Authenticity is a popular buzzword and an increasingly common goal for marketers—and with good reason. Perceived authenticity is a primary driver of consumer engagement; consumers are drawn to “real” products, services, and experiences. The payoff is twofold: authentic brands feel less risky and they also are a more positive means of self-expression. People don’t want to be seen as phonies, and that extends to the products they use.

Given the importance of authenticity for consumer engagement and to effective marketing, companies need to get this right. Often they do not. I see some companies stumble and not because they are trying to pull a fast one with consumers. Rather, they confuse the concept of authenticity with tradition, longstanding habits, or even their good intentions.

An “Authentic” Authenticity for Consumer Engagement Story

Here’s a vivid example. In 2004, I came from outside the bottled-water industry to lead marketing for the Mountain Valley Spring Company. Our signature product was a single-source natural spring water, bottled (in glass and recyclable plastic) at the protected watershed near Hot Springs, Arkansas. The bottled-water industry was (and still is) dominated by huge companies such as Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and Nestlé, whose offerings include waters that were purified from municipal sources or blended from multiple springs.

Authenticity for Consumer Engagement in Bottled WaterOur little niche brand had an authenticity advantage over the big guys: we were small and natural with a 133-year tradition.

Here was the existing product label. What do you notice about it?

I suppose the intention was to convey the refreshing experience of drinking cool premium spring water, through a drawing of two snow-covered mountains with a river running between them. Despite good intentions on the part of management and a distinguished tradition in the brand, the message was inauthentic.

There are no snow-covered mountains in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Nor did the water come from a river. Rivers are filled with, um, organic material from fish along with other impurities. As you might imagine, changing that label was an immediate priority!

Maintaining your brand’s authenticity requires both objectivity and discipline. Any lack of authenticity will likely be a long-term drag on reputation, brand value and profitability. Consumers have become more adept at recognizing when something presented to them is not believable; they can check the truth with the swipe of a finger across a smartphone screen.

On the other hand, the presence of authenticity for consumer engagement can provide a boost to the bottom line. As just one example, a set of studies led by Stanford professor Glenn Carroll demonstrated the connection between consumers’ perceptions of authenticity and the value ratings (e.g., how many stars) they offer. Testing within the restaurant industry, the research team found that restaurants earning high ratings for authenticity in online reviews also received higher ratings—often by a half star or more (controlling for quality ratings). That degree of elevated rating could translate into 3% to 6% higher revenues.

“Great, Jim,” you might say. “We are already in fine shape because we always try to be honest in our dealings with customers.” In my experience, that is a good start—yet still not enough. We all need to keep a fresh perspective on the entire range of our messages to the marketplace. Consumers today will quickly know (and share) whether you are, as the late Howard Cosell used to say, “Telling it like it is.”