“The products are original. It’s the brands that are fake.”

The title for this post paraphrases a quote from a Chinese salesman featured in a story on counterfeit products in the New York Times magazine last weekend. While the salesman was speaking directly to accusations regarding the legality of selling counterfeit sneakers, he touched on a much larger issue for marketers.

Since the birth of modern advertising, in my mind the 1950’s, there’s been a false and expedient separation between a corporation or product and its image or brand. Obviously this made mountains of advertising sense as companies used media monopolies and television to dictate what people thought of a company or  product. In doing so marketers got to tell people what was cool, what to buy and what was the ‘next big thing’.

Unfortunately for marketers this conceit no longer makes sense due the transparency provided by the web and the accountability demanded by consumers.

In response to these recent market changes, most brands chose one of two options. They either persisted with their presumption that they are in control of consumer opinion (which is which so many people hate so much of advertising), or they cynically try to play both sides of the fence through greenwashing, causingwashing or localwashing to ‘compensate’ for other unconscionable behavior (BP’s eco marketing serving as a prime example).

More evolved brands, however, realize that we are entering an era in which a corporation and its brand must be integrated. For that to happen a company must define its purpose, state its core values and lay out its vision for the future, and  then act and communicate accordingly. That way it can withstand the consumer-driven, web-enabled spotlight. Patagonia is a great example of a company that has done this longer than most.

One of the unforeseen benefits of this company/brand integration is that its social outreach then reinforces the authentic narrative of the brand. This avoids a disconnect in consumers’ minds between the good work a brand is doing and who they say they are.

As with many fundamental truths in life, the wisest strategy is simple and self-evident. All the clever, disingenuous and duplicitous tactics that have served companies and their advertising partners for decades are no longer effective because technology has changed the marketplace.

The upsides of authenticity for business are enormous and include internal efficiencies, employee satisfaction, clarity in decision-making and customer loyalty, to name a few. Value judgments aside, it is simply the best approach to be aligned with today’s web savvy marketplace. Brands should have the confidence  to reveal who they really are. When they do otherwise, they fool no one but themselves.

Do you think its realistic to expect brands to come clean about who they are? Do you agree that’s what consumers now want?