Marketing Authenticity in the Social Media Era

Morgan O'Rourke


April 10, 2013

book-Can't-Buy-Me-Like-140Back in the day, marketing used to be simple. All you really needed to do was buy some advertising space in the mass media outlet of your choice, and if you struck the right note, customers would be convinced to buy what you were selling. But then along came social media. Now companies have a new way to interact with the public. But unlike the one-sided echo chambers of old, consumers can have their say too.

It hasn’t always worked out the way companies have hoped. Last year, for instance, McDonald’s created a Twitter campaign centered around the hashtag #McDStories. They hoped customers would share their positive McDonald’s experiences. Instead, disgruntled patrons began posting horror stories like, “Found a dirty band aid in the bottom of the take out bag. #McDStories” and “Hair in my Big Mac #McDStories.” What McDonald’s, like any other company that has found itself in the middle of a social media-based reputational disaster, failed to understand is that companies no longer have total control over the message they want to project.

This is because, according to Can’t Buy Me Like authors Bob Garfield and Doug Levy, we have entered the “relationship era” of consumer marketing. Consumers are now less concerned with what a company produces and more interested in what the company stands for. They expect the brands they love to engage in authentic communication rather than spin and manipulation. An overt marketing campaign like McDonald’s fails because customers see right through it, whereas a company like Zappos can skip advertising altogether and become successful simply by developing relationships with customers based on trust and the sense that it really wants to make people happy.

While the idea of a relationship era defined by authenticity sounds like new age rhetoric, Garfield and Levy do an excellent job of demonstrating the practical risks of not following this strategy. The book shows that heavy-handed messaging is an outdated concept and that, in the end, it’s better to just be human.

Morgan O’Rourke is editor in chief of Risk Management and director of publications for the Risk & Insurance Management Society, Inc. (RIMS)