Keeping it real?

Getting to grips with authentic engagement, corporations, and communication


You can’t get more Dutch than Delft, the leafy city in South Holland famous for canals, Vermeer, and Delftware, the exquisite blue and white pottery dating from the 16th century. In June last year, the mayor of Delft, Bas Verkeer, travelled up to Amsterdam to ceremoniously open the doors to a hanger belonging to KLM Royal Dutch Airlines. The meaning behind his presence at the event became clear once the hangar’s contents was revealed: a 64-metre-long, 18-metre-high Boeing 777-200 boasting a gleaming coat of 4,000 stickers, each in the form of a Delft Blue tile. The unveiling capped a worldwide campaign by KLM called Tile & Inspire, in which the airline issued an open online invitation for people to create a Delft Blue tile with an inspiring message in a bid to secure a place for it on a KLM aircraft. Social media and a uniquely Dutch tradition came together to create something unequivocally KLM. For Frank Houben, KLM’s director of communications and corporate identity, Tile & Inspire is just one example of KLM’s desire for authentic expression and engagement. Each day, 64,000 passengers catch a KLM flight and Houben and his colleagues are preoccupied with the question of how the airline can make sure that each one of those 64,000 passengers receives an authentic experience: as Houben puts it, how KLM engages with them on a deeper level than “Hi, welcome on board.”

This issue’s Storyteller section explores the question of authenticity from different perspectives. So let’s try to pin down what we think authenticity is in a business context; what it sounds like, what it looks like and what it reads as. Think you recognise authenticity when you see it?

Staying true to yourself

Back to KLM: for Frank Houben, the authentic begins with the personal touch. Engaging with passengers on a personal, attentive level and giving them an authentic experience is part and parcel of what an airline is. And the company looks to new, groundbreaking ways to achieve this: another recent campaign, Meet & Seat, allows passengers to check out other passengers online before they check in: potential seating neighbours are suggested based on matching Facebook ‘likes’. As Houben put it to Communication Director: “Facebook connects people in a virtual world: we as an airline are connecting people in the real world.” By harnessing technology in a new way, the company is able to be true to its self. Another bonus of social media is that it allows for a two-way dialogue (if you’ll pardon the cliché), another means for KLM to remain true to its authentic self, which is a company that listens to its customers. “It’s about dialogue, and in that dialogue you stay close to yourself, you don’t over-promise,” says Houben. “Because a lot of companies promise a lot of things, but it’s not about things like giving away tickets, it’s about listening.”

Expressing unique values

Dr Mignon van Halderen is an assistant professor of corporate communication at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam. Part of her research focuses on how organisations create and maintain legitimacy and trust by means of identity expressiveness strategies, and she agrees with Houben’s point that, in her words, “authentic organisations are those who stay true to their identity and core values.”

But why should they? What’s so important about authenticity? ‘Trust’ is a word that frequently comes up in the authentic communication literature. Experts seem to agree that authenticity is valuable because it encourages the trust of stakeholders. As Frank Houben points out, KLM view the art of listening (online complaints and questions are answered within the hour) as an authentic act which invites the customer to trust them. Trust is a bonding agent rooted in the essence of the company.

But if we limit authenticity to only being about generating trust, does that put a limit on the full implication that being authentic can have for an organisation? Solely defined as being all about trust, authenticity becomes a nice-to-have added extra. Its real value lies in harnessing that trust as an engine of competitive advantage and positioning the company in a distinct way. In this issue, Valerie Bockstette of FSG, a non-profit consultancy specialising in strategy, evaluation and research, explains how companies harness their defining characteristics to create shared value. Dr van Halderen uses online shoe and apparel shop Zappos as a good example of a company that has built a competitive advantage by aligning their entire organisation around one purpose: providing the best customer service possible (see the box on the next page for more). “They have turned every aspect of their organisation toward this core purpose,” she explains: “their customer service, their culture, their communication style, their recruitment strategy and so on. Through such a conscious and careful integration, their authenticity has become a resource that is rare, valuable and inimitable – the three criteria for creating a competitive advantage.” So far from being a pleasant ‘extra’, a company needs authenticity in order to distinguish itself in a crowded market and to drive growth.

On her Authentic Organizations blog, CV Harquail writes perceptively about the value of authenticity. Organisations that act authentically “create a more accurate and more abundant expression of their unique values, capabilities, and purpose…Because acting authentically draws forward the indigenous qualities inside the organisation, an authentic organisation creates behaviours, products and services that are specific and unique to that organisation…Thus, authenticity is valuable because it establishes a distinctiveness that, relative to other organisations, makes relationships with the authentic organisation more significant to stakeholders.”

Connecting with expectations

So the purpose of being authentic seems evident: it establishes ‘meaningful difference’, an important concept in both organisational theory and actual business practice. But authenticity in the complex world of business is not such a clear-cut matter. For example, being authentic and being liked – or even being good – is not one and the same thing. Dr van Halderen cites Exxon as an example of a company that has remained true to its identity, except that it’s an identity that is not particularly well-liked. “If one organisation is authentic, it is Exxon,” she explains. “Despite the fierce critiques and pressures it has received, it has for a long time been straightforward about who the company is. For instance, despite increasing pressures to invest in renewable energies, they unapologetically stated that they are an oil farmer and therefore do not invest in other energy sources that neither reflect their purpose of being nor make business sense. Exxon received a lot of critique on these convictions. And although they invested in corporate social responsibility, they were clear about their core purpose: exploring and producing oil and gas.” As evidence, she quotes Exxon’s CEO, Rex Tillerson, responding to Fortune magazine reporter asking why Exxon didn’t advertise more about their corporate social responsibility activities (the article, incidentally, is titled The Defiant One). “Intellectually, it’s just not us,” he said. “It’s not just me, it’s not Exxon Mobil. It’s not the people of Exxon Mobil. We just don’t take a view that we should try to paint a picture of something other than what we are.” Is that admirable honesty or smug hubris? According to Dr. van Halderen: “That’s pretty authentic, but they were certainly not appreciated for it. So, I don’t think that we look for authenticity in organisations only. We look for companies who are authentic in projected identities that connect to our expectations of a ‘good’ company.”

Getting away from the source

Another stumbling block on the road to authenticity is the demands placed on companies by shareholders and other stakeholders, by the competition, and by society at large. As Dr van Halderen puts it: “The challenge of being authentic is one of social context… it is a challenge for people or organisations to stay true to themselves in a societal context where one is constantly confronted with temptations or pressures to act differently.” Someone who has witnessed this at first hand is Arie De Zeeuw, owner of the aptly-named consultancy Authentic Communication. He told Communication Director: “What I witness is that companies who become successful and especially expand are starting to act away from their core power, the power that made them successful. Other things become more important, like shareholders, difficult corporate structures, excel sheets full of targets and balance score cards. The choices are no longer made from that rebellious entrepreneurial spirit customers and your own people fell in love with and trusted.” He names Apple and Starbucks as examples of large companies that moved away from their authenticity and had to tap into their “founding energy to get back on track.”

From this we might infer that organisations that have to deal less with conflicting interests from different kinds of stakeholders will find it easier to show authenticity. The more organisations have to juggle between conflicting stakeholder interests, the more difficult it becomes to stay true to themselves. As Dr van Halderen says: “hence, for larger companies with many different types of stakeholders and products that are also socially or environmentally sensitive, it is much more of a challenge.” She returns to Exxon as an example of a company that struggles to balance authenticity with responsiveness to stakeholders’ concerns. “If you closely watch the identity expressions of Exxon over the past 15 years,” she says, “you see that they have for a long time rigidly stayed with their standpoint that renewable energies do not make business sense. Since the year 2007, they have become more sensitive to external stakeholders’ concerns, particularly when the Rockefeller family (Mr Rockefeller was the founder of Exxon) started to campaign against the company saying that Exxon is acting like a dinosaur. They have learned that they can no longer ignore stakeholders’ concerns.”

Since 2007, Exxon’s has started to invest in algae, a renewable energy source of which they believe that it can potentially create business value.  Dr van Halderen continues: “these investments are a turning point in their original stance, but their approach to these new investments still fits with what Exxon has stood for: investing in energy sources that make business sense. Exxon is still  not ‘liked’ or ‘trusted’ by many stakeholder groups, but they have realised that dogmatically sticking to their core convictions is not how they will survive in today’s society.”

Making a difference

Two other useful investments can help the authentic enterprises create sustainable value and competitive advantage: earned media and employee engagement. Gregory Shove is the founder and CEO of SocialChorus, a social influencer relationship marketing software and services company. He told Communication Director that earned media is “more authentic and organic, because the relationship with the brand is more authentic. They are not getting paid, they are part of a network and they volunteer to publish content.” Sally Sussman is external vice president of policy, external affairs and communications. According to The Holmes Report’s Influence 100, she is “a staunch advocate for the view that only earned media can deliver the authenticity and credibility that companies need to build reputation.” The Report quotes Sussman addressing the loss of public trust in big pharmaceutical companies: “If we pay, it’s immediately tainted.” Pfitzer’s efforts, such as the Maintain programme, which offered free prescriptions to patients laid off during the economic crisis, or the company’s award-winning push into social media, are held to be strong examples of generating earned media.

Employees can also embody the organisation’s authenticity. KLM places great importance on such a strategy, as Frank Houben explains. “We try to recognise the person in the passenger – sounds easy but it’s not,” he says. “You have to make a unique personal experience for every trip taken. You can make a difference with small things. Right now we’re doing a pilot, where crew members have an iPad with a passenger information list with the history of each customer – did they have a previous complaint, maybe they lost their luggage a few months ago, or whether they’re a gold member or so on. So the more you know about the customer, the more engagement you can have, the more personal you can be. So you have to provide your staff with the tools to be personal.”

As Arie De Zeeuw says: “a brand is what a brand does, so your people are your brand. Use every means to co-create the brand values with them. And yes, that needs leadership and guts and a management style focussed on trust, acknowledgement, opportunity seeking, positive motivation, listening, rewarding, celebrating…” The benefits of being true to yourself seem endless, and the seal of authenticity is a guarantee of valuable communications.