The Era of Authenticity: How the Pandemic Forever Changed Customer Relationships

In short, 2020 brought us into the era of radical authenticity. That honesty, that deep connection with customers, that ability to interact on a human level, have become the bread and butter of the most successful brands.

It’s rare to go through an emotionally significant experience as a global collective. But the past year has been just that.

We’ve all heard the jokes about “unprecedented times,” the (apt) phrase that so many marketers used early on in the pandemic in an effort to capture the degree of stress the world was under.

Now, a year later, consumers are demanding more — more specifics, more honesty, more empathy — in the messaging and experiences they see from brands.

The global pandemic has tested our endurance, but it has also created such an extreme, ongoing change to all of our daily lives that it has managed to shift the dialogue between buyers and brands. We know, to an extent, what one another is feeling, and that makes it impossible to ignore. Consumers are demanding to hear from the people behind the brand. And platitudes will no longer cut it.

In short, 2020 brought us into the era of radical authenticity. That honesty, that deep connection with customers, that ability to interact on a human level, have become the bread and butter of the most successful brands.

While social media may be the obvious place for this shift to have started, authenticity can and should permeate your entire customer experience. This article will examine the shift to radical authenticity over the last few months and explore the ways in which brands and retailers can bring their deepest connections with their customers into every aspect of their business.

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Instagram: The First Battleground

Glossy’s Liz Flora recently wrote about “the end of escapist Instagram,” documenting the transformation of a platform known for vacation and restaurant photos to one with an audience demanding more of peers and content creators. This shift isn’t just about the pandemic, politics, or social justice — it’s more broadly about people sharing more meaningful and honest images and information.

In a year where vacations and restaurants were off the table, and people all over the world have been dealing with the hardships of the pandemic, we suddenly began to see a different side of Instagram. From direct-to-consumer heavy hitter Brooklinen pausing in March to directly ask followers what kind of content they needed in order to get through this tough time to Harry’s razors turning the conversation to mental health.

The depth of our shared experience made room for this open dialogue.

While Instagram isn’t going anywhere fast, social media is a telling barometer for cultural shifts and public sentiment. A new openness on the image-obsessed platform combined with the rise of TikTok (with over 800 million active monthly users) is revealing another set of social standards.

Unlike traditional Instagram, TikTok in large part favors fun, in-the-moment, and honest videos. While it’s not immune to the preening and posing seen on Instagram, it certainly feels more raw and authentic, reflecting the same need we’re seeing on other channels. The revolution started on social, but it’s fast becoming an expectation across the board.

Bringing Authenticity Into Every Aspect of Your Business to Form Stronger Customer Relationships

Authenticity is so valuable because it enables meaningful connections. For consumers, this signifies a brand they can trust, one that understands them. Achieving that requires more than transparent or unfiltered posts on social.

To connect authentically, you need to take full responsibility for the image your brand presents as well as the experience each customer has on your site and in your stores.

Owning your brand image:
Part of being open and honest with your customers is giving them an uncensored voice. This means not just including user-generated content like reviews and customer photos on your site, but also leaving it unedited, including negative reviews. A “perfect” aesthetic and perfect testimonials are no longer the expectation.

At the same time, you have to be extra careful about who you lend your brand to — from influencers to models to your supply chain. When your shoppers feel attached to your brand, the actions you take reflect on them too. You need to work with partners who live out your brand values. For example, you can’t speak authentically about sustainability and work with manufacturers who have poor environmental practices. Now is the time to examine and own your partnerships.

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Connecting with each customer:
Authenticity isn’t a one-way street. To build deeper customer relationships, you need to consider your shoppers’ interactions with your brand. Relating to them as a group instead of as individuals will make it impossible to form a meaningful connection.

Because of the scale involved, you need to use technology that will enable you to understand their preferences — the messages that resonate, the products they love, their aesthetic tastes, how they like to browse, whether they prefer BOPIS or next-day shipping — and offer them personalized experiences that make them feel truly understood. This may sound like a purely practical approach, but it’s these subtle moments of identifying with a brand and having one’s specific needs met that build the deepest loyalties.

Keep in mind that today’s consumers are so finely attuned to automation, that a misstep in personalization will make them feel like they’re interacting with a robot rather than a brand. Your ability to connect authentically and form lasting customer relationships relies on individual-level personalization.

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Customer-Led Experiences Are the Future of Authenticity

The era of authenticity will be a test for the brands and retailers that preach customer-centricity. To live up to this promise in the future, we will need to give more agency to customers, enable them to “design” their own online shopping experiences and journeys based on their authentic personalities, their desires and preferences, their context — even their mood.

The more human and understanding experiences retailers can provide, the more transparent and honest they can be about how and why they are collecting data to create these human experiences, the more customers will feel seen and heard. And they will appreciate that effort to form a genuine connection.

As we’ve learned from a year of “unprecedented times” our capacity to see, hear, and understand one another is tremendously powerful. The brands that facilitate authentic customer relationships by really getting to know and serve their customers at that one-on-one level will earn the bond of deep customer loyalty in the years to come.