Consumers, empowered by digital technology, now play an active role in brands’ direction and public perception, according to Shutterstock CMO, Lou Weiss. It means brands lacking authenticity or acting disingenuously have never been more vulnerable, he says. 

“Before social media, before the internet, brands could, to a certain extent, get away with lack of authenticity, and lacking what I would call integrity,” Weiss told Which-50 during a visit to Sydney last week. 

“It used to be that that marketing was a one-to-many sport. There were three TV channels, and big brands spent a lot of money to just burn the message into your head. There was no place to talk back, there was no place to talk with other customers other than literal word of mouth.”

The advent of social media, and information access more broadly, means many conversations involving the brand are now occurring in public with better informed consumers, whether they be about customer support or product direction, Weiss says.

“Customers have a great deal of influence over how the brand behaves. And it’s no longer possible for companies to tightly control the brand positioning. The brand positioning is what the customers say it is at this point, not what companies hope it is.”

Aligning the two comes down to authenticity – a brand acting the way it claims to, according to the Shutterstock CMO. 

United breaks guitars

Weiss’s case in point – and a cautionary tale – is a 2008 United Airlines incident where the airline broke a passengers guitar by failing to handle it properly. After a year of unsuccessfully seeking reimbursement, the passenger wrote a parody song and uploaded it to Youtube. The video now has over 19 million views.

Shutterstock global CMO, Lou Weiss. LinkedIn.

“This one sort of poor performance by one for baggage handler who made a bad decision one day cost United quite a lot of brand credibility.”

United experienced a similar PR nightmare in 2017 when it forcibly removed a passenger from an overbooked flight. Again, Weiss says, the brands actions were out of alignment with its message.

Weiss says he is sympathetic to brands and the challenges they now face. Marketers are now under increasing pressure to deliver authentic content at scale and failing to do so will make brands stand out in a negative way.

“The sophistication that customers – whether they be B2B or consumers – expect has just gone up massively over the last 10 years as millennials and Gen Z, who are all digitally native, start to come into the professional workspace and the consumer spending categories.”

Expectations rising

Weiss says the savvy of today’s consumers means there is an increasing demand to scale both quality and quantity of content and stories brands tell, all without a corresponding increase in budget.

“Brands are really challenged these days. It used to be that if you were creative as a brand you would sort of stand out in your category. And now, brands are so sophisticated because the demands is so sophisticated that if you don’t keep up, you sort of stand out the other way for not being creative.”

Asked whether the authenticity message sits awkwardly coming from a company which offers 280 million digital assets, most never created with a specific end user in mind, Weiss asserted that content didn’t necessarily have to be authentic in that sense. Rather it is the brand’s message that must always be authentic, he said.

“Authenticity is about being who you are on the outside, and on the inside being the same way. And that can be expressed with stock photography, stock video, stock music, custom imagery – it can be expressed lots of different ways.

“And we don’t think that there’s any challenge to a brand communicating with authentic positioning and point of view, and tone of voice using our assets. And we’ve got 1.9 million customers who agree with us.”

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