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By Mark Havenner

Let’s face it. Brand confusion reigns out there in the marketplace. Imitators abound. Everyone wants to be a TOMS shoes, or an Apple, or maybe a Starbucks, but often when they approach the consumer, they’re just like the Steve Buscemi meme, clearly not a teen, yet making believe he can be — with a skateboard in tow. In a desperate attempt at grabbing audiences’ attention, brands will try anything, and are stooping to hashtag campaigns, videos designed to be viral, or memes to appear cool and relatable.

It’s easy to focus on the audience and try to emulate what they like. It’s tempting to dump a bunch of money into Instagram and Snapchat because that’s the new thing. It’s appealing to rehash tactics and campaigns to which other audiences responded well. But when all this is done, and the consumer still isn’t paying attention, maybe the tactics aren’t the problem.

Today’s consumers have become discerning about brands. They know when a brand is being an imposter and when they are “trying too hard.” They know this because the “aura of inauthenticity” radiates brightly from brands, and nothing shuts down a consumer faster than being a brand faking being relatable.

It’s that old adage – “you can’t be all things to all people.” Inauthentic brands don’t know who they really are and consumers will tilt their attention toward the ones that do.

Those of us inside the communications bubble are just as fed up with the use of jargon as everyone else is, but brand DNA is one of those buzzwords that is actually significant and worth a second look. There are too many brands out there that are focused on a product or service, on an audience or on features and benefits, but rarely do they focus on who they are. If a brand doesn’t know what its fabric is, what makes it tick, what its values are, and why it exists, then how is it supposed to convince the consumer that they should care.

Consumers attach themselves to brands because the brand represents who the consumer is to other people. It is part of their identity. Consumers wear brands like lifestyle badges. They choose brands that they connect with and that they share values with.

For example: If a Brand DNA is built entirely on how many peanuts you put in your chocolate bar, then the point of Snickers’ success is lost. Snickers allows people to get through their fast-paced day. Who cares about peanuts, when you have a value like that?

Another reason for a brand existential crisis is when it cannot differentiate messages for consumer awareness from messages for buying a product or service. When the same strategies and tactics are deployed throughout the entire marketing funnel, consumers will not get  a clear picture of what the brand offers or what it is trying to do.

Confusion reigns. Do you want to “buy the world a Coke?” Or are you buying a two-liter half off for the Fourth of July? Is it an experience or is it simply inexpensive? Is it a lifestyle, or is it a product? The good news is that a brand’s existential crisis is fixable, but the earlier the better…

Step One: Ask Questions

Why do you exist? What is the purpose of your product or service? What needs do you meet for your consumer? What do you do differently than anyone else? Why is this important?

Step Two: Ask Harder Questions

Why should anyone care about your product or service? Or better to ask, why do you care about it? What should consumers expect from you, no matter what? What do consumers expect from you today, but do not get?  And who are your consumers and how do you find them?

Step Three: Be Honest About Your Answers

Look deeper and recognize your consumers’ needs.  They need you to make their life easier, better, more meaningful or even more wonderful. And they need to do it not because of some glitzy message, but because only you can do it in the way that you do it.  It is no longer about features and benefits at this point, they get that all day long. They need something more from you.

To arrive at this core value that represents who you are, put yourself in the shoes of the people your brand helps, and identify those authentic qualities that make you — you.

Step Four: Become Who You Are

Answers reaped from the hard questions asked, followed by introspection as to how the brand should behave, what to do to reach the consumer, how and what to say to whom and when, will move the brand to greater authenticity. Subsequently, as to which tactics to implement the vision, these should just surface organically.

Of course, you need to have the resolve to withstand criticism, to express certainty about business decisions, and become attractive enough for relevant consumers to come to you.