to stand out is to take a stand, share an opinion and stick with it. Businesses are often so nervous about offending someone that they say nothing of substance.”

Take Patagonia, a brand closely associated with its commitment to environmental causes. A few years back, it went so far as to launch a Black Friday campaign bearing the tagline ‘Don’t Buy This Jacket’—a pretty bold stance for a multimillion-dollar manufacturer of, well, jackets. “It would be hypocritical for us to work for environmental change without encouraging customers to think before they buy,” the brand explained in a blog post. “To reduce environmental damage, we all have to reduce consumption as well as make products in more environmentally sensitive, less harmful ways. It’s not hypocrisy for us to address the need to reduce consumption.”

Bold? Absolutely. But also, some might say, refreshingly authentic.