Become a more inspirational and resonant leader by fully aligning who you are with how you communicate.

My friend and fellow coach John Brubaker recently sent this recent NYT article about Yoplait yogurts search for an authentic self and wanted to know what I thought about it.

The gist of the article is this:

Yoplait feels like market share is being devoured by companies like Chobani (I wrote about Hamdi Ulukaya here) and they have been searching for their own “authentic” brand to get some competitive edge. Since they have no Greek roots (and their marketing plan to launch a Greek yogurt failed because it lacked authenticity) they decided to go back to their French roots and launch “Oui,” a French-style yogurt in a glass jar.

(It must be authentic because it’s in a jar. And there is a Milkcan on the label.)

I have no idea if this idea will work. I don’t have a marketing background and I am probably the biggest sucker when it comes to this kind of marketing technique.

(This was a plausible scenario in my 10 year-old brain.)

 

This is the part of the article that grabbed me the most:

Some may question how much these distinctions matter. “But the simplicity of this idea, that this is a French method, coming from a French brand, with a French name, that’s authenticity,” Mr. Clark, who is now the president of United States yogurt at General Mills, told me.

What’s more, when data started coming back from focus groups, Yoplait’s executives became even more enthusiastic. Some customers said they hated the name Oui. Others didn’t know how to pronounce it. (A small group said Oui sounded like a pornographic magazine. Which is accurate. It ceased publication in 2007.) Yoplait executives were thrilled. These were the imperfections they were looking for! Finally, they had engineered their way to authenticity.

“Engineered their way to authenticity” just sounds wrong, doesn’t it?

The little glass pot in the picture is supposed to evoke this image of little, old French women pouring yogurt into glass jars for individual fermenting.

(So bucolic.)

So what does it mean to be authentic?

It reminds me of a conversation (read: argument) that I once had with a classroom full of 11th graders at an all-boys school in my first year of teaching. We were reading The Great Gatsby (still one of my favorite all-time books despite the schlocky story at its core) and debating about whether Gatsby could be celebrated as having “made it” since he was rich. This led to a discussion about whether it mattered more who you were or what other people thought about you. Because they were teenagers and obsessed with how they were perceived by others, they argued on the side of perception matters more than reality.

This is actually an argument being played out in Washington DC right now, only it is focused not only on authenticity but on facts. My argument is that, while we can bend people’s perception of us (or of facts) for a little while, it is not a long term strategy for anything worthwhile.

If you are over a certain age (ahem, 40), you probably remember this commercial from your childhood:

The actor in this commercial is “Iron Eyes Cody” or the guy who basically taught Hollywood how to “respectfully” consider indigenous culture and tribal traditions.

Except that he is actually an Italian American. Yes, he was selling authenticity and he was lying about it, and he is not alone. Apparently it is a real thing to pretend to be an authentic Native American.

So apparently companies and people can get away with faked authenticity and be successful at it

Or do they?

From my perspective, it depends a lot on what your goals are. If you are General Mills, your goals are probably to increase stock prices, tell a better story for investors and compete with the upstarts like Chobani.

Huge companies like AB InBev (Think Budweiser) are going out of their way to purchase smaller brands in order to reclaim some of the beer market they have lost to smaller, local breweries.

The jury is still out whether this will even work:

Regardless, the important point is the difference between authentic vision, passion and purpose versus an engineered, strategic authenticity meant to capture market share.

What’s the difference? Well, I have been recently listening to The American Revolution by The Great Courses and can see a similarity between the whole AB InBev strategy and that of the British. One of the biggest mistakes that the British made going into the war with the Colonies was assuming that they would either fold under the weight of their military might or that the loyal subjects would rise up and in defense of the crown. That wasn’t exactly how it went. Which brings me to another question about the two sides: Who has more to gain and more to lose?

The Colonies had everything to gain and everything to lose while the British had everything to lose and at best were only going to maintain a status quo. Not exactly as inspiring as the Declaration of Independence.

The purpose for the American Revolution was stated with more clarity by Jefferson than the reasons provided by King George III (which were essentially “wtf, do what I say!”).

If you are running an organization that continually works on aligning its values with how it does business and if you are cultivating stories about who you are and why you are this way, then you will become a more powerful force in your market. You still have to execute well and have a product that people care about, but the authenticity of brand, the alignment of that authenticity with your culture and your ability to feel inspired whenever people ask you what you do and why you do it, will make you a formidable foe.

The contrary is a world that is dominated by buzz words, vague and gauzy statements of purpose and an overall dependence on how you are being perceived over who you actually are.

In summary, I have no idea if the Yoplait-glass jar-Oui-thing is going to work for them in the short term. Maybe it is actually good and aligns within their corporate culture. I don’t know. What I can say is that I recoil at the concept of engineering authenticity, no matter how what the purpose of it might be.

Every person that I meet who is willing to drop his/her mask and be him/herself is an inspiration. I might be fooled by a story about a product or a person as being authentic, but it is not the same as meeting someone who is willing to be both vulnerable and genuine. People and companies whose behavior is aligned with their story are beautiful, empowering and inspiring.

I choose organic authenticity over engineered any day.

 

 

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