I spent International Women’s Day sitting on the beach in Turks and Caicos, with plenty of time to peruse the news and social media. As I scrolled through my social media, an article caught my eye about McDonald’s inverting its logo to create a yellow W in support of the day. Initially the response was positive, but as the day wore on, the commentary became increasingly negative as more and more people pointed to McDonald’s issues with fair pay, career advancement and maternity leave. 

While this column usually looks at technology-related topics, this month let's look at another piece of the marketing puzzle — the content companies package and deliver to prospects and customers and in particular, the importance of authenticity.

Actions Speak Louder Than Campaigns

McDonald's wasn't alone in being called out that day. Other companies attempting to show their support of women through slick marketing statements or images received similar criticism due to their lack of credibility. For me, the last straw was when a well-known venture capitalist wrote a blog championing women and jumped on the #StartWithEight thread to ask the community to introduce him to more female entrepreneurs. If you visit his firm’s website (and no, I’m not going to out him because that's not the point of this article) the stock photography shows only white men. The team photos — only white men. The portfolio company CEOs — only white men. His concern for the plight of women trying to raise venture capital and stated desire to meet more female entrepreneurs rang hollow and generated a lot of back channel chatter about how disingenuous he was. 

At the end of the day, not only had these campaigns not moved the companies forward, in many instances they backfired as the company's poor record with women became a public topic of discussion. 

I thought about all the marketing teams that had spent time and money creating those programs and wondered how they were responding to the backlash. Was there a moment while planning these mini-campaigns when someone asked: “is this authentic to our brand?” What were they thinking? 

Your Customers Can Easily Spot Inauthenticity

All the technology in the world won't overcome a lack of authenticity. As we construct marketing technology stacks that are capable of delivering an increasingly personal brand experience to prospective customers, we will only succeed if we remain vigilant and authentic to all components of our brand. In the same way that customer experience has become part of what defines a brand, so too do corporate practices and behavior impact how we think about a brand. 

You only need to look as far as Facebook and its recent data issues to see the impact corporate practices have on brand equity. (A quick aside: From the very beginning Facebook's mantra has been “move fast and break things.” When that’s how you develop and introduce features, you aren’t always crossing the T’s and dotting the I’s, so what did we think was going to happen?)

Learning Opportunities

The examples cited above aren't isolated instances, and definitely not limited to the treatment of women. We’ve seen companies with terrible environmental track records sponsoring conservation programs, and companies peddling sugary products to children introducing child healthcare initiatives. There are hundreds more examples out there. They don’t move companies forward because they aren’t authentic to the brand.

The Strongest Messaging Rings True 

Authenticity is more important than ever in our noisy world. Without it you just create dissonance and leave prospects and customers annoyed. In my opinion, companies like McDonald's would have been far more successful on International Women’s Day with a #WeMustDoBetter campaign that acknowledged their shortcomings and communicated some tangible goals instead of creating trite imagery and hashtags they hoped would go viral.

Putting my technology hat back on, it strikes me that artificial intelligence could potentially be leveraged in this situation. Maybe we need an AI-driven marketing assistant who monitors our brand position and stops us from launching stupid campaigns by blaring — INAUTHENTIC! INAUTHENTIC! INAUTHENTIC!

Until one of you develops that marketing assistant, we’ll all have to be vigilant to ensure the campaigns we produce and the messages we send are true to the brand we are and aspire to be.

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